From the maker of Lara Croft: the teenager’s dream of a free school
Gaming magnate Ian Livingstone is receiving flak from the likes of Toby Young for his ambitious plan to hone students’ coding skills
Peter Wilby, Tuesday 6 January 2015
Ian Livingstone is not all that keen on being photographed near the life-sized model of Lara Croft in his study – even though he was largely responsible for launching her on the world nearly 20 years ago, and the heroine of the Tomb Raider video games, comics and films helped to make his fortune. “I am,” he says, “moving into a new phase of life.”
Livingstone is widely hailed as the founding father of the British games industry. He launched Dungeons and Dragons, a role-playing game that thrilled adolescents of the late 1970s and 1980s; co-founded Games Workshop, which became one of the biggest games companies in the world; and wrote or co-wrote 15 gamebooks in the Fighting Fantasy series, which has sold over 17m copies in 31 languages. He still has six friends round to his house regularly to play games, keep a record of the scores and compete for their own annual trophy. “I’m the current champion,” he tells me. “I love board games with like-minded friends, having a laugh, doing deals, reneging on them.”
But on the eve of his 65th birthday, he is talking to me about his plans for a network of free schools which, he thinks, can transform our approach to secondary education. He speaks quietly and rather flatly; there’s nothing flamboyant about him, and he sometimes sounds slightly bored, as if he’s reading out an inventory and would rather be playing games. But there’s no mistaking his conviction. “Children today are totally different from 50 years ago. They run their lives through social media and smart phones. They share their ideas and their creativity. They collaborate naturally.” Yet when they go to secondary school, he argues, they meet a regime of standardisation and conformity, requiring them “to memorise a lot of stuff they won’t ever need because they can google it or whatever”.
What kind of stuff? “Talking to 50 headteachers recently, I put a quadratic equation on the screen and asked who could do it. One hand went up. We learn maths as a pure discipline, it’s abstract, it hangs in space. People forget things like quadratic equations and can’t even remember why they learned them in the first place.”
Livingstone’s first free school of 800 pupils – focusing on science, technology, engineering, art and maths, and developing “computing, coding and creative skills” – is planned for Hammersmith, in London, in 2016. Barnaby Lenon, former head of Harrow, is among his backers. As we talk, just before Christmas, he is waiting to hear from the Department for Education whether the school has passed the first approval stage.
Given his record in commanding coalition ministers’ attention, he can be optimistic. In 2010, Ed Vaizey, the culture minister, commissioned him as joint author of a report on the skill needs of the video games and video effects industries. This year, Vince Cable, the business secretary, appointed him “creative industries champion”. Most remarkably, Livingstone persuaded the former education secretary Michael Gove to transform the national curriculum’s approach to computing. Britain was creating a generation of digital illiterates, he told Gove, and the video games industry – which, with £2bn in global sales, is bigger than film or music – was struggling to attract employees with the right skills. The ICT in schools was “a strange hybrid of office skills, which bores children because it teaches them how to use technology but not how to create their own”. All children should take computer science and learn to code. “Coding,” he tells me, “is what enables you to create content, to make applications instead of just using them. It takes you out of the passenger seat and into the driving seat.”
But not everyone will write Fighting Fantasy games, will they? Nor, Livingstone retorts, will everyone who studies chemistry become a chemist. Computer code is not just for games. It is the new Latin, training the mind for the digital world as Latin supposedly trained it for an analogue world. “It teaches computational and algorithmic thinking [solving problems that don’t have right or wrong solutions], logic, trial and error, collaboration. And it delivers a portfolio you can take to an employer and say: I did this.”
ICT was thrown out and Gove, with the zeal of the convert, denounced it as “about as much use as teaching children to send a telex or travel in a zeppelin”. Instead, since September, five-year-olds are learning – or supposed to be learning – algorithms so that, in future, children will be using two or more programming languages when they start secondary school and move on to Boolean logic and binary numbers. Livingstone accepts the difficulty of finding suitable teachers but says children who already know about coding could take charge “with the teacher as facilitator”.
This is where Livingstone, perhaps unwittingly, wades into controversies that divide education into warring tribes. Though he sometimes speaks the coalition’s language – the creativity his school will nurture, he says, will “turn people from jobseekers to job creators” – he’s clearly on the “progressive” side when it comes to teaching styles, saying, for example, that “children get enormous satisfaction from doing something rather than just memorising it” and praising primary schools for being “playful and collaborative”.
