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Chess in Schools: the Aberdeen Project – a way forward?
by IM Craig Pritchett
A think piece about the prospects for getting more Chess in Schools Projects in the light of the recent success of the Aberdeen “model”…. reproduced from the May 2005 issue of the magazine “Chess”.
Chess enjoys a fair amount of political goodwill these days. Senior UK politicians have been making some seriously encouraging noises about the potential benefits of developing more chess in schools for a year or two.
The biggest hitter, Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, still frequently speaks in public about the educational and wider social benefits of the game, providing photo-shots at Hastings and so on, even though he is no longer the Secretary of State for Education.
In Scotland, the Minister for Education and Young People, Peter Peacock, is equally upbeat. Recently he went on record to say, “Chess is a wonderful game … (and) research has shown that pupils who get involved with chess perform well at school”.
Mr Peacock, like any politician, chooses his words and his passions carefully. The Scottish Executive Education Department recently funded some in-depth research into a remarkable Chess in Schools project in Aberdeen. The Minister has been greatly impressed by the outcomes.
The final research report concluded that chess coaching in Primary 4 curriculum class time linked to the development of out-of-hours clubs helped improve pupils’ behaviour and social skills and that, taken together, impacts on reading, spelling and comprehension made a difference to learning.
The report identified the committed school chess coach as the key element in promoting these benefits. It recommended an innovative and creative addition to the Scottish schools curriculum – the “visiting chess coach”.
The chess coach is key to the project
The Aberdeen Chess in Schools project was launched in seven primary schools in the Northfield associated schools group in 2001. It actively involved over 300 pupils in this group alone. It has since expanded to cover primary schools in the St Machar, Torry and Kincorth groups in the city.
Originally financed on a three year basis by the New Opportunities Fund Out of School Hours Learning Activities programme, its finances have since been secured until 2006 by The Big Lottery Fund and Aberdeen Council. The Council has most recently instructed its officers to investigate sources of sustainable longer-term finance.
Aberdeen Council appointed a full-time Chess Development Officer in 2001 to manage the project, based in a local community centre. The initial aims of the Project were to:
- establish after school chess clubs;
- develop teaching materials to encourage parents to become chess coaches;
- organise family chess evenings;
- organise tournaments and one to one coaching;
- involve parents in the classroom, developing one to one chess for children with learning difficulties and behavioural problems; and
- develop a mentoring scheme.
The skills of the Chess Development Officer were clearly going to be at a premium if such demanding objectives were to be achieved. And it is fair to say that there was scepticism in some local authority quarters on the project’s prospects.
But in Kate Kasprowicz and Dod Forrest, the project had two first-class and dogged local authority and community education champions. In David Leslie, Kate and Dod had a first-class local parent, chess organiser and teacher in mind to manage the project.
David had already run clubs and taught chess in Aberdeen schools and was himself a past pupil in the area. Dod, an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Aberdeen University and member of the University’s Rowan Group, as well as a working Principal Community Learning Officer, added a valuable academic dimension to the project.
Once the project began, David’s hard work and solid achievement soon convinced the doubters. After an initial phase in which he prepared teaching materials, including a glossy brochure that goes through the basics and incorporates a certificate of merit scheme, he quickly agreed specific school-by-school plans.
In practice, all schools invited him to teach children how to master the rudiments and play chess, in a series of about eight weekly, one-hour lessons to whole classes in primary four (“Year 4” in England). Virtually all children appear to be receptive to chess and able to pick up the moves quickly at that age.
David, with his demo board, other props, well thought out lesson plans and engaging way with children (and with their parents and teachers), is an inspiring and entertaining teacher. All the children get plenty of hands-on experience on their own chessboards during the lessons.
Having planted the seed of the game within the curriculum, David sets up lunchtime and after-schools clubs. These are open to players of all ages, including younger children from about 6, if they have an aptitude. David encourages the increasing involvement of school teachers and parents in running these clubs over the longer term.
The project employs part-time teaching assistants and incorporates a new Aberdeen Chess Academy
As the Project grew, it became essential to employ up to six part-time teaching assistants. The job description for these advertised posts stressed the importance of empathy for children and teaching skills in addition to a chess background and reasonable playing strength.
Elaine Rutherford, one of Scotland’s top women players and a medical student at Aberdeen University met all these requirements, with the added bonus of a high (2100+) rating. She is the strongest player in a generally excellent team.
Last November, to a blaze of local publicity and with the very enthusiastic personal participation by Aberdeen’s Lord Provost, John Reynolds, the city launched a new Chess Academy. This will also be managed by David Leslie.
