A Hackney Pirates trip to Ridley Road market, complete with 'future glasses.' Photograph: Hackney Pirates

A Hackney Pirates trip to Ridley Road market, complete with ‘future glasses.’ Photograph: Hackney Pirates

Since its launch six years ago, education charity the Hackney Pirates has gone from strength to strength.

The swashbuckling afterschool club – or “community-based learning hub,” to use the approved lingo – helps boost the literacy of underachieving children, many of whom are in the midst of making the sometimes tricky jump from primary to secondary school.

By drawing upon the enthusiasm of hundreds of volunteers working under the direction of trained professionals, it complements work done in schools.

Perhaps more importantly, from the point of view of children, the likes of magicians, artists, storytellers and troubadours have found their way over time into the Ship of Adventures, the organisation’s fantastical base on Kingsland High Street.

The vessel bursts with creativity. A book, website and film are among just the latest examples of its output – all produced by youngsters taking part in activities on board.

Perhaps less excitingly, but doubtless important, local politicians have got on board too. During a hustings event to pick Labour’s candidate for the next Mayor of Hackney, the charity was singled out for special praise by Councillor Jonathan McShane – just one of many who have trumpeted its success over the years.

Catriona Maclay, who worked as a Teach First teacher at a school in Edmonton before founding the Hackney Pirates, has no desire to rest on her laurels. In fact, she hopes the organisation she started will continue to sail into unchartered territory.

“We think we can say we have survived our start-up phase and are now in the exciting phase of expanding and growing and just wanting to reach more children,” she says.

The charity works with “quietly underachieving” pupils from Years 5, 6 and 7 who are referred by local schools’ teaching staff.

Its watchwords are “literacy”, “confidence” and “perseverance”.

The theory is that by producing tangible products such as anthologies of creative writing, children experience the fruits of their efforts and gain newfound self-belief.

It helps, of course, that the afterschool groups are wrapped up in an exciting mystique. (Here I must confess an interest: I have volunteered with the Hackney Pirates and can attest it is a fun experience).

“We’re working with the children who teachers think are falling behind and who have fewer opportunities in their personal circumstances,” Maclay explains. “We’re very careful in the language we use because we don’t want to stigmatise young people and we don’t want to put them in boxes…but nevertheless it is focused on those who are falling behind but who are really keen to catch up.”

She adds: “What we’re really big on is that balance that the activities are exciting and engage them [the children], but underneath that we’ve planned everything to develop their literacy skills, so there’s this underlying infrastructure plan by teachers.

“We are trying to keep the magic and the wonder and the creativity that there has always been, but we have a really clear underlying learning programme too so that we can reliably know it is making a difference and can also check it’s making a difference.”

Around eight staff are now employed working directly towards the education aims of the charity, and there are around 300 trained volunteers who give up their time to provide one-to-one attention to the children and help them with reading and writing.

Maclay says: “We think that local schools are amazing and we think local teachers are amazing, and we know they are working really hard. But we know there is a limit to what they can do in a school day with the existing resources they have got.

“What we are able to do is sort of tap-up extra resources in terms of volunteers.”

At least 160 children are expected to attend once a week over the next academic year.

Around a dozen schools are registered to work with the Pirates but the charity has funding to work with more yet schools, so any that are not already registered with them but are interested in becoming so are encouraged to get in touch.

Hackney schools who are interested in getting a flavour of the programme can email crew@hackeypirates.org to book a free engagement session at the Ship of Adventures for pupils in years 5, 6 or 7.

Hackney Pirates
138 Kingsland High Street, E8 2NS