Chris Ward's ramblings...
ICT in Year 7? Teach them C.

I’m personally very lucky that we are severely behind in this country when it comes to spitting out Computing graduates. Software developers are in demand and, with an increasing digital presence in every part of our lives, that demand will only grow. It’s a very secure industry.

As somebody who takes quite an interest in education, however, the level at which we teach Computing in this country is abysmal. Note that I say Computing - not ICT. Although this has been (quite rightly) jumped on by Michael Gove lately, it speaks volumes that the so-called specialist IT qualifications taught at schools tend to cover software packages such as Excel, Access, Powerpoint and Word. These are largely ubiquitous and, nowadays anyway, are expected basic skills rather than something that puts you a cut above the rest. ICT rightly deserves its reputation as a wishy-washy subject area that has lacked focus for a long time.

So now that we and, it seems the government, have accepted that we must stop teaching kids how to use spreadsheets and instead start teaching them how to write spreadsheet software, the debate seems to have stalled. Namely on what we teach them and when we do it. Developers get incredibly precious about architectures and the jury is out on what is most appropriate to place in front of a student to set them on the path of learning programming. I learnt by teaching myself Visual Basic, then C, then Java, then .NET, and so on. There is an argument to say that Visual Basic “eases” them into programming through an interface that allows them to visualise objects, their interactions, their variables, methods and events. But as with any visual language, particularly .NET, too much is done for you. Appreciation of computational effort is ignored and, whilst Visual Basic (or .NET) will undoubtedly allow programmers to learn whilst being creative, the fundamentals will be missing. There’s a very good reason they recommend against learning to drive in an automatic.

I haven’t coded in C for at least six years. I have no need or use for it in my current job, nor do I expect I ever will. Almost everything, however, has its foundations written in it. It doesn’t do everything for you; unless you find libraries online you will have to understand and appreciate things like string handling, memory allocation (and of course deallocation), reference vs value, etc. It is a fantastic language to learn programming with because you have to start from scratch - you’re not overwhelmed by toolboxes, libraries, visual IDEs that complete your code for you.

The next question is, when do we teach it? Well, let’s not be frightened of making children get their hands dirty, let’s not allow the current drought of code in schools to define where we go with this. The moment they start tackling algebra in maths is the moment they should start understanding variables and assignments in programming. We should start teaching kids C in Year 7.

There’s a fairly prominent saying that if you understand a problem and how to solve it, you should be able to code a program that solves that problem for you. Imagine the possibilities of intertwining Computing with Maths - when they tackle coursework on Pascale’s Triangle in Year 8, they could write a simple console application that takes in small user variables, calls a function that performs the algorithms they currently follow on paper and spits out an answer. When they start tackling the meatier maths stuff at GCSE, they’ll be in an excellent position to learn the intricacies of pointers and addressing in C. By the time they finally open an IDE, C will have given them the appreciation of the very foundations of programming.

I expect to find opposition to this - some will say it’s too radical, others will have the quite legitimate concern that the biggest roadblock is not the idea, it’s having sufficiently trained teachers to do it. I disagree. I’ve heard so many anecdotes of teachers showing ICT teachers how to do something in the classroom - with well-defined lesson plan guidelines (perhaps even produced by the IEE or the British Computing Society), any teacher should be able to learn and understand the basic elements of C.

So here’s my vision. To have 11 year olds across the country printf-ing “Hello world!” on their first day at secondary school. If we can do that, we’ll revolutionise the future of technology in our country.

Snoopers Charter - the devil in the details

When I was a councillor, press coverage started to emerge of flagrant abuses (although not illegal ones) of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. This Act was penned initially for the secret services in the pursuance of anti-terrorism, but for some very odd reason, the powers within it - especially Part III which allows for telecommunications interception - were later extended to local councils by the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett.

