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EDUCATION

Spanish schools have introduced chess class to boost maths learning

An hour of chess a week can improve a pupil's performance in maths by 30 percent, as schools across Spain are finding out.

Spanish schools have introduced chess class to boost maths learning
Students play chess at a Tres Cantos state school. Photo: Pedro Armestre / AFP

Eleven-year-old Alvaro Pineda has played chess at home since he was five. Now he plays it in the classroom too.In an effort to boost their pupils' low maths and reading marks, more and more Spanish schools are holding chess clubs – and some could even make it a compulsory class.

“It really increases your mental capacity. I have improved a lot,” said Alvaro, at a chess group in his school north of Madrid.

“You have to really focus on the board and on where all the pieces are, and think lots of moves ahead,” which helps strengthen the memory, he added.

Spain's parliament this year unanimously adopted a law allowing regional governments to introduce chess as a compulsory or optional subject in schools.

The law won the rare unanimous backing of lawmakers from rival parties.

The opposition Socialist Party deputy who drafted it, Pablo Martin Pere, cited studies showing that an hour of chess a week could boost pupils' performance in maths by 30 percent.

Education studies by the OECD economic grouping have regularly shown that Spanish pupils lag behind their peers in other developed countries in maths and reading.

School masters

The class Alvaro goes to, in the Aldebaran School in the Madrid suburb of Tres Cantos, is run by masters from the local chess club.


Students play chess at a Tres Cantos state school. Photo: Pedro Armestre / AFP

Some say however that regular teachers can be trained for the task.   

One of the instructors, Javier Martinez de Navascues, 24, divides the lesson time between chess games, theory and showing the pupils “cool things that they really like, moves like 'the nail' and the 'x-ray attack'”

He says two or three weeks' training is enough to prepare a normal school teacher to give chess classes.

The local chess club's president Daniel Gil disagrees.

“It is just as well that the instructors be chess masters,” he said.

“They have a certain experience of teaching,” he said, but chess classes also require special knowledge. “There's a lot to chess.”

Chess 'not boring'

The southern Russian region of Kalmykia is seen as the pioneer in using chess as an official educational tool, having introduced it as a school subject in 1996.

Armenia became the first country to apply the policy nationwide in 2011. Mexico followed in 2014, as well as parts of China, India and Germany.


Students play chess at a Tres Cantos state school. Photo: Pedro Armestre / AFP

In Spain, one of the game's leading figures is Adriana Salazar, an international chess master and nine-time national champion in her native Colombia.

She introduces the game to kids as early as pre-school by putting a giant chessboard on the floor.

“They learn the squares, the rows and columns, the diagonals, and we jump around on the board. I tell the smallest kids it is a land of vanilla and chocolate.”

Her method is used in 143 schools in Spain, 50 in Colombia and 12 in Miami. She says it can help develop children's thinking and their “social skills and values”.

“The aim is to make the kids love it and to charm the teachers,” to show them “it isn't boring or hard,” said Salazar. “That is my quest.”

In Tres Cantos, Rodrigo Gomez, 11, turns to his teacher in triumph.

“Javi had two defences and I still got him in checkmate!” he calls out. “This should be compulsory,” he adds.

Nine-year-old Adam Maltoni is more circumspect. “I wouldn't like it to be compulsory. It's each person's choice whether they want to play chess.”

By Julia Estelles / AFP

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EDUCATION

EXPLAINED: How Spain will make it easier for students to graduate

The Spanish government has passed a new decree which will allow secondary and sixth form students to graduate and receive their qualifications, even if they have failed some subjects.

Spain is changing its education rules
There will also be no re-sitting of exams at Spanish secondary schools. Photo: CESAR MANSO / AFP

The Spanish government approved on Tuesday, November 16th a new Royal Decree which gives instructions to teachers to change the way they grade their students for the rest of the school year of 2021/2022 and 2022/2023.

Education in Spain is compulsory for all those from ages 6 to 16. The Spanish education system is made up of primary and secondary schools. Secondary school is referred to as ESO and students receive a Título de Graduado Educación Secundaria Obligatoria (Title of Graduation from Obligatory Secondary School Education). This is the last four years of compulsory education, up until age 16, and is similar to GCSEs in the UK.

