Monday 17 November 2014

Hackney Pirates

Learning can be adventurous.

It can be mythical and magical and explorative. It can take you to lost islands, across forbidden borders and down deep to sunken treasures on the ocean’s sea floor.

In the traditional sense of the word, pirates have a reputation for robbery and piracy, acting outside of the jurisdiction of nations and governments. The Hackney Pirates in East London may not be law-breakers, but they are rebels.

They have instigated an ambush to inspire young people's imaginations (and grown-ups' for that matter!) in the name of creative learning.    

With an initial funding pool of just £500, Catriona Maclay, former secondary high school teacher, along with a team of other teachers and locals in the area, decided to run with an idea that had long occupied their thoughts.

"Like many teachers, I saw that some pupils needed more support than we were able to offer them during the school day. This is where we saw an opportunity to have a big impact using time and resources outside of the classroom," she explained.

“Some students, particularly during the transition years of 5,6 and 7, were under achieving and needed extra one-to-one attention, but with more than 500 students in my classes a week, resources and time were restricted.”

In 2010, Catriona left teaching and joined Ashoka, a global network of social entrepreneurs. While she aided men and women to birth projects, which challenged structures and systems by creatively offering another way, Catriona’s vision grew.

She researched and developed her idea. A project which helps students to learn and apply themselves with confidence outside of the classroom environment as young creative professionals, or as Catriona says, Young Pirates, with real world assignments.

These ‘Real world’ assignments include short plays published on t-shirts, a radio show about the day aliens came to town, a guide to Hackney uncovering the borough’s finest secrets, and a recipe book of the tasty treats in Dalston, to name but a few. 

All imaginative endeavors, which un-tap local resources in fun and exciting ways.

Catriona remained connected to the young people she taught and listened to their needs. “ I knew the students needed consistent support and that Hackney had the potential wealth to back such a project.”

After being introduced to the Bootstrap Company (an enterprise which supports innovative education projects), Catriona had the support she needed to launch a pilot program over the summer of 2010.

“We offered one-to-one attention to 36 young people over 453 hours with the incredible support of 70 volunteers. In the space of four weeks, the students produced four products to share with the public.”

“It was wonderfully chaotic.”

While in many ways the pilot was imperfect, it built the foundation of what Hackney Pirates is today.

“At every stage, we engaged the young people and worked to meet their specific needs. We spoke to the parents and seeked their feedback and we included the teachers. Everyone saw the value of what we were doing. It was and remains to be led by demand.”

Their approach is specific: “We work with targeted young people in small groups through a partnership with schools. Our aim is to build their literacy so they can succeed in a conventional school-based model while moving forward with confidence and perseverance. It’s about finding that in-school and out-of-school balance,” Catriona explained.

And the results?

96% of teachers report an improvement in confidence
83% of teachers think we are having a positive impact on their students
78% of teachers report an improvement in their students' engagement with writing and attitude to learning

With over 300 volunteers now offering their skills and knowledge as mentors to thousands of students after school hours with six staff members manning the organisation, Hackney Pirates has grown from strength to strength.

But not without the odd hiccup.

Three stints of homelessness have posed the greatest challenge. 

“At one stage we were operating from the Farm Shop in Dalston with chickens running around outside the window and basil climbing the walls. Then there was the summer beach shack where we stayed well over summer. Another time, a landlord fortunately gave us a space in the area and said we could do what we wanted with it so we transformed it into a den with a theatre room.”

“We definitely have embodied the idea of an unconventional learning environment,” Catriona laughs.

Then in January of this year, the council alerted the team of a property on Kingsland High Street in Dalston in the centre of the public’s eye. “The Ship of Adventures was finally born! We have space to run our workshops and deliver our learning program while hosting events and renting our rooms. We collaborate with a range of local partners and suppliers and have a cafĂ©, bookshop and gift shop for the community of Hackney to enjoy.”

The Hackney Pirates are now looking forward and planning what’s to come over the next three years.

“Workshops, an ambassadors program and more experimental learning,” Catriona says.

More hands on deck!

In the meantime though, the team are always seeking the support of more volunteers to provide mentoring to their growing community of young people. Their arrangement is flexible. You commit to a minimum of 12 sessions a year and get the incredible bonus of helping students on their learning journey. Join the crew here!

If you are seeking a space to rent for a meeting or workshop, Hackney Pirates have rooms for all purposes. Learn more here.

Their shop also has an impressive range of ethical Christmas presents on display, mostly from local creatives. Otherwise, treat yourself to delicious coffee and food while you sail the high seas in search of the next adventure.


Leah is a passionate storyteller, a multi-skilled communications specialist and a devoted human rights activist. She writes to ignite meaningful connection, to arouse curiosity, to push boundaries, to live large, to speak up, to create change.

She is deeply fuelled by a desire to create ideas and build visions to make this world a better place. A place where we can each equally follow our dreams - regardless of the place we were born, our religious affiliations, our sexual identity, our access to education. Everything in fact to do with the status quo. After studying the causes of conflict and division in society, Leah now uses storytelling to unite people, to create community and to open opportunities for collective action.

Her website, Paper Planes Connect, is a place to celebrate our difference and to unite in our sameness.

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