Literacy Pirates

a fleet of learning centres in Hackney, Haringey and soon beyond

Rio Guest Blog 2017



After a long day where young people have used every trick in the book to avoid partaking in your lessons, a visit to the Hackney Pirates turns out to be exactly what you need.

It was very clear within the first few minutes that The Ship of Adventures was not only providing me with this much needed motivation and respite after a long day, but that every adult in the room was ready for a bit of Pirating fun. From our “immersive experience” writing session in the footsteps of a Young Pirate, myself, other practitioners and educational enthusiasts were able to feel the salt water on our face as we were asked to write about being shipwrecked. Almost instantly it became clear that this charity provides a very unique and much needed service to the vibrant young people of Hackney. 

I have not been in this business long; it does not, however, take years in the profession to comprehend that there are many critical issues faced by the young people who we are employed to teach. Firstly, there is often a lack of cultural capital that prevents them from creating in an imaginative or insightful way. Secondly, there are major literacy barriers that prevent them from expressing the ideas which they do have well. As teachers of English we fight day in day out to engage young people in literature and enthuse them about the art of writing. Crucially, however, we are faced, day in day out, with classes of 30 young people, all with unique interests and needs and often diverse in their ability. As teachers in general we face the minute-by-minute decision of ‘do I go and sit with Trevor who needs help putting his full stops in the right place or do I go and challenge Raymond who needs to be pushed to keep improving?’. We get at most one hour each day with these young people and have the cloud of OFSTED’s progress measure hanging over us every minute. This is not to say that teachers are not doing an incredible job rising to these intense challenges but coming from a place of such challenges it is incredibly liberating to see an institution with a method where exactly the same targets are being striven for in a free, engaging and excellent way.

As a Young Pirate you attend one evening a week for two and a half hours and are paired with a different volunteer. The “Ship of Adventures” is a magical hub of learning. One-to-one support and encouragement paired with fun and engaging sessions based on sound pedagogy of routine and redrafting allow the Young Pirates to practise over and over again relevant skillsthat they can take directly back to their classrooms. Skills such as: how to think of a smashing opening sentence; how to include “writing fireworks” in your description; what to do if you are stuck for an idea and crucially that when they try, they can. It is a perfect pairing of gentle and kind reassurance to build a Young Pirate’s confidence with precise focus on concrete literacy skills;  these two aspects seem so beautifully blended that the Young Pirates find themselves forgetting the line between fun and learning and begin to blend the experience together. OH! What I would give to be able to spend an hour coming up with fantastical ideas in the style of Captain Splurge.  We salute you Captain Splurge, who does not panic over punctuation or get seasick at spelling because Captain Splurge’s friend, the Refined Admiral, will come along to assist in getting that writing ship-shape next time.

Even after only an hour within the Ship’s hold the characters that take the young and adventurous learners on their educational journey seem so familiar and so sensible. It is natural to ask questions of this freedom which at first seems to question the habits we, as practitioners, might encourage our students to get into. “Where is your full stop?” “That isn’t how you spell Shakespeare?” But these questions are quickly put to rest when you come to understand that what the Young Pirates are doing is focusing on each skill of writing over a number of weeks to become experts at them, so that in lessons they can reach into their Pirate toolkit and pull out their Refined Admiral hat as they are writing.

It isn’t just a feeling of hope that pervades the establishment. The hopefulness is backed up by hard piratey data. All three targets of Literacy, Confidence and Perseverance are being met and the institution is clearly committed to reflecting on their impact.

 All the session left me asking is surely every child that wants to should get to be a Pirate? Can I?