The Academy links all the city’s Chess in Schools initiatives to a central coaching and playing venue and provides a vast range of evening and weekend events, including some occasional sponsored trips abroad . It is also linked to Aberdeen’s University for Children and Communities, which will fund part of its work in 2005.
Community Development is central to the objects of the Academy, in particular family involvement.
The project was commended by HM Inspectorate of Education and schools taking part
The success of the project and positive research outcomes could not be taken for granted. But this was not entirely unexpected. In February 2003, HM Inspectors had singled out the project for special praise. Prior to that, teachers and parents frequently commended the project and its effects.
HM Inspectors reported that the Project addressed young people’s literacy and numeracy needs and offered opportunities to develop critical thinking, verbal reasoning and reading skills. They confirmed teachers’ reported improvements in pupils’ self esteem, concentration and attainment levels and in the behaviour of pupils who had experienced behavioural difficulties.
Earlier in October 2002, I had shadowed David Leslie at work in four primary schools. All the head teachers and staff I spoke to praised the project. These were all schools in less well-to-do parts of Aberdeen, where issues of low self-esteem, poorly developed social skills and habits of learning are an issue.
Reports and commendations such as these led not just to an expansion of the project into other parts of Aberdeen, but to an interest on the part of Aberdeen Council and the Scottish Executive Education Department in subjecting the project to research scrutiny.
In April 2004, Aberdeen City Council allocated funds to Mastrick Community Centre to undertake a Sponsored Research Project that was co-funded by The Scottish Executive Education Department.
Research in the 2003-04 school year was generally positive
The research was carried out by a multi-disciplinary team of researchers from the University of Aberdeen’s Rowan Group, based in the School of Social Science’s Sociology Department, and led by Dod Forrest. A large piece of research, it was carried out through the whole of the 2003 04 school year.
The research contained quantitative assessment (in comprehension, reading, spelling, vocabulary, arithmetic and “social adjustment”) as well as qualitative elements (including a field diary, observation, photographic and written accounts of chess coaching, after-club and tournament sessions, interviews, questionnaires and focus groups).
At its core, the research team studied three different Primary 4 classes throughout the 2003 04 school year in two schools:
- one class included chess coaching;
- a second class in the same school worked with “problem-solving PC games” as an addition to normal PC time, but obtained no chess coaching; and
- a third class in a different but similar school had neither chess coaching nor additional PC games.
The main findings indicated that the class including chess coaching fared well in comparison to the other two classes:
- quantitative analysis showed that the most statistically significant difference that chess made to classroom life was to social adjustment, particularly for pupils exhibiting poor behaviour. The scores also point to positive benefits to comprehension and arithmetic skills in the chess coaching group.
- qualitative study revealed that children invested substantial time in voluntary home study. Children who played chess developed self-regulated learning and problem solving skills through such study and play. Chess helped teach children how to learn. It created a desire to learn and the ‘will to use knowledge’.
- all of the children introduced chess to their families, more than one third to a substantial extent, thus involving parents and grand parents in activities of a cultural, bonding and bridging nature. The chess-playing family became an educational resource. Children gained access to a chess set, PC and chess software, books and library membership.
- the ‘informal coaching relationship’ bridged classroom and family life. This relationship, akin in many respects to an informal mentoring role, became a feature of the classroom, family circumstances and community development. It encouraged families to access new networking opportunities through community involvement.
- the chess after school club became a starting point for a range of networking opportunities, including tournament play in Aberdeen, the rest of Scotland and abroad. Chess playing families encouraged support for ‘out of school hours’ participation, in the form of chess club attendance, tournament involvement and travel.
The researchers commend a new specialist – the “visiting chess coach”
The chess project focused on less well-to-do parts of the city that exhibited relative social and educational deficits. Bearing this in mind, the report’s conclusion that chess coaching acted as a catalyst for educational development and a source of improved attainment, helping to negate low expectations and to moderate difficult behaviour, was bound to arouse policy interest.
The report notes that chess, “like all educational initiatives, cannot be a substitute for social policy measures that tackle the material poverty of low income and a long working day for many parents”. But it maintains that chess can “contribute to children’s personal growth and resilience in circumstances of poverty… and, as a form of cultural capital, redress some imbalances of educational opportunity”.
The report acknowledges that “the introduction of chess coaching to the primary school curriculum will have major implications for the teaching profession, continuous professional development initiatives, pupil support, parental involvement and the role of the classroom assistant”.
It nevertheless asserts that “substantial funding for chess development in Scotland’s primary schools could improve literacy, numeracy and the confidence of pupils who require learning support” and argues for the introduction of a “new specialist – the visiting chess coach”.
Are there realistic chances for roll-out of the “visiting chess coach” concept?
