If I ruled the world

Prospect Magazine

If I ruled the world


How would I cut public spending by £100bn? Abolish schools—and have children learn through playing videogames all day

A compulsory education, to a rigidly prescribed curriculum, in a classroom of 30 in a school of hundreds, at set hours, Monday to Friday, is splendid preparation for life as a 19th-century factory hand. But it is precisely, almost brilliantly, wrong for creating self-starters, entrepreneurs, free thinkers, risk takers, leaders, visionaries, inventors, innovators, flexible employees, creative artists or anyone Britain actually needs. We no longer force adults to work in Victorian workhouses. So why do we force children to learn in Victorian schools?

When the Prussians first introduced compulsory schooling back in 1763, you could force the child to learn by threat of violence. But as vigorous beatings were phased out, state education became impossible. It now eats up 13 per cent of public spending to produce adults who can’t read, write or speak English, let alone any other language. Clearly, state education should be abolished. What should we replace it with? Nothing.

What will Britain’s children do with no schools? They’ll sit at home immersed in the internet (reading), texting (writing), and playing computer games (arithmetic, physics, geography, history). Learning is impossible if you are neither motivated nor focused; but it is unavoidable if you are both. Monitor the brain activity of a kid in a maths class—nothing going on. Now monitor it at home while he plays Bioshock at level 13: his brain is growing new neural pathways as though his life depended on it. Only the fear of either death or massive status loss can motivate a teenager to do anything, and computer games are optimised to do just that—even more effectively than a Victorian with a stick.

The entertainment industry is the educational system. Yet the government maintains its iron control over the latter, which doesn’t educate, while letting the former—which is literally forming our children’s minds, neuron by neuron—do whatever it likes. Which is, mostly, crapping in your kid’s head. If governments can regulate toxic chemicals in food, they can regulate computer games—which don’t have to be toxic. Immensely successful ones are already produced by artists, educators and visionaries. Have you ever played Sid Meier’s almost ludicrously educational and entertaining Civilization? (More than 9m people have.) Or the historically and strategically accurate Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin? The evolution game, Spore? You can lose yourself in all of these for days, while learning incredibly complex lessons in the only way that will stick with you: making choices under pressure, while totally focused, and dealing with the consequences.

True, 95 per cent of modern culture is mere commodity product; luckily, that makes it amenable to regulation and financial incentives. Just tax the crap out of derivative, mindless games, television and films. Once the entertainment industry grasps that the ground rules have changed, permanently, it will hire the best historians, biologists and physicists to subtly enrich its products. Education, when done right, is immensely profitable. (With Romeo + Juliet, Baz Luhrmann got teenagers to cough up $148m to go see Shakespeare, in the original language. Shakespeare!)

Once you’ve let the industry sort out games quality (which will take a while: good games are far richer and more complex than the national curriculum), let them organise a championship system for the leading games—from village level to premier league. Televise the finals, and make cultural heroes of the best players, as the Koreans already do. (Kids care about their status with peers, not teachers.) Then leave the children alone, to educate themselves. They’ll put in 14-hour days.

Every society in history, until ours, trained and taught its youth through totally immersive gameplay and storytelling. Children (and adults) learn and grow by pursuing their individual obsessions passionately, at the ever-advancing frontline of their own ability, on a schedule of their choosing. Trying to turn children into literate, creative, flexible free thinkers by adding things to the national curriculum is like trying to transform witches into Christians by piling ever-heavier rocks on their chests.

Want kids to learn French? Get Activision to launch the French-language Modern Warfare 3 two months before the English version. A million kids will buy it on its day of release: the next two months of total immersion will teach them basic French. Japanese? License a Japanese porn channel. The children of the world speak English not because they have brilliant teachers or schools but because they watch English-language television and listen to pop. In eastern Europe, it was the countries that were too poor, or lazy, to redub television into their own language that now speak the best English.

School sucks because it’s boring, not because it’s too challenging. Don’t make learning easier. Make it more difficult: set a clock running. And shoot at kids with lasers. We used to learn because a tiger would kill and eat us if we didn’t. Abolish schools, and bring back tigers.

For more ideas on cutting public spending see How to really save £100bn

  1. April 1, 2010


    I def agree that the entertainment industry would be a fantastic vehicle for supplementary teaching. However, people learn best from other people—live, in person, other human beings. Good teachers are better than the best video games or movies, and suggesting doing away with them I don’t think is the answer.

  2. April 3, 2010

    david g dalton

    haven’t even read the article yet and I can pass comment! .. yup – less teaching more learning (if that’s what you are saying;))

  3. April 8, 2010



    Only a small proportion of kids do well in the current school system, this needs to be smaller and have a way of understanding the different modes in which kids get stimulated to learn. It’s not all through game play, some are logical (school), some are creative, some musical, you need to find the right medium the child responds to.

    Sir Ken Robinson has an excellent talk on TED, where he talks about how the school system is woefully equipped to a changing world.

    The point is the current school system prepares us for the regulated world of work and routine. A system which removes this indoctrination will not prepare kids for the current world of work, which you may argue is good because something new more dynamic will emerge but there may be a rocky transition.

  4. July 5, 2010

    Barry the Red

    Julian, Excellent article – provocative. I was a teacher in Australia for a few years and quickly reached the conclusion that schools basically (though not entirely) imprison the mind. Two forces stand in the way of abolition of the schools system that you rightly identify as being ‘Victorian’. First, the kind of mentally and intellectually liberating altenrative you advocate doesn’t fit with a reactionary social system such as capitalism which still requires the teaching of somehting that can only be taught rather than learned: obedience to authority. Secondly, the reactionary teacher unions will be resistant even to reform of the system let alone abolition. But, on the bright side, young folk will continue learning despite the system!

  5. November 22, 2010

    Roger Neilson

    You miss one key ‘elephant in the room’ which is that a key feature of schooling is the childcare/supervision element.
    Not arguing you are wrong, just that this is the BIG actual reason for schools.

  6. January 18, 2012


    This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever read. We’ll have people glued to their tech devices and not hanging out or actually holding conversations with each other. And how would that work? One of the biggest points about school is that it’s a chance for young children and teens to learn how to interact with each other and gain social skills.

    Instead of abolishing school for not being “interesting,” we should just have more interesting teachers and professors. Great teachers are people that can’t be replaced with anything–not even the best of video games.

  7. March 18, 2012

    Marvin Kathryn the Gaussian

    Karen, you can’t stop kids from communicating with each other. The way they do it may differ from the way it used to be done, but it still happens. Technology is part of our wilderness now; it’s in the air we breath, the water that we drink, and the ideas that we share. We must embrace it and master it, lest we get swept away by those that do.

    The problem with great teachers is that there are too few of them. With a growing population, there are always more students that need to be taught over time, and the school districts; instead of hiring more teachers currently appear to be firing the old ones. In a capitalistic society, you pay more for better quality; given the circumstances, there doesn’t appear to be enough money in education to support an army of “Great Teachers”.

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Julian Gough

Julian Gough is a writer and novelist. He is the author of “Jude: Level 1” (Old Street Publishing) 

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