Livingstone Hopes: Why Eidos' President is opening a school

"We need to train kids today for jobs that don't yet exist"

Ian Livingstone is the perennial evergreen of the UK games scene. From co-founding Games Workshop in 1975, Ian moved on to co-writing the Fighting Fantasy gamebook series with long-time friend and collaborator Steve Jackson, earning a permanent place in the hearts, and on the bookshelves of a generation of young adventurers eager to immerse themselves in worlds of incredible fantasy and imagination.

That world creation, the process of interactivity which was so important to that series' success, lead him naturally into the world of games, creating Eureka for Domark in 1984 before joining the publisher in 1992, later overseeing the merger which would see it become Eidos - home of internationally renowned IP like Tomb Raider.

Whilst his role at the company has become less involved since Eidos' acquisition by Square-Enix, Livingstone has been anything but complacent. Turning to the role of industry elder statesman, Livingstone has played a major part in the reformation of the UK's IT curriculum, advising the government on the best way to properly implement training and education in order to raise new generations of creative, technologically literate Britons to take over the mantle of established creators like himself.

In addition to that, he sits on the boards of six major UK bodies which shape industry and government policy, still managing to find time to mentor independent developers on the pitfalls of the modern industry. Oh, and he's managed to pick up an OBE and a CBE along the way. Not too shabby.

In short, he'd be forgiven for taking a well-earned rest, but instead he's taking on an entirely new endeavour: looking to found a free-school in London's Hammersmith borough, which hopes to embrace new methods of teaching to engage children with the core skills of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics) that form the core of the needs of the modern workplace.

The Livingstone School makes its application to government today, with the hope being that a success will mean launching for the first year of pupils in September of 2015. We caught up with the tireless veteran for an insight into his motivations for entering education at the coal face, and why he thinks that things need to change.

Q:You've been involved in the education scene for some time now with NESTA and your work with the curriculum, with a significant amount of success. What made you focus on education, particularly?

"The school curriculum for ICT had been letting us down as an industry and as a nation - teaching kids how to consume technology but giving them no insight into how to use it creatively"

Ian Livingstone:Well, for the games industry in particular you need an environment where the costs are low and the skills are high. I think for too long that's not been the case - for many years there's been almost the opposite case in the UK - cost has been high and skills low. Not low in terms of people being useless, just not living up to our heritage, having got off to such a flying start with gaming in the '80s. It plays to the strengths of the British psyche - high-flying creativity combined with a great knowledge and skills. The school curriculum for ICT had been letting us down as an industry and as a nation - teaching kids how to consume technology but giving them no insight into how to use it creatively - or to create their own technology.

The UK has done brilliantly in terms of creating some blockbuster titles that have done amazingly well around the world, but it could have been so much more. Rather than slipping from third to sixth in the world league table for development we could have been number one, because arguably we're the most creative nation in the world given our brilliance in film, fashion, music, TV, advertising and of course games. I just got annoyed that we didn't have a production tax credit - hence the high cost - and we didn't have a curriculum which was fit for purpose for our particular industry.

Q:It seems that we've always been at our best when our creative industries have focused on smaller endeavours - smaller groups of people rather than big business...

Ian Livingstone: I think you're right - I think we often have limited ambition as a nation, we're willing to sell out early doors. Americans, in particular, prefer to scale things to the Nth degree to become global powerhouses in whatever they do. What we do is charming in a way, but it is quite limiting to the economy!

Q:I was watching your TED talk earlier, and was intrigued by one of your central themes there, this idea of abolishing what you referred to as a 'broadcast model' of education: the idea that everyone receives the same programming regardless. That idea, that we don't get to focus on what we enjoy at school, rather being forced to endure that which we don't, seems rooted in a belief that suffering through our education is an essential part of it. That seems ridiculous, sadistic, even. Why has that become so prevalent?