So far so good, but now we come to the crunch point. Chess in Aberdeen schools has clearly got off the ground, but what about the rest of us? Can any other part of the country follow this lead?
I’m going to argue that there are good chances for roll-out, but we’ve a long way to go. The research is sound. The educational mainstream is increasingly open to innovative practice. A workable “model” exists. But there remain a great many questions about resources.
The concept of the “visiting chess coach” is a sound one
First a health warning! Most chess players always felt they somehow “knew” chess was of wider educational value. But there’s an alternative view, one indeed often expressed in chess circles.
In response to a question whether chess had any educational value in Chess Monthly (October 2004), IM Bill Hartston, bluntly replied, “No, and to be honest, I don’t think chess has much practical use. I don’t think many aspects of the game are transferable to other areas of life (and) I’ve spoken to many educationists…”
Well said, Bill! You’re right to flag up an essential corrective. But Bill’s view is too absolutist. I’m probably being rather unfair to him, however, as I’m quoting him in tongue and cheek mode in a humorous interview, quite out of context.
In fact, the Aberdeen report doesn’t and cannot claim to have “proven” in any fundamental sense that “chess is good for you”. It simply shows that a given, well-conceived and well-run project has delivered tangible benefits that might be deliverable elsewhere.
The outcomes of the Aberdeen research add to earlier international research that has had similar outcomes. The Aberdeen report reviews this background in a section on “Chess: Literacy and Learning”. It cites inter alia a series of research studies published in the 1990s on the New York Chess in the Schools programme, on which the Aberdeen project was consciously modelled.
Quoting Nisbet and Shucksmith (Learning Strategies 1986, Routledge and Kegan Paul), the Aberdeen report points to the crux of the real debate and the place of chess in it:
“The traditional curriculum concentrates on ‘useful knowledge’ and ‘basic skills’ of reading and writing, mathematics, practical subjects, science, environmental studies, creative arts and specialist studies. Unfortunately more general strategies for learning such as solving problems, using memory effectively and selecting appropriate methods of working, are often neglected”.
The research isn’t an issue. Indeed it’s generally positive. The only really serious theoretical objection to chess is whether the benefits likely to derive from a well-conceived and well-managed Chess in Schools project couldn’t be better achieved through some medium other than chess, let’s say through more music, drama, dance or (physical) sport.
The mainstream curriculum is crowded but leaves some space for innovation
A major obstacle to more chess in schools is the sheer bulk of the current curriculum. Educationalists have long debated how far the grip of the mainstream curriculum and its exams may be restricting true creativity and the mastery of knowledge rather than cramming and exam skills. Increasingly policy makers are trying to free up the system.
For example, the Scottish Executive Education Department has recently been pressing Scottish schools to inject more creativity, innovation and flexibility into the curriculum. Indeed, these three core values now permeate its new “Curriculum for Excellence” . This policy ambition is also effectively shared in England, though to the background of England’s “National Curriculum” and extensive system of national tests.
A key mover in this field is Strathclyde University professor and former head teacher, Dr Bryan Boyd, who was a member of the group that reviewed Scotland’s curriculum. In April 2003, he gave a keynote address to teachers participating in a North Ayrshire Council Chess in Schools Project on “Chess in the Educational Environment” .
Dr Boyd, not himself a chess player, debated the question: “Why not chess?” He discussed the research background, current moves in policy and echoed concerns about the grip of the exam system, concluding that chess, taught well, could make a difference in schools.
There is then ostensible space for well-designed Chess in Schools projects. The primary challenge facing chess teachers is to design innovative, creative and flexible projects that are likely to achieve positive outcomes.
The Aberdeen “model” is in whole or part transferable
Aberdeen has now established an ambitious Chess in Schools project that works. So we now have the advantage in the UK of a model that can be replicated or modified to meet local requirements elsewhere. Others in Scotland are already taking steps to do this.
Edinburgh Council has taken the most encouraging step so far. It passed a motion in February this year to investigate practical ways to establish a primary schools chess development post, linked to the City’s own fledgling Chess Academy.
The Edinburgh Chess Academy is managed on a looser, more voluntarist basis than its Aberdeen counterpart. Its main organiser is Dr Jeremy Hughes, who is a Senior Research Fellow and Consultant Physician in Edinburgh and an energetic schools chess administrator and coach. This model suits circumstances in Edinburgh, with any eventual full-time local authority appointment confined to the specialist schools development role.
Since 2003, Chess Scotland has also been involved with North Ayrshire Council in jointly managing a North Ayrshire-wide Chess in Schools Project, which focuses on teaching local teachers to play chess (or improve their existing skills) and how to organise school chess clubs. The Council uses its budget for the continuing professional education of teachers to finance this scheme.
