Lockdown sees increase in girls applying for GCHQ cyber courses

During the pandemic, GCHQ has had an increase in the number of young people, particularly girls, taking part in its summer cyber security courses.

The CyberFirst programme, run by GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), saw a 60% increase in the number of girls who applied for the summer cyber courses compared with last year.

Participants took part online as opposed to in-person this year, and the number of young people wanting to take part rose year on year (YoY), with a 31% increase in applications from boys and a 60% increase in applications from girls.

Chris Ensor, NCSC deputy director for cyber growth, said: “I’m delighted to see that more young people are exploring the exciting world of cyber security, and it’s especially encouraging to see such a level of interest from girls. 

“Our online courses have provided new opportunities for teenagers of all backgrounds, and we are committed to making cyber security more accessible for all.

“Ensuring a diverse talent pipeline is vital in keeping the UK the safest place to live and work online, and CyberFirst plays a key role in developing the next generation of cyber experts.”

Although diversity is improving in the UK’s cyber security sector, more work needs to be done, and research by the NCSC earlier this year suggested inclusion is an area that could still do with some work.

The number of girls applying for the course this year rose to 1,492 from 930 in 2019, and applications from boys rose to 2,398 this year from 1,824 last year.

More than 1,700 young people took part in the courses this year after 680 extra places were added when it was decided the courses could run remotely.

The CyberFirst courses, which are aimed at increasing the diversity of the future cyber talent pool, teach topics such as digital forensics, ethical hacking, cryptography and digital problem solving, with different levels aimed at different age groups for those between 14 and 17 years old.

There are a number of programmes offered by CyberFirst, including CyberFirst bursaries and apprenticeship schemes which help students financially start their cyber careers, and the CyberFirst Girls competition which encourages young women to take on codebreaking challenges.

There is also Empower Digital Cyber Week where students can watch sessions from people in the industry, and online cyber skills platform Cyber Discovery.

As well as a diversity gap in the UK’s cyber sector, there is also cyber security skills gap, with many cyber security professionals not having the skills firms currently expect.  

The coronavirus pandemic has led to an increased need for people with cyber security skills as home working shines a light on holes in firms’ strategies at the same time as an increase in hacking methods such as phishing attacks.

Prisha Sood, a 15-year-old girl who took part in one of this year’s CyberFirst summer courses, is considering a career in cyber security.

She said of the CyberFirst course she took part in: “We learned about things like threats to networks, there was some computer science-based work, and then we had the virtual labs to test our skills, which was quite fun.”

Hannah Graham also took part in a CyberFirst course this summer, and said the course helped prepare her for a possible future in a cyber career.

The NCSC was launched in 2016, partly to help grow the UK’s cyber talent pool, and has since run several events, campaigns and initiatives aimed at increasing cyber skills across the UK.

The government has been working in recent years to bridge the UK’s cyber skills gap, launching a Cyber Security Skills Strategy in 2018 to learn more about the challenges the UK is facing, and the skills the UK needs to address them.

More CyberFirst courses will be available for young people in the autumn of 2020.

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