Ian Livingstone:Yes - it seems that people are forced to do all of their fun learning outside of school. My simple common-sense proposition is that we should encourage the fun learning within school instead. I think fun and enjoyment are often seen as past-times rather than learning experiences, which means that they become trivialised in people's eyes as not having any real value. There's a lot of academic snobbery, particularly in this country, that means you're expected to have this 'rigour' in your learning, which translates to misery!

People are forced to learn a multitude of facts, which are largely irrelevant, in order to pass these random memory tests, exams which are basically a lottery - far more to do with league tables than actual learning. That was fine in the Victoria era, when the talk and chalk was designed to fulfil the needs of an industrial society in which children were processed, sent to work in factories where they all needed to know the same skills.

"People are forced to learn a multitude of facts, which are largely irrelevant, in order to pass these random memory tests, exams which are basically a lottery"

That world has totally changed now. We've got high speed broadband, we work in connected environments. The ways in which kids work in particular - they're part of totally connected worlds. You can see by the way they share everything by their smartphones, their activities, knowledge and private details, yet we still ask them to sit quietly in isolation whilst someone at the front talks at them - asking them to note down things which they can always Google at any time! I think you should take facts as a given - you don't need to cram your own hard drive, your brain, with all this data that you could just access at a click of the mouse. It's how you process that information.

For me, real learning can only take place if kids learn meta-skills of problem solving and communication which you can apply to all subjects and promote creativity and collaboration in that process. Why can't teachers accept that they could be equally useful as facilitators? Peer-to-peer learning, from the research that I've read, has a 30 per cent increase in actual learning because kids talking together, solving problems together and learning on their terms, in their language - is far more meaningful than someone talking at them, asking them to memorise facts. So the way we test children is archaic and really needs to evolve. We need to train kids today for jobs that don't yet exist.

So we've got to encourage creativity, innovation and enterprise if we do want to get that mentality.

Q:To play devil's advocate for a moment, the argument in favour of that broadcast model is that you offer a lot of things at a shallow level, which allows people to find out what they're good at and what they enjoy. Is there a possibility here that you could be teaching children skills that they eventually realise they don't have an interest in pursuing, leaving them without anything else to fall back on?

Ian Livingstone:Well we'll still be offering a broad range of education; this is not just going to be computer science and nothing else, of course. But rather than requiring all kids to do the same 11 GCSEs, and getting A*s in each of them, we'll require them to do a minimum of eight but it's the way… the exams themselves aren't going to be the be all and end all. We're still going to get great exam results but our pedagogy of delivering that is going to be totally different. And so whilst they're doing their As there'll still be time for them to build up a portfolio of projects demonstrating creativity and… a portfolio of work which they can actually use in their interview process or to go on to do further education. So it gives them practical life skills that make them more likely to become problem solvers, risk takers and motivated. It's about the pedagogy and within that computer science is going to sit well because it underpins this world in which kids find themselves.

And it's not just about computer science - don't get me wrong about that [laughs] - it's going to be STEAM subjects, with art, and a choice of the subjects but not requiring everyone to do the same thing. Because so often teachers say 'you're crap at that' and I want teachers to say 'well you're actually very good at that and you don't actually need to do this bit,' - do something that is broader, problem solving and communication skills you can apply to all subjects to have a much richer learning experience.

"You're required to learn quadratic equations - when was the last time you did one of those?"

Q:It seems quite similar in ethos to the Montessori system.

Ian Livingstone:Well I think primary school is far more relevant than secondary school. We learn through play, it's a pleasurable experience, we learn trial and error through making mistakes, we fall over lots before we learn how to stand up. And we do collaborate, we are playful with our siblings and in primary school that kind of emulates the natural learning.

It's when we get into secondary where it all changes. You're all required to sit still, working as individuals, no team work, no collaboration, no projects that can be assessed as a group - all doing the same thing, it all becomes… that's when the industrial process starts with our children. I think that's so out of touch with where kids are today and we've got to have learning on their terms which is relevant and contextual to their lives. So mathematics for example, it's totally academic at the moment. You're required to learn quadratic equations - when was the last time you did one of those? Because you're given a problem and think 'how am I going to address this problem? Here's the computational bit I have to do and it has an output that is relevant to other problems.' It's OK for the 5 per cent of academics, but for the rest of us maths becomes the most fearsome subject on earth and it doesn't have to be.