Essentially this meant that:

  • Councils had the power to instruct ISPs (it would be illegal for them to refuse) to bug the user’s Internet use. Although the only information received by the council would be the package data and the domain name. E.g. if you went to the only bit the council would see is The content of the page visited would not be available.
  • Councils could instruct your telecomms companies to provide essentially what is an itemised phone bill of your call usage. They would not be able to intercept the content of the call, but they would know who you called and when.
  • Telecommunications data isn’t just web browsing. It’s any digital data sent via an ISP (e.g. O2 is an ISP if you’re using mobile internet). As most smartphones these days send package data that contains the coordinates of the request’s originator (i.e. exactly where in the world you were when you made that request), I *still* don’t have an answer from my former council or from others that legally, as said coordinates can form part of the data package header and does not necessarily legally form part of the content, would councils be able to access geo-data from mobile phones and effectively track where a person was at the time of any data request sent by their phones? When I did ask it, the answer certainly wasn’t a no. I’m a suspicious chap when it comes to civil liberties (as we should all be), so any other answer other than “no” wasn’t good enough.
  • Most viciously, the above was subject to scrutiny only of the authority in question’s nominated Information Officer. So basically, an internal figure within the council would approve or reject RIPA requests. A crime did not need to have been committed or suspected of for these requests to be signed off.
  • The data collected on individuals, whether they are guilty or not, is typically retained for six years.

We didn’t need these powers. So myself and then Tory Councillor Sheridan Westlake moved a motion to council to surrender them. In addition, we demanded that surveillance in any guise should only ever be used to pursue crimes the council investigates that attract a custodial sentence (i.e. fly-tipping and benefit fraud). RIPA requests should not be signed off to see if families are putting bins out on the right day. The latter was agreed by the Tory administration, the former (surrendering our powers under Part III of the act - the power to intercept telecommunications) was not. Oddly, despite spending the entire council meeting arguing that they would never use said powers, they seemed rather keen to keep them. Just in case of course.

So when the coalition tried to soothe our fears by suggesting that the new laws wouldn’t make a difference to current legislation, but would bring things into line with it instead, that was nowhere near good enough. The Tories and Lib Dems both promised to scale back the surveillance state. They have done so with ID cards - well done there. They’ve effectively rebranded control orders (although they certainly aren’t as bad as they used to be). We do not need another snoopers’ charter to intrude further into the private lives of law-abiding individuals.

Julian Huppert has come up with the barebones of a petition demanding caveats in any draft legislation to be produced by the government. Although I support these as a starting point, I’d like to suggest the following changes/additions:

1. Any investigation on an individual must be commissioned, approved and signed by the Home Secretary. This is before any ISP or provider is instructed to track the activity of an individual; not simply once the data has been collected.

2. These requests must only be commissioned for the most serious of crimes. E.g. terrorism, sex offences, homicide, etc.

3. The data collected on individuals whereby the investigation concludes they are innocent of the crime they were initially suspected of must be destroyed and not retained in any form immediately, pending any appeals process.

In the meantime, please sign Julian’s petition. The devil will be in the details of this snoopers’ charter. Always worry and suspect when the Home Secretary needs to use terrorism as their excuse for everything.

If anybody ever asks “if you’ve done nothing wrong, what do you have to hide”, make sure you let them know the answer: “everything”.

Ridding the world of Internet Explorer, one user at a time…

Everybody, I’d like you to meet Alfie Simmons. He is my housemate, and an awesome one at that. Today he gave me a fantabulous idea. Ever spent copious amounts of time after finishing your website website/application and then thought… “y’know, what I’d really love to do is piss about for weeks on end getting it to work in the gazillion versions of IE that people all seem to still have”. Nope? Well, we have the answer.

Today I spent 45 painstaking MINUTES coming up with a crude Wordpress plugin. It allows you, the webmaster, to specify messages of abuse to users…. but only those using Internet Explorer!

Most importantly, it does this with JavaScript alerts. Don’t you hate JavaScript alerts? I know I do!

Full of win? I think so.

As I can’t be bothered spending much time on this and/or optimising it, I will warn you that it doesn’t use jQuery, F5 may cause a few script reload problems and it is literally very very very quick. If anybody wants to modify, be my guest!

