Chess is educationally good for you. American schools have proved it and Scottish inspectors have praised it. Craig Pritchett reports on an Aberdeen primary schools project and the spread of the idea to North Ayrshire
In February, a report by HM Inspectorate of Education into standards and quality in community learning and development in the Northfield, Mastrick and Summerhill areas of Aberdeen, singled out an innovative primary schools chess project in the city for special praise.
Now into its second year, the project, which includes more than 300 pupils across seven primary schools in these three relatively deprived areas, has been commended for its quality, ethos, home-school relationships and wider community benefits.
Financed by the New Opportunities Fund, initially on a three-year basis, the project is the brainchild of Dod Forrest, principal community learning worker. He is assisted by David Leslie, a parent and dedicated junior chess organiser, who manages the project on a day-to-day basis. He is possibly the only fully salaried community chess development worker in the UK.
The project was so successful in its first year that it was awarded funds to take on three part-time chess assistants, and then earlier this year a further three. This has enabled the project to expand into new schools in other deprived areas of Aberdeen.
School inspectors specifically noted that the project addressed young people's literacy and numeracy needs and offered opportunities to develop critical thinking, verbal reasoning and reading skills. They added that teachers reported improvements in pupils' self-esteem, concentration and attainment levels and improved behaviour among pupils who have experienced behavioural difficulties.
While shadowing Mr Leslie in four of the seven primary schools taking part in the project, I heard all the headteachers and staff praise him highly.
His work involves curricular as well as extra-curricular activity. He agrees a specific programme on a school-by-school basis. All the schools have asked him to begin with a structured course, where he teaches the basics in a series of weekly, one-hour lessons in Primary 4. Virtually all children aged about eight or nine seem to be receptive to chess and able to pick up the moves quickly.
With his demo board, other props, well thought out lesson plans and engaging way with children (and their parents and teachers), Mr Leslie is an inspiring and entertaining teacher. All the children get plenty of playing experience on their own chessboards during the lesson, with each other and with Mr Leslie.
Having planted the seed of the game within the curriculum, Mr Leslie sets up lunchtime and after-school clubs. These are open to players of all ages.
There are some children aged five and six in his clubs. For now, Mr Leslie and increasingly his part-time aides support these activities. In the longer-term, however, he looks towards the school teaching staff or parents to take over this work, subject to his training.
The initial project bid for NOF support drew attention to international research and successful comparator programmes. It was modelled mainly on the highly acclaimed New York Chess in the Schools programme and has delivered equally impressive results.
Aberdeen City Council has supported many chess projects and initiatives in recent years. Successive Lord Provosts have approved the use of the historic Aberdeen Town House for events such as the Scottish Championships'
opening ceremony, national junior championships and, more recently, a special training session for 60 children involved in the Primary Schools Chess Project, given by the Scottish chess grandmaster Paul Motwani.
In April, Aberdeen City Council awarded a grant to Aberdeen University's faculty of education and community learning to undertake research on the project. The focus is on identifying the learning and wider socio-economic impacts, based on a multi-method examination of a P4 class receiving chess tuition.
Anecdotal evidence and existing (though still limited) research has tended to bear on the benefits of chess to the individual's ability to learn, with generally positive conclusions. Assessing how far such benefits may transfer to the pupil's family and wider community - an integral objective in the Aberdeen research - has been largely ignored so far.
The team of researchers will include educational psychologist Iain Davidson and Mr Forrest, who in addition to his work in the community is also an honorary research fellow in the department of sociology and anthropology at Aberdeen University and a member of its Rowan Group, which carries out policy related research into children's education, health and well-being.
Mr Forrest points out that the project has been designed in a way that facilitates long-term learning and evaluation. Mr Leslie has, for example, devised a range of practical and robust reference and reinforcement materials, which will in many cases remain and be turned to in homes following periods of inactivity.
Educationists have long debated how far the grip of the mainstream curriculum and exam system may be restricting creativity.
Taught well, chess, like many non-core and extra-curricular activities, such as music, the arts, technology and other sports, can play a role in promoting creativity, innovation and flexibility.
Similar goals to those at the heart of the Aberdeen chess project underlie a project in North Ayrshire. Chess Scotland, the national chess association, joined forces with North Ayrshire Council to provide a series of 10 workshops from April-June to help teachers develop their chess skills with the idea of teaching their pupils.
The Teaching the Teachers Chess workshops were largely devised and delivered by Chess Scotland but Lesley Owens, head of education services, was the architect of the programme, which was financed from the budget to provide continuing professional development for teachers. The project will be subject to an independent review process to assess outcomes.
Twenty-seven teachers enrolled, doing modules for beginners as well as experienced players, and on how to organise school chess clubs. The workshop facilitators comprised a mix of technical and teaching competence, including three Scottish chess champions and experienced teachers.
Midway through the North Ayrshire Project, Strathclyde University academic and former headteacher Bryan Boyd gave a keynote address on chess in the educational environment. He echoed concerns about the grip of the exam system and concluded that chess, taught well, could make a difference.
Both the North Ayrshire and the Aberdeen Primary School projects have obvious potential for wider roll-out.
Community Learning and Development in Northfield, Mastrick and Summerhill, Aberdeen City Council, HM Inspectorate of Education, Feb 2003, www.scotland.gov.ukhmiewww.chessScotland.com (chess in schools) for Bryan Boyd's keynote address on Chess in the Educational Environment and extensive information on chess for teachers, parents, chess club organisers and playerswww.chessintheschools.org for more on the New York programme
BEATING THE ODDS
In May, the Oakhaven Elementary School chess team from Minnesota showed their mettle by winning the US Chess Federation's National Elementary Championships in Nashville, Tennessee.
Their coach likened the success to "finding out that a skiing team from Bolivia had just won the Olympic gold medal". The school is in a very poor area with about 95 per cent of its pupils on state-subsidised school lunches.
The coach, a maths teacher at the school, began teaching chess to the staff and pupils only three years ago as part of a city schools pilot project.
The school's corporate "adopters" initially helped to pay for chess supplies and some training from local chess masters.
The school's rapid progress in chess then caught the eye of the British world heavyweight boxing champion Lennox Lewis, who is a chess lover. He has since subsidised the cost of tournament trips and other expenses and lent his name to the team.
The school's principal noted that the team had defeated "some of the wealthiest children in the nation", adding: "It just shows that there's nothing wrong with our children's abilities. It's the ability of adults to motivate them."
These words stand as a taunt. More chess in schools could play a part in meeting the learning needs of our most challenged children.