back to article Are MPs smarter than 5-year-olds? We'll soon find out at coding school – Berners-Lee

The inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, has urged British MPs to learn how to code - in what could arguably be seen as his most ambitious call to action yet. Speaking at The Guardian's Every Second Counts Forum he said coding skills would equip MPs with the ability to legislate more effectively on technology. “ …

  1. frank ly

    OMG

    "... because they have got to understand how powerful a weapon it is, so that they can make laws that require people to code to make machines behave in different ways.”

    Why did he have to phrase it like that? This will all end in tears before the division bell.

    1. Captain Scarlet Silver badge
      Facepalm

      Re: OMG

      I can see this ending up as another Committee for something

    2. Benjol

      Re: OMG

      Quite. I wouldn't want that principle applied to anything like... weapons...

  2. dogged

    Weeell... sort of

    Being able to code means that you understand what people can do with a computer

    but not really. Because "being able to code" doesn't specify what you're able to code. Six months reading github might teach you what other people are able to do with a computer but if all you can do is write a "Hello world" HTML page, that's not really comparable.

    1. JetSetJim

      Re: Weeell... sort of

      I, too, worry that it will end up with aforementioned MP opening MS Word, typing "Hello World" and then using File -> Save as -> HTML and thinking that's all there is to this interweb lark. If you're lucky, they may use the Insert picture from file option...

      1. Kane
        Headmaster

        Re: Weeell... sort of

        I, too, worry that it will end up with aforementioned MP instructing their minion to open MS Word, type "Hello World" and then using File -> Save as -> HTML and thinking that's all there is to this interweb lark. If you're lucky, they may use the Insert picture from file option...

        There, FTFY!

    2. veti Silver badge

      Re: Weeell... sort of

      Do MPs need to be able to run a restaurant, before they're qualified to vote on public health legislation?

      Do we insist they should have served in the army, before voting on wars?

      Do they have to run a factory, in order to have an informed opinion about minimum wages?

      I can see a superficial case for all of those things, but a much more convincing case against them. Same with this proposal. "Being able to code" doesn't qualify you to decide what people should or shouldn't be allowed to do with computers. It's an is/ought question.

      1. solo

        Re: Weeell... sort of

        But,

        - Some of the MPs have run restaurants for sure

        - Some of the MPs have been in army

        - Some of them have run factories

        - Some of them have worked as labours

        If coding is what is going to be shaping our future, government (the parliament) will be outdated sooner if none from there is aware what is going on (who hacked my PC?).

        1. Frankee Llonnygog

          Re: Weeell... sort of

          Some of them have run bogus internet companies under phony names, and then become chairman of the Conservative Party

  3. James 51

    Good luck to him but even thirty years from now we'll be lucky if MPs don't get their understanding of technology in what ever the future equivalent of Tron or Neuromancer is. The way politics is structured at the moment it is a profession in itself so they don’t get a chance to experience life as most of their constituents live it. Just look at the number of engineers in parliment as an example.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Engineers in Parliament

      On the other hand China is run by engineers. Be careful what you wish for.

      1. Rich 11

        Re: Engineers in Parliament

        And British Rail used to be run by engineers. Look at what the railway netowrk is like now that it's run by beancounters.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Engineers in Parliament

          British Rail used to be run by railwaymen, which is not the same thing as engineers. Unfortunately (cue downvotes) a lot of their problems were caused by the "engineers" clinging to steam far longer than should have happened. Engineers, for very obvious reasons, tend to be conservative in outlook. So do railwaymen, because dead passengers are undesirable.

          The present state of British politics is one of fossilisation, with the three main parties stuck firmly in the past and the newcomer, UKIP, wanting to drag things even further back into the past.

          I want to see more scientists going into politics. People who would support evidence-based policies, and a collection of awkward so and sos who would stand up to the Civil Service. But it won't happen, because scientists as a breed have difficulty persuading the general public that they are just as unintelligent as the man in the street, and this is needed to get elected.

          I don't want politicians who can use html, I want politicians who ask awkward questions like "why are we locking all these people up for drug possession when all the evidence is that it doesn't work, and exactly why do we need a nuclear deterrent when if it ever gets used it will because the country has ceased to exist?"

          1. Steve the Cynic

            Re: Engineers in Parliament

            "People who would support evidence-based policies"

            Our (your?)(1) experience so far is that evidence-based policy-making tends to result in policy-based evidence-making.

            (1) I say "your" because I'm not in Blighty anymore, although I'm disinclined to suggest that the French politicians are any better.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Engineers in Parliament

              Precisely this. Scientists are trained to tell the difference, the lawyers who infest Parliament are not. In fact, GCSE maths actually now includes a section on making and testing hypotheses which, however limited, is progress.