Q:One of the criticisms that's come up against free schools generally is the idea that the teachers at the schools don't have to have the same qualifications that they do in mainstream schools. Where are you planning on sourcing the staff from? The industry? The education sector?

Ian Livingstone:Well we're certainly going to bring the educational environment closer to the workplace to give kids life skills, because those with A*s currently aren't necessarily the best students, they just happen to know how to pass exams. The disaffected kids with the Cs and Ds, they might be better employees.

So we've got to make sure that people understand their own value to start off, but to your point we have got a principal designate who is working in a school, is a trained teacher, is assistant head at the moment and will become our head should we get approved. So clearly we're going to have, in our ambition to have, established, trained teachers and staff, at the time we're going to have strong links with industry to make the learning relevant and applicable to life.

"So we've got to make sure that people understand their own value"

Q: What made you choose Hammersmith and Fulham as an area?

Ian Livingstone:Just for our first one, because we hope that this is going to be the first of many! It's because we had such an incredible response to the ethos and the vision and people encouraging us to extend it, as long as we've got the sufficient capacity to do so.

But to your question why, a) we were told by New Schools Network, which is an organisation that helps free school applicants through the process, gave us Hammersmith as a target area of need which has capacity, along with five other London boroughs. And from a personal point of view, Dalling Road, Hammersmith was where I opened my first Games Workshop retail store way back in 1978. So even though it's now a Bosnian-Herzegovinian community advice centre, there's a strong link from a personal point of view. And I don't live far away so there's a definite need there and it happens to fit very nicely with my own history.

Q: What ability range are you looking at? Is there an application process?

Ian Livingstone:It's open to all. There are no barriers to entry.

Q: And did you say it would be a total population of 700?

Ian Livingstone:Well what happens with free schools is that you start off with your first cohorts and then you build year on year. So we're probably going to start with 120, I would hope.

Q: Educational background has been a problem for employers in the industry for a long time, I imagine this idea is proving very popular with the UK developers?

"the hard skills that the industry required - coding, art and animation - were simply not a part of the course"

Ian Livingstone:Absolutely. For seven years I've been chair of Skillset Computer Games Skills Forum, and we mapped out all the university courses that had games in their title - there were 144, I think. We'd only accredited ten after five years, there's more now accredited. But a lot of them were not fit for purpose. They were offering soft skills like the social relevance of games and some basic design stuff, but the hard skills that the industry required - coding, art and animation - were simply not a part of the course. They're doing these students a great disservice, saddling them with debt, thinking they're going to get a job when they weren't. Not particularly good for the industry because we weren't getting work ready students to apply for jobs. And not particularly good for the nation either, because it doesn't really help the economy.

Industry is really welcoming the free school proposal, but obviously it's going to take some years before they'll see the benefit of that. But you've got to start somewhere, like we did with Next Gen Review. We had to start somewhere and managed in the end to help convince Michael Gove to disapply the ICT curriculum and put into place the new computing curriculum, which comes into force in September this year. That could be transformational over time.

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Latest comments (9)

Farhang Namdar Lead Game Designer Larian Studios 8 years ago
This is a very bad development, wasting upcoming talent's time and lives by giving them an education that they don't need. And then you hire interns for close to nothing pay and you discard them when the new batch arrives. And the great thing with education is that they get subsidized eventually, allowing them to develop on government tax while abusing cheap labor. We work in a fantastic industry, shameless...

And don't worry about the kids that didn't make it, there is always a spot in the QA department for low pay.
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development8 years ago
I would be much happier if 100% of children left school able to read and write.
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Gareth Eckley Commercial Analyst 8 years ago
The only skills a school needs to teach you is how to read, how to write, how to network and how to have self-confidence.

25 years ago, the primary constraint to software design was technical ability. Nowadays it's funding. 25 years from now, with mature interfaces and optimisation tools, you never know, it could actually be just down to talent, much in the same way that the audio and visual arts have progressed.