Although the immediate focus in North Ayrshire is on teaching teachers, the ultimate aim is to promote more outside school hours chess activity. In the current round of activity in the North Ayrshire project, greater emphasis is being placed on ongoing, peripatetic mentoring by experts and other support, particularly by parents and through the local Ayrshire Leagues, for those teachers who have undergone the chess teaching.
These examples alone indicate the potentially very wide range of possible ways in which local schools chess organisers and local authorities can try to get more chess in schools. Despite differences, they all have common elements. Any successful Chess in Schools project is likely to demonstrate improvement in three key areas, and increasingly in a fourth to make an impact:
- number and competence of chess teachers and organisers of clubs;
- cross-school opportunities for team and individual competition and attendant regional organisational structures, which may often involve parents;
- ongoing visiting coach or similar mentoring support structures that may be full-time or sessionally based; and
- a research element, to inform the evidence base for future policy and project development.
But there are scarce resource and political lobbying challenges
David Leslie has achieved a lot in Aberdeen, and if there were a lot more skilled teachers and committed organisers like him on the ground, achieving more chess in schools would present few real problems. Unfortunately chess is chronically short of such skills and resources.
With the possible exception of the private schools and parts of the state sector in more well-to-do parts of the country, the issue is also bedevilled by the absence of any obvious “career” structure for chess coaches or paid opportunities for chess coaching in schools. This contrasts with other sports and activities like music, where the “visiting coach” principle is invariably professionally rewarded.
Chess in schools gets by with an enormous amount of unpaid goodwill on the part of volunteers (teachers, parents and local organisers). This is always going to be essential and is just as true for such sports as, say football.
But to build anything worthwhile of a wider nature tends to require scarce professional skills and full-time or at least substantive part-time effort. Neither is likely to materialise without professional remuneration for the commitment and benefit implied and expected.
So local organisers, leagues and national federations have to sharpen their project design and lobbying skills. The more they come up with good project ideas and lobby in the right places, the more likely they are to enthuse and identify people who can run local projects well and to obtain new sources of funding.
It is particularly important that local organisers and national federations pull well together. National federations can promote and advise on good practice, but local organisers are best placed to run local projects or club and league structures. National federations are also well-placed to develop national policies and a co-ordinated lobbying front.
In this regard, Chess Scotland is currently seeking to develop the quality of its existing, up till now fairly limited contacts with senior civil servants in The Scottish Office Education Department, aiming to provide an improved two-way contact for regular discussion on chess and schools and community education policy, including possible partnership projects, research and funding.
And chess must be enjoyed primarily for its own sake.
Despite the difficulties outlined in the previous section, if chess players in the UK can rise to the occasion, design projects and lobby well, this may be an excellent time to push for more chess in schools with a chance of real action.
But beware the warnings of another Chess Monthly scribe, Richard James, who is an experienced and expert chess teacher working hard to complete a comprehensive (and fully free) interactive internet course to teach children in schools, at home or in junior clubs at his excellent website www.ChessKids.com
In one of his web-site articles, Primary Schools Chess since 1975: an overview, Richard plots a correlation between the shift in focus from promoting chess in secondary schools to primary schools since the 1970s and diminishing numbers of young people playing the game into adulthood. He suggests this trend may be linked to unambitious, unstructured or age-inappropriate teaching.
Richard makes three main points:
- don’t push children into chess at too young an age;
- don’t simply focus on promoting chess for children at primary school age but consider secondary school needs and the future; and
- don’t believe that one hour in a lunchtime or after-schools club will either (greatly) benefit children (though they will enjoy it!) or chess more generally, without additional structured opportunities to study and play chess.
Richard rightly bewails any tendency to push chess solely for its ability to promote transferable learning or social skills. Kids hate the condescension and they drop out. Like all of us, and we’re all kids at heart, children want to enjoy the good things in life for their own sake. That way you are likely to learn better, enjoy the game more and stick with it longer.In two later articles in Chess Monthly (October and November 2003), Richard argued that for most children the right age to begin to learn to play chess is about 8-11. But even at that age, he thought, children are not yet equipped with the logical skills, essential to get the most out of chess, which thinkers like Piaget consider only kick in for most of us from about 12 years.
Richard considers that chess is a complex adult’s game that many children can aspire to play well but require a certain level of maturity to do so. His arguments suggest that a well-designed Chess in Schools project should enable young people to opt-in to a structured learning path at any age from about 8-14.
I’d say that that was a great basis on which to plan your next Chess in Schools project. Good luck!
Craig Pritchett IM
Chess Scotland Schools Chess Development Director