              1. J.G.Harston Silver badge

                Re: Engineers in Parliament

                I'm a "coder" to use TBL's phrase, and have stood for Parliament twice. Both times the electorate decided they didn't want my engineering background in Parliament.

              2. Andy Davies

                Re: Engineers in Parliament

                "...GCSE maths actually now includes a section on making and testing hypotheses which, however limited, is progress."

                It may be progress, but it isn't maths!

          2. David Dawson

            Re: Engineers in Parliament

            I don't want politicians who can use html, I want politicians who ask awkward questions like "why are we locking all these people up for drug possession when all the evidence is that it doesn't work, and exactly why do we need a nuclear deterrent when if it ever gets used it will because the country has ceased to exist?"

            ----

            You had me until there. Drugs policy isn't quite comparable to a nuclear deterrent. I'd generally agree with you on drugs policy, the evidence isn't there, more research required. We've got a penal system built around rehabilitation, not vengeance, so the policies that puts people into it should be in tune with that.

            Nuclear deterrent isn't the same thing. It's stated aim was to prevent another world war, by making war between the great powers too terrible to contemplate. In that, it seems to have succeeded... There was never a war between the first and second worlds (to use the old terms), only small scale proxy conflicts that gave enough of a gap that the main blocks could back out without risking their own destruction.

            So, 50 years worth of evidence says that a nuclear deterrent does what it says on the tin.

            I'm not sure that scientists are really the right people, as a group, to be in charge of policy. Technocracy seems as poor a choice as anything else. One group, believing they know better. Politics is not science, no matter how much we want it to be. Not defending the current state of affairs, however politics is often making fixed decisions in the absence of good enough information. Science is not, it's the pursuit of that information.

            I think that we should go back to the old greek system. Politics as a punishment. Lots are cast, and the losers are the ones that have to serve for a year, and they should be regularly punished for mistakes. Make the job horrible, so that no one wants it. Anyone who wants power is fundamentally untrustworthy.

  4. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge
    Joke

    I expect most of them will say...

    I'm a Politician/Lawyer get me out of here!

    Well, we know that the IT biz is a bit of a jungle don't we?

  5. heyrick Silver badge

    they have got to understand how powerful a weapon it is

    Jesus - absolutely do NOT give them ideas!

  6. Jungleland

    I think it is a wonderful idea

    Train them all up to be "coders" (spit)* give them a job and then get them to watch their new jobs being offshored.

    *I'm not a programmer but even I hate the word.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I think it is a wonderful idea

      I hate the word too. To me it suggests a helot churning out xml or html to implement a specification. But as a retired software engineer/system architect I am also uncomfortable with those terms because (a) software isn't truly engineering and (b) systems aren't really architected. It's a pity we have never developed proper terminology. "Developer" is the worst weasel word of all.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    A five year old can do computing (see elsewhere on this site). The ones that can do. It's time consuming, and keeps them out of learning all the nasty stuff in the playground, which seems to be exactly what MPs have perfected in parliament. Teaching them how to code is not a substitute for getting the sort of people who have taught themselves to code into the political system, as it's those sorts of people whose skills and experience is obviously lacking in parliament. Having advisors doesn't seem to work, as they fire the ones who don't give them the advice they want. You can teach engineers social skills if you can persuade them to want them, but I'm not convinced about teaching technical skills to the inept. Mind you, I'm also unsure about what would happen if we did have some competent politicians - I certainly can't tell from history, from which it seems the current lot have been learning the wrong lessons.

  8. ukgnome

    I understand what he's trying to say, but why stick at coding?

    MP's should learn to kill to legislate for soldiers

    MP's should learn to cook to legislate for health

    MP's should take drugs to legislate for erm drugs

    etc

    1. David Pollard

      MPs should take drugs

      If it would help them to appreciate what expert scientists such as Prof. David Nutt and his fellow committee members were saying before they were fired/resigned then I would be all in favour of MPs trying a few recreational drugs.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: MPs should take drugs

        Given some of the crap that comes out of Westminster, I suspect many of them already do.

    2. Vic

      MP's should take drugs to legislate for erm drugs

      Do you believe they don't?

      Vic.

  9. wikkity

    Sorry Tim

    I've pretty much supported every opinion you've had to date, but this is just crazy. Why just coding, why not get them to do electronics. Maybe they should also be taught biology/chemistry for health related bills etc...

