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Skinners’ Academy in Woodberry Grove, London, has been testing its students with the government-backed Cyber Discovery initiative to find any with a particular aptitude for cyber security.
The scheme uses several game-like stages to assess whether students aged between 14 and 18 might have the talent to become cyber security professionals.
Alex Holmes, deputy director of cyber security at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, said that to ensure the UK becomes the “world’s leading digital economy”, it also must be secure.
Holmes said cyber attackers can try to cause harm to the UK as a whole using various methods, such as attempting to sabotage the nation’s energy supply or transport infrastructure, and that the best way to prevent such attacks is to have the appropriate protection in place.
But the UK needs more young people to take an interest in cyber security as a career and “help to defend the country”, he said.
“We don’t have enough skilled professionals in the UK to protect the country right now,” said Holmes. “The game you’re playing [Cyber Discovery] is to help you understand and potentially help you become the cyber security experts of tomorrow.”
Cyber Discovery is part of the government’s Cyber Schools Programme, which was launched in early 2017 with the aim of reaching at least 5,700 highly skilled teenagers by 2021, teaching them a cyber security curriculum through a mixture of online and offline teaching.
The £20m funding available for the programme will go towards extra-curricular clubs and activities, as well as the Cyber Discover online game.
The game has four stages: cyberstart assess, cyberstart game, cyberstart essentials and cyberstart elite, each of which involves puzzles and challenges that will improve students’ cyber security knowledge and pick out those who might make good cyber security specialists in the future.
James Lyne, head of research and development at SANS Institute, said 23,000 people across the UK took part in the first stage, cyberstart assess, and 12,000 of those showed the talent to progress to the next stage, cyberstart game.
“Everything you’ll do here today will help secure the technology that will become important in the future.” he told Skinners’ Academy students.
The game gives students access to both knowledge and tools similar to those used in the industry, and students face problems based on real-world examples, such court cases, software flaws or activity by criminal gangs.
Since more headline stories about cyber attacks and cyber crime have hit the media in recent years, there is now more awareness of cyber security among the general public, said Lyne, but this can have both a positive and negative impact.
In some cases, people feel disengaged because they think there is nothing they can do to prevent attacks, but others have become more aware of potential cyber careers, he said.
“I have had more conversations with kids recently where they have context of why cyber is important,”said Lyne.
Many young people, especially girls, make decisions about whether or not to study science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects at a very early age, which means that if they are not introduced to these concepts early on, they are less likely to pursue them in the future.
Although new security problems arise every day, Lyne said that if people are introduced to the basic concepts of cyber security from an early age, it will be easier to encourage them into careers in cyber and get them up to speed later.
But some teachers say they don’t have the skills to teach Stem subjects, and those who do cannot have the breadth of knowledge about Stem careers that those in industry have.
Nazleen Rao, head of the IT department at Skinners’ Academy, said the Cyber Discovery initiative helped to give depth to material on cyber security as part of the curriculum.
“I couldn’t teach the students what they’ve been learning during this programme – this just makes what I’ve been teaching that much more exciting for them,” she said.
“When I have been teaching cyber security to our students, it’s usually one part of the course you teach and it can seem like a small part.”
Skills in demand
Demand is increasing for professionals with cyber security skills, but there are too few workers in the UK with the skills needed to fill current roles.
Rao said cyber security can be “very challenging” to teach, but it is important not just to fill the cyber skills gap, but also to ensure young people who will grow up to be technology users are aware of the risks.
“Some of the students actually said they didn’t realise there was a need for cyber experts out there,” she said.“Even if they’re not interested in being cyber professionals, it’s just raising awareness among them.”
Like many male-dominated sectors, there is a lack of women in the cyber security space, and it has been suggested that recruiting more women into the sector could be the key to closing the skills gap.
But Rao said very few girls choose to take computer science, and getting them interested in such subjects is a “constant struggle”.
“They have got so much to give and they have so many amazing ideas,” she added.
The girls who did choose to take part in both computer science as part of their year nine GCSE options and in the Cyber Discovery challenge were “nervous” at first, said Rao, but having a female teacher helps to build their confidence.
She also said that for those who did not want to study computer science, Skinners’ Academy also offers digital media and creative iMedia as subjects, which are slightly less technology-focused.
“If they don’t want to go into the computer science field, they can go into creative iMedia, which allows them to be more free with their creative skills,” said Rao.
As automation begins to make some jobs redundant, creative skills in the technology industry have been emphasised as a future necessity. .......................................... .....................................................................................