So, here’s the low down…

1. Place this PHP file in your wp-content/plugins/ directory of your Wordpress install.

2. Go to Plugins on your Wordpress dashboard. Find the Abuse IE Users plugin and click Activate.

3. On the Settings menu, you’ll find “Abuse IE Users” as an option. Here you can add/delete statements of abuse.

4. Once you have added at least one. Every time a page loads for IE users, they’ll see randomly one of those messages!

5. Please PLEASE PLEASE remember to keep your abuse constructive. Nasty viciousness is not what we designed this for. We want the whole world to unite and use Chrome or something. “I hate you and you’re going to die” is not constructive. “I only date Chrome users” is. :)

My resignation from the Liberal Democrats

Today I did something I never thought I’d have to do. I contacted Membership Services at Liberal Democrat HQ to resign my membership, after 8 (mostly happy) years in the party. I leave behind many fantastic colleagues who I hope will be able to pick up the pieces once the dust has settled after the inevitable; and I want to stress from the outset that I bear them no malice and that I will miss the many good times I’ve had campaigning, debating and of course drinking with them!

This is something I’ve wrestled with and reflected on over the past two years. In particular, over the past week I was reminded of the way we used to laugh at Labour, the way we used to throw vitriol at them for being too “cowardly” to do the right thing and get rid of Blair/Brown. The scorn we poured on them and how unprincipled we told them they were for supporting policies that they would never in a million years back in opposition. Iraq. 42 Days detention. ID Cards. Of course, some will argue that I yearn for the comfort zone of opposition - well actually I don’t. I’m not one of the “usual suspects” - I voted for the formation of the coalition.

I have used many reasons to excuse the unpopular things we did in government. I have not been uncompromising and I have supported many of the things the coalition has done. I’ve often stuck up for MPs by reminding people that unlike in a majority government, we have 300 Tories in the way. To this day, I maintain that a coalition with the Tories was the only option. A minority Tory government would not have got its budget through (or maybe even the Queen’s speech) and a subsequent general election would have elected a majority Tory government. The numbers weren’t there for a Lib-Lab coalition and Labour simply weren’t willing to negotiate either. My issue remains with the policies that were negotiated and the policies that weren’t.

For those of us who have had a glimpse into the workings of the party, it is perhaps the worst kept secret that Clegg and Cable wanted to get rid of our tuition fees policy a long time ago and indeed attempted to do so before the idea was killed off at Federal Policy Committee about a year before the general election. I assumed that once it was in the manifesto, at the very least we would ensure fees did not rise, in accordance with the piety with which we attacked the others for introducing or supporting tuition/top up fees. Even if you think the new system is fairer, it still neglects the fact that if your unique selling point as a party is based around the brand of “trust”, “a new politics” and “an end to broken promises” ( - Nick Clegg, May 2010), you do not take a policy that has defined your party, with which you have been so pious about as to proudly stand with eager enthusiastic students and hold up an obnoxiously-sized signed pledge to maintain that policy, before then only months after the election doing the polar opposite and attempting to rebrand that treachery as a virtue by calling it a “difficult decision”.

After the response to the Browne Review, somebody who helped us campaign in 2010 but was too young to vote said to me, “I’ll probably never vote”. Clegg single-handedly inspired the hopes before then disengaging an entire generation from democracy and, for that, I’m not sure I can ever forgive him. This didn’t, as many people are aware, stop me from remaining a member of the party. I made it quite clear to those who didn’t understand why I retained my loyalty to the Lib Dems that, as an opposition party member, I had spent my entire time in politics attacking and asking questions and that it was a good and healthy thing for anyone in politics to at least spend a bit of time being unpopular. I did so by restanding for my seat as a Liberal Democrat, which of course I lost. I went down with my ship and still have no regrets for doing so.

