‘Your pupils are never too young to make a difference’

​​​​​​​Sleeping out overnight to raise awareness of homelessness had a profound impact on one school’s staff and pupils

Emma Sturm

One teacher explains how her pupils embraced the cause of homelessness by taking part in a Wee Sleep Out

Last September, three weeks after I had begun working at James Gillespie’s High School in Edinburgh, I attended an assembly for S1-3 pupils. We had a guest speaker, Alice Thompson, co-founder of the Social Bite social enterprise (which has created such a stir by attracting Hollywood stars such as George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio to Edinburgh to support it). She was an inspiring young woman who talked about homelessness.

She introduced the idea of “The Wee Sleep Out”: thousands of pupils sign up to sleep out – a variation of Social Bite’s "Sleep in the Park", for under-16s who want to do their part to help fight homelessness in Scotland. Soon I became the school’s lead on our very own Wee Sleep Out.

I vastly underestimated the number of pupils who would want to take part – I had thought around 50 to, maybe, 100. I was wrong. We were forced to cap our sleepout at 210 pupils.


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Now, with 210 pupils, 25 staff and 12 hours of time to plan for, I had a lot to consider. Which buildings can be used? Can we provide food? Will all students have sleeping bags? How do we divide the groups up? How do we keep them entertained all evening? How do we ensure these young people see the sleepout as an act of change, not just one big sleepover?

The huge impact of a Wee Sleep Out

First, we set our fundraising goal at £5,000, which I thought may be too high, but we dreamt big. We began to see money dribble in, but we were so far away from our ambitious goal, and the sleepout was approaching fast.

The whole task was a mammoth one. My room became the “Wee Sleep Out Headquarters”. Before school, during break and lunch, and after school, it was full of students doing myriad tasks. My headteacher, Donald Macdonald, was very supportive and he was able to smooth out any wrinkles with the more logistical side of things.

In the days leading up to the sleep out, I worked feverishly: organising the multiple forms brought in by each pupil, keeping track of pupil groups in a small red jotter (riddled with Tipp-Ex and changes), and making up detailed packs for each of the 25 teachers.

Two days before our sleepout on 16 November, however, we were £3,000 short of our target. I tried to put this out of my mind – and needn't have worried.

The big night finally arrived. The atmosphere was electric, and we were sitting at £7,000 when our event kicked off – incredible news that boosted all involved. Ultimately, we raised £11,000 – the highest-earning Wee Sleep Out in Scotland.

On the morning after the Wee Sleep Out, teachers in hoodies gathered for bacon rolls. We raved about how enthusiastic our pupils were, and how they are never too young to make positive changes to the world around them.

Four pupils, in particular, have reaped numerous benefits from their efforts. They spoke on stage in front of thousands at the Sleep In the Park in Edinburgh, they took part in a photoshoot to promote the next Wee Sleep Out, and they were invited to a thank-you dinner where they had the privilege of meeting Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner.

The whole thing was a life-changing experience. It was inspirational to see just how much pupils care about a cause, and how empowered they are to make positive changes, if given the chance.

The lasting message, for all schools, is this: your pupils are never too young to make a difference.

Emma Sturm is a teacher at James Gillespie’s High School in Edinburgh

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Emma Sturm

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