Cyber Security Experts of the Future: The Role of Early Education on Cyber Security Awareness in the UK

Written by Professor Hamid Jahankhani 

The 2017 Children’s Commissioner report ‘Growing up Digital’, highlights the fact that children are increasingly being exposed to more technology than ever before and at a younger age. Currently one third of internet users are under the age of 18. The report explains that although both Government and the UK Council for Child Internet Safety have progressed in parental controls and age verifications, children are still not equipped with necessary soft skills for future internet safety.

There are number of studies being conducted to investigate the effects of technology exposure from an early age. One of such studies is the 2015 European Commission Joint Research Centre report, which has emphasised that today’s children, by the time they leave education, will have used more technology and of a far greater variety than any within the current generations of working adults.

The skills gap

Furthermore, a 2016-17 House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report indicates a digital skills crisis with the UK needing 745,000 additional workers to meet rising demand from employers. This skills gap of what is required within businesses and the graduates entering the workplace are increasing year on year.

Therefore, in order to meet the demands for cyber security experts in the future, a coordinated approach is required to provide cyber security awareness and general cyber skills as they are becoming a necessity to being able to obtain a career in almost every industry within the UK.

The awareness initiatives are even more pressing for female computer scientists as they are largely underrepresented in the field. As it stands studies highlight that only 11% of the worldwide cyber security labour force are female, dropping to as low as 7% in Europe. This therefore indicates a big challenge for the cyber security industry as, in all its appearances, is a predominantly male profession.

It is highly important that the scale of the challenges that face the United Kingdom in acquiring the cyber security expertise is realised in order to meet the expanding demand. The causes of gender inequality in cybersecurity are multi-layered. The roots of gender disparity are found within the education system, families, societal structures and industries.

Government response

The Government has responded by laying out a very well designed programme of education, through all the key stages. This was created with advice from industry experts across education and technology as well as what the current business requirements are as far as skilled workers. This programme encompasses all age groups and goes into great detail over the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) and also at Advanced level (A-Level) in a number of subjects.

With the new era of Internet of Things (IoT), which is essentially “…an ecosystem of discrete computing devices with sensors connected through the infrastructure of the internet”. So, with everything being interconnected, there is now a necessity to move ICT education into a more professional approach by making it one of the core subjects that should be taught to all students by specialists in the field at a much younger age, so that talents can be identified and nurtured before they select their GCSE.

The U.K. Government have published guides and publications as well as research in order to formulate and produce the new Pre-GCSE, GCSE & A-Level Computer Science curriculums. These were created after taking advice from numerous educators and business leaders, for their requirements and from across the country. The Computer Science GCSE subject content lays out the aims and learning outcomes, however, the objectives provided by the Government is sparse.

Although it has been formed into curriculums by the various UK examination boards, their curriculums are all based on the following modules: System Architecture; Memory; Storage; Wired & Wireless Networks; Topologies, Protocols & Layers; System Security System Software; Ethical, Legal, Cultural & Environmental Concerns; Algorithms; Programming Techniques; Robust Programming; Computational Logic; Translators and Facilities of Language; Data Representation.

In order to deliver the curriculum, the UK examination board and other agencies, including private training organisations, have been providing materials for teachers and trainers to deliver the required objectives. These materials are delivered through online and offline resources, under licence to act as a resource pool for teachers in all matters related either to computer science.

What about the teachers themselves?

It is important to highlight that someone who happened to have a vague interest with IT has commonly taught ICT in schools, or was a maths or physics teacher who was thought of as the best person available to teach the subject. Current statistics by the Department for Education’s School workforce in England, backs this up by showing that only 30% of ICT teachers hold a relevant ICT degree or higher, and almost half (49.6%) hold no relevant post A level qualification.

There has recently been a follow-up study by the Royal Society, ‘After the Reboot: Computing Education in UK Schools, which is a report into the implementation of the new computing curriculum. This is an exceptionally detailed report on how well we believe the new curriculum is performing.

The report includes several recommendations to ensure it will be a success, such as – “Ofqual and the Government should work urgently with the learned societies in computing, awarding bodies, and other stakeholder groups, to ensure that the range of qualifications includes pathways suitable for all pupils, with an immediate focus on information technology qualifications at Key Stage 4.”

A cyber security need for all ages and across the whole school

Generally, it appears to be a high regard for the importance of cyber security awareness, not only within GCSE Computer Science, but as part of the whole pre-GCSE and GCSE curriculum. This means the overall primary and secondary education in the UK needs to be re visited to bring it in line with the millennial way of life and skill requirements.

The teachers are aware of the importance of the subject within the modern world and want to invest more time into it, but feel there is a lack of emphasis as directed by the current curriculum. There is also a sense that cyber security is a topic that needs more prominence throughout the school, not only for the children, but all teachers to create a culture of being cyber secure as methods to make a genuine awareness scheme work.

Overall, there does appear to be numerous companies, agencies and Governmental guidelines into the training of children in cyber awareness. However, research has found there to be a very limited number of studies into cyber awareness in primary and secondary education and almost none into cyber awareness within the U.K.

There is a clear need for further study within Information technology education as a whole, however there is a lot more work required within security studies alone before we reach the Government’s goal of closing the digital skills gap.

To view the range of computing programmes available at Northumbria University London Campus, please visit the computing page.

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