In the Spectator, Toby Young, founder of the West London free school (also in Hammersmith), which doesn’t have either ICT or computer science on the curriculum, accused Livingstone of peddling “progressive snake oil”. Young argued that “reasoning and problem-solving are inextricably bound up with factual knowledge”, and memory couldn’t be “outsourced to Google”.
Livingstone’s child-centred, collaborative approach had dominated state schools since the 1960s and, if he didn’t know that, he must have sent his four children to private schools. (On that latter point, Young was right, though Livingstone seems apologetic, saying: “I wish there was just one education system in the UK, not this fractured system we have.”)
Young pointed out that Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, studied Latin until the age of 18. Livingstone replies that Zuckerberg did computer science at university, and that produced the intellectual insights and skills needed to launch Facebook. What DfE ministers and civil servants will make of this ideological clash is anyone’s guess but, since the avowed aim of the free school programme is to let a thousand flowers bloom, it would be surprising if Livingstone’s Hammersmith proposal failed. Whether he can then replicate it is another matter.
He doesn’t envisage children playing computer games all day but believes schools can borrow their techniques for engaging children. “Games have had a bad press, mainly from people who’ve never played them. But the Fighting Fantasy series got a generation of children reading. Rather than a straight, linear narrative, at the end of every paragraph, readers had to make a decision: turn left or right, if you find a key in one room, you can open a door down the corridor, and so on. It put children in control, empowered them. If they failed, they could start again, not because they were forced to but because they wanted to.”
Livingstone has never exactly failed, except at grammar school, where he got one low-grade A-level and was told to look for a job in a garage. He grew up in a terraced house in a working-class district of Manchester. His father tramped local streets collecting credit for a draper. After completing a business studies diploma in Stockport, Livingstone followed a girlfriend to London and worked in marketing for an oil company. “I used to look out of the window thinking this wasn’t for me.” He moved to a flat in Shepherd’s Bush with two former school friends, spending much of their free time playing games as they had at school. Livingstone shows me the “deluxe Monopoly set” he won as runner-up in the 1975 British Monopoly championships.
They started their own games business and, though one later dropped out, the other flatmate, Steve Jackson, became a lifelong friend and collaborator. For three months, unable to afford rent for a flat as well as an office, they lived in a van, but didn’t mind because devoting their lives to games was a boy’s dreams come true. In 1991, they sold Games Workshop for almost £10m.
I doubt the industry’s dubious image bothered Livingstone much in those days. With its monsters, zombies, axes and explosions – a far cry from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five or Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women – it was frowned upon by teachers, middle-class parents, politicians, newspapers and churches. The games were denounced as violent, pagan and addictive, encouraging children to lose themselves in fantasy worlds. Lara Croft, the embodiment of the adolescent male’s ideal of a perfect woman, added feminists to Livingstone’s many enemies. “What would you rather watch – some hairy-arsed scaffolder … or the pert-bottomed, large-breasted Lara Croft?” he asked Loaded magazine.
Today, his responses are more measured. “Lara Croft is strong, intelligent and independent, and she doesn’t need men. Games are now accepted as an art form. Bafta celebrates them in its awards ceremonies. They get the same tax breaks as films. They have music, art, narrative, graphics – an extraordinary combination of arts and science with an interactive element. It’s no longer a male thing; games are played by young and old, male and female. They’ve gone way beyond entertainment; games are used to train pilots and surgeons.
“Yes, some are very violent. But they’re 18-rated and children shouldn’t be watching them. Grand Theft Auto V generated $1bn of revenue in three days, and it was developed in Scotland. We should celebrate it.”
In 1998, an interviewer for the Independent suggested Livingstone was still trying to escape from “the damp, regimented, class-ridden, lifeless 1950s of his northern working-class childhood”. I wouldn’t presume to attempt a psychological analysis, but his free school proposals do suggest a reaction against the 1950s-style grammar school he endured. Toby Young’s school, by contrast, with its Latin and “divinity” lessons, unashamedly tries to restore the grammar school ethos of that era, albeit with a comprehensive intake. They will go head-to-head in Hammersmith, and I can’t wait to see the results.