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Taking cybersecurity to the classroom: Training Britain’s future cyber-defenders

by AprilSix Proof

Author: Paul Noonan, Account Executive

The implications of recent developments are clear; without urgent action the nationwide cybersecurity skills shortfall could leave a gaping hole in our national defences. A recent National Audit Office highlighted the extent of the problem across the entire talent pipeline, estimating that it could take 20 years to close the UK skills gap. With far too few school-leavers even applying for IT or cybersecurity courses, it is clear that the problem goes back to the very earliest years of our education.

This week I saw a glimpse of how we might start to change this.

At a gleaming new school in Lewisham, pioneering the use of digital skills to give pupils a competitive edge in the jobs market, an ambitious new initiative was launched with a lesson the pupils will never forget.

The Cyber Security Challenge, a series of national cyber-competitions and resources backed by the Government and a slew of big-name employers from the National Crime Agency to BT, was set to launch a pioneering Schools Pack bringing cybersecurity to school classrooms across Britain.

The ambition is to put teachers at the forefront of the battle to find the next generation of cyber-defences and guarantee our critical infrastructure against future threats.

At 12pm, a class of excited 15-year-olds, a Sky TV crew and a cluster of inquisitive reporters clutching notepads watched spellbound as a giant screen displayed live images of what looked like an intercontinental war, with mushroom clouds blooming, missiles flying and scrolling messages underneath explaining who was under attack each moment.

The images may have been a child-friendly simulation, but they were drawn from a live feed by a security company charting real hack attacks across the globe, giving the children present a startling glimpse into the new frontier of Britain’s national defences. A leading cybercrime expert then explained to his audience why this threat is also an extraordinary opportunity.

He showed the enthralled students a video giving an exclusive glimpse into the future of the industry and the lucrative career opportunities for budding cyber-sleuths; Over the next half an hour, the children were given a crash-course in the shadowy world of cybercrime, sparking animated discussions on everything from Stuxnet to the “dark web” and the children are already proposing solutions to the world’s greatest cyber threats. It was a glimpse into the untapped enthusiasm for this subject among children and how schools can make STEM glamorous.

Last year, the Cyber Security Challenge engaged children with national code-breaking contests to find the next teenage Neo through Cluedo-style cyber murder-quests and Bletchley Park lessons in the history of military code-breaking, mingling mathematics and intrigue.

This year, they plan to engage 11-16-year-olds with a ground-breaking Lesson Plan designed by the industry’s leading employers from BT to Raytheon and the National Cyber-crime Unit. The aim is to supplement the National Curriculum with the world’s most in-demand skills and make the most tech-savvy generation in history aware of the array of exciting career paths opening up before them.

This is also a STEM class with a moral purpose; its aim is not only to find our future online defenders but to simultaneously prevent gifted young techies drifting into illicit activities, by highlighting the opportunities to turn their cyber talents to good use. To a child, the virtual world can seem like a vast unsupervised global playground devoid of any rules or adult authority and the Cyber Security Challenge Schools Programme is vital in the effort to teach children the real-world consequences of their cyber-world actions.

The stakes are high; cybercrime is leeching 10s of billions of pounds a year from the UK economy, and the threat from rival states grows greater every day. This may be the one Lesson Plan of 2014 with a chance to change Britain’s fortunes for generations to come.

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