Chess – the cheap, easy solution for our underperforming schools
George Osborne announced in yesterday’s Budget that £1.5 billion would be made available to extend the hours of British state schools. This is a marvellous and long-overdue development and I have an idea to make it even better, while neutralising the immediate and predictable criticism levelled at the Chancellor.
It should be admitted that a causal link between school hours and educational performance is not easy to prove. The Finns have outstanding performance levels but shorter days than even us lazybone Brits, though they have exceptionally well-qualified and trained teachers (usually seen as the best determinant of outcomes).
Then again, Asian countries such as India and Singapore generally have longer school days than us, and much better performance. But that could be explained by other cultural factors such as tougher, more disciplinarian parents (you should meet my dad some day), an authoritarian approach to life and — something I am completely devoted to — a greater emphasis on rote learning. Whereas in many Islamic or rabbinical systems the emphasis is on rote learning religious scripts, I would legally enforce rote learning of English poetry, particularly from the Renaissance.
An influential 2010 study by Victor Lavy for the National Bureau of Economic Research suggested the amount of time spent on core subjects matters more than the length of the school day. Our exhausted teachers may well agree with that, just as they will reasonably demand better pay for the extra time they spend in school.
That’s the rub, say critics, with Osborne’s plan: quality costs, and if you want devoted attention to thousands of children for more hours every term it won’t be cheap. Well, I have a solution for that. It’s called chess, and I love it.
Chess changed my life and it could change your child’s too. Just as it’s patronising nonsense to say some children can’t cope with crunchy academic subjects, it’s offensively myopic to say struggling kids won’t enjoy chess. A good teacher can have anyone over the age of six gripped. The advantages of chess clubs, such as the one I joined 20 years ago at Graveney School in Tooting, are legion.
The game is cheap as chips — or rather, chess sets. The evidence for positive, synapse-forming, life-enhancing improvements in logic and memory is internationally accepted. It will encourage feral teenagers like my former self to spend afternoons talking about Najdorf Variations and the Caro-Kann Defence rather than skunk and porn.
As Dominic Lawson, president of the English Chess Federation, told me: “Chess is simple to learn, fun to play and requires no expensive gear. It inculcates patience, concentration and careful decision-making — precisely the skills employers seek. It is also an international language, connecting us with countless millions of fellow enthusiasts in China, Russia and India” — who happen to be taking over the world.
Osborne is partial to a game, and used to play at his school, St Paul’s. I said last week I was after radical ideas for dealing with the economic forces sweeping across the globe, and their impact on the poor of the rich world. Put real energy behind chess in the state sector and we’ll radically improve performance, help those most in need and do it at little cost, too. What’s not to like?