After age 16, Spanish students can go on to study for the optional Bachillerato for the next two years up until age 18. This is equivalent to A-levels in the UK and is needed if the student wants to attend university. 

The new rules apply to the ESO and Bachillerato qualifications. In primary education, there were no specific qualifications or failure limits and this is the same in the new decree too. 

What is changing?

  • Before, students studying for the ESO were allowed to pass each year only if they did not have more than three failed subjects, but now with the new decree, there is no limit.
  • There will also be no re-sitting of exams in ESO.
  • In order to graduate with the ESO qualification at age 16, students could still graduate even if they had up to two failed subjects, however now there is no limit in the number of failed subjects allowed to graduate. 
  • In order to pass each year of the Bachillerato, students could still move on if they had up to two failed subjects. This will stay the same in the new decree too. 
  • In order to graduate with the Bachillerato qualification before, students had to pass all subjects and exams, but now one failed subject is allowed. 
  • Students will also be able to sit the Selectividad, which are the Spanish university admission tests if they have failed some of their Bachillerato (sixth form) school subjects.
  • For the first time in history, students with special needs who have had significant curricular adaptations and have not studied the minimum requirement for other students will also be able to receive their high school qualifications.

READ ALSO: Why Spain is failing in maths and science teaching

How will it be decided if students can graduate?

The text presented to the Council of Ministers by Pilar Alegría, the Spanish Minister of Education states that the decision on whether or not a student passes secondary education will be decided on by each board of the school or institution at the end of the school year.

It is the teaching team “who is given the ultimate responsibility for the decision on the promotion and qualification of students” she stated. It will be the teachers who have to make the decision after assessing whether the student “has reached the appropriate degree of acquisition of the corresponding skills”. 

This means that there will no longer be specific requirements to graduate high school and that the parameters for passing will be different for each institution.   

Why have the rules changed?

The new measures are designed to avoid students repeating years and improve graduation statistics.

According to the latest statistics, out of the countries in the EU in 2020, 79 percent of the population between 25 and 64 years old had graduated Secondary Education or higher and Spain is around 16.1 points below this average. 

Pilar Alegría said that 30 percent of 15-year-old students have repeated a year at least once and “dropout rates are increased by this percentage of students”. 

That is why we are committed to a system “based on trust in teachers”, “continuous evaluation” and “collaborative work by teaching teams”. She has assured that “the culture of effort does not run any risk with this new norm. An effort based on motivation is better than one based on punishment”.  

READ ALSO: Spain passes contested education bill

Are all regions on board with the new rules?

Madrid, Andalusia, Galicia, Castilla y León and Murcia strongly oppose the new rules because they “lower the requirement” and “unsettle the teachers”. 

The five regions complain that the royal decree changes the rules of the game in the middle of the course since the students have started the academic year with a particular curriculum and specific criteria in order to pass it. 

Madrid 

“Within our powers, while respecting the law, we are going to try to prevent the royal decree from being applied, as we consider that it is a direct attack on one of the pillars of the Madrid educational system, as is the merit and the effort of the students “, said sources from the Department of Education of the Community of Madrid.

Galicia

The education authorities in Galicia said that they will also “explore any legal possibility that allows for preserving the culture of effort and quality as signs of identity”.

Castilla y León

The education departments in Castilla y León said that for their part, they “will make sure that the curricular development and the norms of promotion and qualification are the least harmful”.

Andalusia 

“Although the norm establishes that the Baccalaureate degree can be obtained with a failed subject, we understand that it does not make sense because all subjects contribute to the acquisition of the necessary competencies,” said the education authorities in Andalusia.

Murcia 

Murcia is also not in favor of the royal decree and denounces “the improvisation of the Pedro Sánchez government and the lack of legal security for the decisions that have been taken”.   

Unions and Associations

Teachers’ unions such as Csif or Anpe or associations such as Concapa or Cofapa warn that more students are going to arrive less prepared for the next level of education, where the problem will explode. 

These regions argue that this new system will leave a lot of grey areas because teachers’ criteria can be very subjective. The elimination of make-up exams is also causing confusion because “they give another opportunity for students to pass based on their effort and ability”. 

The rest of the regions, on the other hand, were in favor of eliminating the need to re-sit exams because they believe that the evaluation should be “continuous” and the student should not risk everything for a single exam.

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