    Whatever your opinions on politicians and whichever side of the fence (or just sitting on it) they are on I would rather they concentrated on the job they already have, they usually made a bad job of it as is with the time they put in now. Of course, if some of them actually wanted to I'd support them as long as it did not detract from their job.

    1. JetSetJim

      Re: Sorry Tim

      Well, it might be nice if they had a relevant qualification to do the job - for example insist that the minister in charge of the defence of the realm has served his/her time in the forces, or have the minister for health have some health related qualification of some sorts, etc...

      It might make candidate selection a tad more interesting for constituencies as the party leader would need to ensure that sufficient amounts of qualifications are elected so that they can have a few choices for the ministerial post to cope with the occasional balls-up.. (so yes, this is probably completely unworkable)

      1. John G Imrie

        It might make candidate selection a tad more interesting for constituencies

        Not really,

        You don't have to be an MP or a Lord to be a member of the Cabinet.

        1. JetSetJim

          Re: It might make candidate selection a tad more interesting for constituencies

          Interesting - I didn't know that - although the current set of ministerial posts are occupied entirely by MPs, with only two Privvy Counsellors in the "supporting roles" categories (according to wiki, they're two baronesses so both in the house of lords). Reading a bit of the history, it's not that common for a non-MP to be a cabinet member, too.

    2. DocJames

      Re: Sorry Tim

      Well, I'm going against the tide here. I think MPs should have a basic understanding of programming/coding/whatever you want to call it, much like they have a basic understanding of maths (they still confuse it with arithmetic, but never mind).

      I don't think MPs should have to be able to code much beyond "Hello world!", but even that process will give them so much more understanding than most currently have. It will (hopefully) demystify computers (a bit) and demonstrate that people control what computers do - a surprise to many outwith the IT industry, not intellectually but emotionally. Hell, out of 650 MPs or so, a couple might take it further and gain some depth of understanding.

  10. Measurer
    Joke

    There are analogies which MP's may understand.....

    Event Driven System = Reactive to latest opinion poll

    Encapsulation = 'Do my bidding minion, I don't care how'

    Pre-emptive = Excuses for failure already formulated

    Multitasking = Multiple government departments doing the same job

    Firewall = Who gets into the Westminser 'bubble'

    etc.

  11. batfastad

    Doubt it

    Surely being an MP is classed as "unskilled labour", given that you don't need academic or vocational qualifications, or even to know vaguely what you're talking about as a cabinet minister, in order to apply to be one. That's why the pay is so sh*t. Oh wait...

    1. theblackhand

      Re: Doubt it

      That's a little harsh.

      There are also unskilled conservative, unskilled liberal democrat, unskilled regional loony, unskilled loony, unskilled dope smoking layabout etc

    2. Khaptain Silver badge
      Coat

      Re: Doubt it

      No, that can't be right as the usage of the word "labour" implies that work is actually being done.

  12. Andy The Hat Silver badge

    Re why stick at coding?

    "I understand what he's trying to say, but why stick at 'coding'?"

    Force them to learn some real-life skills rather than being career politicians. At least ten years of real work before standing as a politician might help ... Perhaps being a year of being a 'modern apprentice' (with all it's gory details) in a firework factory should be mandatory? (irony intended!)

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Re why stick at coding?

      But...Cameron spent years with his nose to the grindstone on minimum wage* churning out PR for Channel 4.

      Seriously, if real work experience was a qualification, you'd have John Prescott (merchant marine) facing David Davis(computer science degree, 17 years at Tate and Lyle).

      *That's Old Etonian minimum wage of course.

      1. dogged

        Re: Re why stick at coding?

        Apart from his frankly retarded idea that prohibition is effective, I'd prefer David Davis to Cameron and regardless of opinions, Prescott is always going to be an improvement on Milliband.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Re why stick at coding?

          Well, yes, I was just instancing two politicians, one of whom nearly became party leader, who had actually had real jobs. I am a pinko liberal who regularly gets insulted by Matt Bryant, but I'd vote for Davis if he stood in our constituency.

    2. Glen 1
      Coat

      Re: Re why stick at coding?

      "Perhaps being a year of being a 'modern apprentice' (with all it's gory details) in a firework factory should be mandatory? (irony intended!)"

      But surely working at a firework factory would weed *out* the bright sparks?

      IGMC

  13. Tom 7

    Are MPs smarter than 5-year-olds?

    No. But they can suppress any report suggesting otherwise.

  14. Roger Greenwood

    In days of yore . .

    . . .that's what school was for - to give everyone a grounding in all sorts of subjects. Recently we seem to have focussed more and more on passing very narrow exams at the expense of a breadth of knowledge and experience.