Over the past few days I’ve seen some horrible nasty things thrown about between grassroots activists from both sides of the NHS Bill argument who normally work alongside each other and support each other. This isn’t a simple disagreement, these are vicious comments reminiscent of Labour under the dying days of Blair. Such internal quarrels I do not have the heart, the motivation, nor the inclination to engage in or even simply observe. The tone at Conference has now changed - many colleagues who previously stood for the things I stood for have left and I have increasingly felt more and more an isolated minority.

One other niggling point was made by one of our former candidates when he left politics a while ago. Two of his reasons for doing so really stuck with me. The first is that politics is all about getting one over your opposition, scoring points and working out the next line with which to dig at your opponents. Although I’ve engaged with that in the past, I’ve found that the more ugly side of party politics is issues that really matter often get forgotten amongst the animosity of partisan tribalism. The second point that really struck with me was his assertion that throughout his time in politics, he’s never met somebody who could actually say they were truly happy. The thrill of fixing something for someone, something I did routinely as a councillor, is often laced with the anger, distrust, resentment and frustration of the cut-throat nature of politics. In many ways it’s like a drug - it brings you both euphoria and destruction. It’s something I’m not sure I have the desire to endure anymore.

I genuinely wish the best of luck to the Liberal Democrats. As a party it needs to remind itself that being radical need not mean being unrealistic. Although I cannot and will not support the leadership, I wish my colleagues and friends the very best.



[GAY MARRIAGE? *assortment of flags* Oh, we just call it ‘marriage’]


[GAY MARRIAGE? *assortment of flags* Oh, we just call it ‘marriage’]


On days when you’re down and wonder whether the fight for equal marriage will be worth it in the end, just have a look at this picture. :)


On days when you’re down and wonder whether the fight for equal marriage will be worth it in the end, just have a look at this picture. :)

Emergency Motion to Lib Dem Conference: Protecting LGBT+ students at school

As a school governor and a gay man, I was shocked to see Gove’s comments today insisting that the curriculum is not subject to the restrictions of the Equality Act. So, I’ve drafted an emergency motion for our Spring Conference in Newcastle. Comments are welcome:

Protecting LGBT+ students at school

Conference notes:

1. A pamphlet distributed to school children at Roman Catholic Schools in Lancashire in 2010 entitled “Pure Manhood: How to become the man God wants you to be” describing the act of homosexuality as “disordered” and “against God’s natural purpose for sex”.

2. Michael Gove’s recent assertion in response to complaints about the above pamphlet that “The education provisions of the Equality Act 2010 which prohibit discrimination against individuals based on their protected characteristics (including their sexual orientation) do not extend to the content of the curriculum. Any materials used in sex and relationship education lessons, therefore, will not be subject to the discrimination provisions of the act.”

3. The repeal in June 2000 of Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which stated that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.

4. LGBT+ children are up to six-times more likely to commit suicide than straight children.

Conference believes:

1. Section 28 was a vastly damaging, counterproductive, vile homophobic piece of legislation that prohibited teachers and local authorities from giving LGBT+ people the vital support they required.

2. Homophobia has no place in our schools and local authorities should, in every single respect, pursue the goals and spirit of the Equality Act 2010.

3. Michael Gove’s comments and assertions were not just misguided, but conflict entirely with the welfare and well-being of LGBT+ students and the values of tolerance and respect that we expect children to be taught at school.

Conference resolves:

1. To condemn Michael Gove’s comments and to reassert that all aspects of education should be subject to the restraints of the Equality Act 2010.

2. That all schools, including the new Academies, should be required to demonstrate their commitment to LGBT+ equality in the Single Equality Scheme with regards to their chosen curriculum.

3. To mandate Liberal Democrat Ministers to ensure that there are no legal exemptions to following the requirements to the Equality Act 2010.

Today it’s officially been 3 stone (42lbs) since 10th October. :)
Two weeks ago I managed to fit into size 32 slim-fit jeans and size S tops for the first time in eight years.
I’m rather pleased with myself right now. :)

Today it’s officially been 3 stone (42lbs) since 10th October. :)

Two weeks ago I managed to fit into size 32 slim-fit jeans and size S tops for the first time in eight years.