If you're going to teach anything, teach marketing. Even better, you only need to teach the most basic reading and writing skills.
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Show all comments (9)
Caspar Field Consultant, Talk Management8 years ago
The head of our local comprehensive reckons he could do a better job of making games than I can, so he's starting a development studio and taking over our revenue stream. Nah, he's not, and neither should we be doing the opposite.
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Ben Gonshaw Game Design Consultant, AKQA8 years ago
Livingstone's approach to education is a breath of fresh air and impeccably timed.

Child-centric code/ tech workshops and educational toys are exploding right now, because everyone recognises that 'digital' is fast becoming a key pillar of human existence. In 13 years' time when these kids are 18, the Internet of Things will be an antiquated buzzword, that barely begins to describe our connected world - all of it driven by software.

I draw two things from his video.
1: Harnessing our innate play instinct in a directed way is a natural way to teach - in harmony with how we are wired learn.
It's not a new thought, but it's a valid one.

2: STE(a)M subjects are pretty important in life.
If you can teach logic and logical systems to kids, then in effect you are teaching them to how to think, analyse, identify flaws and to try again.
These are skills that can be applied to any vocation whether creative or not - from law to baking, accounting to marine biology - critical thinking will help you to excel whatever your field. And guess what, making games can teach all those things in a way that is utterly engaging. It's a crash course in scientific method.

As Caspar acerbically notes, Ian's not a trained educator, but given his track record, I'm guessing that he's building a top flight educational team around this project to make it a success. I for one am rooting for him to succeed.
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Adam Campbell Product Manager, Azoomee8 years ago
Actually I praise him for attempting to take a new approach to education.

I dont know know all the details but I'm a fan of innovation in education and curriculum. Especially ICT given my personal experiences and grievances about the way it is still taught today.

I think referring to any education as pointless is damaging, as without facts and examination you can't assume no-one will benefit from it, individually or throughout the industry.
And don't worry about the kids that didn't make it, there is always a spot in the QA department for low pay.
With this, even if accidentally, you're feeding into the stereotype of QA being a dead end job, with no progression and no need for technical skills. As a person with huge experience in QA I wouldn't want people walking away thinking that.

Sure, some QA departments and their practices leave something to be desired, but I know plenty of people including myself who went into QA by choice at a specific point in time, being educated and skilled. Plenty of us are doing well out if it.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Adam Campbell on 11th January 2014 5:00pm

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Ben Gonshaw Game Design Consultant, AKQA8 years ago
@ Adam... Nailed it.

And re: QA... It's a highly specialised, highly skilled job. You need coding ability for writing automated test scripts, an encyclopaedic knowledge of ever changing complex TRC requirements and the same logical insight that coders and designers use to create the game systems in the first place.
They are also the guys that truly know if your game is broken... Wrong or inferior.

Forget just bug hunting, if you don't include QA in your daily standups or as part of your multidisciplinary scrum, then you're squandering a critical resource and missing valuable insights into the progress and quality of the project.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Ben Gonshaw on 12th January 2014 10:05pm

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Caspar Field Consultant, Talk Management8 years ago
I am 100% all for experienced people from the working world - in all its aspects - helping ensure that the curriculum is usefully defined. I do question whether that should be happening prior to A-levels, or probably university courses. But helping building great courses is a world away from taking over the running of schools. It crosses the line from involvement in a service that aspires to fair, equal treatment for all, to aspiring to create a privileged provision for a few.

My feelings about Free Schools are not helped by the high opacity of the Free School process in general:
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Nor by recent allegations about the financial management of some Academy Schools:
[link url=""][/link]
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Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd8 years ago
Provided the staff are qualified and the standards are high I'm cautiously optimistic about this.

I share Caspar's concern about how early specialisation should enter into education.

The soundbite about "schools only teaching how to pass exams" is as unhelpful as the old tabloid chestnut of "high pass rates mean exams are getting easier every year", but I'm sure Livingstone was making a more nuanced point than that.
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