    So I welcome the school initiative, and also sending back to school anyone who "missed a class" which is pretty much everyone over 40.

  15. brain_flakes

    Yet MPs will also still know which side their bread is buttered on

    So MPs will know how to code, what makes anyone think they won't simply continue to do what tech industry lobbyists lobby them to do?

  16. FlatSpot
    Trollface

    MP Coding

    require_once 'little_people.php';

    require_once 'us.php';

    do {

    $tax = $high_tax + $more_tax;

    } while ($little_guy = 'Working');

    if ($election_year = $current_year && $little_guy = 'unemployed') {

    $little_guy = $free_money + $election_sweetner;

    }

    if ($service = 'NHS' || $service = 'PUBLIC' {

    $VOTE_TTIP = 'YES;

    array_push($outsource, $service);

    $likely_position_on_the_board++;

    }

    while ($monthly_expenses < $little_guy_wages) {

    $check_sofa_for_more_receipts++;

    $expenses = $expenses + $check_sofa_for_more_receipts;

    }

    1. This post has been deleted by its author

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: MP Coding

        PHP coders...don't you love them?

    2. Gannon (J.) Dick

      Re: MP Coding

      if (Parliament(insession)=true()) {sleep($little_guy)=!(well);}

    3. Vic

      Re: MP Coding

      while ($monthly_expenses < $little_guy_wages) {

      I think your while clause terminates too early...

      Vic.

  17. stu 4

    Coding

    I wonder when the last time TBL coded was....has he still got is NeXT cube ?

    Still, it's a decent sentiment.

    was watching the early 1990s steve jobs interview in full on netflix last week, and he made the same comment - everyone should be taught how to code - because it teaches you how to think.

    Which last time I tried to post similar sentiments got me downvoted to hell... but hey ho.

    For what it's worth - I agree with both of em - but since when has an MP had to know anything about the thing they are talking about ? Even when they end up being a minister of a department, there's no connection at all between their background and the department (unlike certain other european countries for example)

    1. 's water music

      Re: Coding

      everyone should be taught how to code - because it teaches you how to think.

      Perhaps everyone should be taught how to think then. As a side benefit it would offer relatively easy conversion into coding skills.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Coding

        Treating this post as serious, how do you teach children to think?

        For much of British history this was done by teaching them Latin. Memorising the pointless inflections of a dead language and being able to put together a grammatical sentence by following a set of rules had the bonus that you could read the naughty bits of Catullus [* vide infra] and recognise your fellows even in the wilds of India or Africa by their ability to continue your little tags.

        Programming done properly is like Latin with positive feedback. You memorise the grammar of an arcane language, and if you construct a working sentence a box appears on a screen and something happens. This is better than the purely negative reinforcement involved in learning Latin, i.e. get it wrong and you got caned by a sadistic paedophile.

        It is possible to teach logic, it is possible to teach critical thinking, but they are even more abstract than Latin. *At least with Latin you can read what Catullus thought his girlfriend was getting up to while he was away on business.

        My view for what little it is worth is that programming is a good way of giving children the initial tools of thinking - understanding that some thoughts can be reduced to a system and then used to do something. Once they've learned such things as that there are two types of OR they can then start applying this to the real world. Of course, a firm grasp on reality, the ability to analyse and weigh data, and the ability to see through bullshit may either unfit or deter someone from a career in politics.

      2. Monkeyman
        Angel

        Re: Coding

        PPE seems to be the standard route to being an MP these days. You really should be able to think (and more importantly think critically) to complete a PPE degree... the trouble is that knowing how to perform any technical or intellectual skill doesn't actually make you more compassionate, empathetic or humane.

        A big splodge of humility would probably be the best lesson we could give MPs rather than teaching them a bit about computers and stuff.

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Coding - why???

    This smacks of typical technical myopia. "For industry X, Y is essential. Therefore, all people should be taught Y".

    For many jobs in IT itself, one does not need to know how to code, only developers really need to know how to code. This is like demanding that all engineers gain a trade qualification first: since civil engineering is very important to society perhaps they should ensure that all MPs can lay bricks and plumb a house also.

    If one is serious, writing code should be treated as a trade in the same way that welding, plumbing, fitting &c are treated. Coders are essential, but they are hardly the entire story.

  19. Gannon (J.) Dick

    Just so I have this right ...

    Coding teaches you to think so in teaching you to talk your parents were teaching you to be slave labor to politicians who know to code ? I imagine that is the way they see it anyway.

  20. N2

    Sorry Tim

    MPs need to learn how to serve the electorate & run the country as opposed to lining their own pockets at every opportunity.

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    MPs actually do a real job? not much chance of that.

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