I’m rather pleased with myself right now. :)

It doesn’t just get better, it gets great. :)

It’s immensely distressing to hear of another person ending their life as a result of homophobic bullying in the last few weeks. Just over a year ago, whilst still an elected representative, I held an event in Guildford’s council chamber where I suggested that everybody adds their voice to the It Gets Better campaign - I’m aware that I haven’t done so yet and that really is my bad. I’ll get to it asap, but for the meantime, I’ve managed to dig up my speech for that evening. If you’re going through a rough time at the moment, I hope it provides at least some comfort.

"I’ve avoided talking about myself personally in the past when discussing LGBT issues. Not out of shame, but out of my belief that my sexuality isn’t relevant to the work I do. I even had one person confront me to ask me why I don’t make more of the gay thing publicly. I also find it difficult to talk about, particularly when it comes to my childhood and my schooling.

But there comes a point where, if you feel that what you can say can help people, even if it’s only a verbal nudge to make them feel that little bit better about themselves, then when it comes to LGBT issues and the very sad recent highly-publicised suicides, where a flurry of teenagers in the US resorted to ending their lives to get away from the tortuous endurance of homophobic bullying and violence, that as an elected gay man, I not only ought to give those words of comfort publicly. I have an obligation to, no matter how painful it might be.

It’s not easy growing up gay. I had a strict Catholic education and I grew up on a council estate in a working class Midlands town. It is one thing dealing with jibes, with violence, and with viewing every day of your schooling as a living hell. But to have, in addition to that, a society and set of adults within the community who, through their words and actions express that they are in broad agreement with the yobs that made my life a misery, I find it both unbearable and impossible to explain how it feels to be a young boy and feel that you are entirely alone and rejected for what you are.  It is something that many people here today will have experienced, and it’s something that still goes on.

I applaud the It Gets Better campaign.  For those who feel they are alone, that they have nobody else with which to share their pain, and who believe themselves to be wrong and sick; to see politicians, celebrities, ordinary citizens, putting themselves on Youtube to remind these kids that they are not alone and that they are not sick and that they are not wrong.  I urge everybody here who has the courage to do so to put their experiences into a Youtube video - the more presence there is out there, the better we are dealing with the problem.  For what it’s worth, here’s what I have to say to those people who today feel the taunts, the bullying and the nastiness is getting too much.

If you look at the timeline of my life.  You will see many things familiar to your own.  You’ll see the relentless bullying at school, where the teachers couldn’t give a damn and where they could, the ghastly shroud of the Section 28 legislation stopped them from doing so at risk of losing their jobs.  You’ll see the times I skipped school so I could keep away from them.  You’ll see the times I cried myself to sleep every other night because the pain of believing I didn’t belong in this world was too great.

But I want to stress that there are many things in the timeline of my life that you won’t find familiar.  Like when I left that town, went to university here, and the bullying and the nastiness went away.  Or the first time I went to the pub with my mates after telling them I was gay, and despite the fear I had of losing them, the way they said “they couldn’t care less which way I swung”.  Or the time I was stood round a table in the Spectrum Leisure Centre, watching votes being counted, and the moment I realised that at the relatively young age of 23, I had been elected to serve and represent the very part of Guildford in which I went to university.  More personally, when I told my Dad, he didn’t reject me as I had feared. He too told me that who I was attracted to didn’t matter, it didn’t change anything.  Those things aren’t familiar to you because they have not happened yet.

So to all those who are thinking it’s all getting a bit much, hang in there through the bad times so you can get to the good times.  Don’t entertain the self-corroding paranoia that the world will reject you, because I know I felt that way not so long ago, and I know now that it’s not true.  If there’s one good thing that the Catholic education left me with, it’s that every life is precious.  Make sure you make the most of yours, regardless of who or what you are.  Make sure that the next time it all gets too much, that you keep fighting.  Because trust me, it’s worth fighting for.”


[tastefullyoffensive / via]