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13 December 2021

Using competitions to recruit students into cybersecurity

Pete Dring profile image
Written by

Pete Dring | Secondary School Teacher (11-18)

A recent (2021) survey by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport showed that four in ten businesses and a quarter of charities reported cyber security breaches or attacks in the last year.

The cyber security skills shortage seems to be getting even more severe due to Brexit, COVID and other factors so I suspect that the actual proportion of businesses which fell victim to a cyber security breach or attack last year was significantly higher than 40%, as many attacks will have either gone unreported or undetected.

There aren’t many upsides to the cyber security skills crisis, but one significant opportunity is that there are loads of relevant and exciting chances for students of any ethnicity or gender to engage in competitions and challenges that can lead to lucrative and stimulating careers in the cyber sector. These careers don’t have to be the stereotypical cyber-sleuth working for a secretive security service: every large organisation - from hospitals and care homes to architecture firms and vaccine research pharmaceuticals – needs staff who can ensure that data is kept, handled, updated and removed in a safe and secure manner.


In a bid to challenge gender stereotypes, boost industry links and encourage more (and more diverse) students to consider choosing Computer Science as a GCSE option, KS3 students at my school have a half termly computing careers research homework. Students are given links to help them get started finding a job that links to their current Computing topic and they have to explain what interests them about that job and list three questions they’d like someone in that role to answer. We then try to work with parents, STEM ambassadors and career profiles to try to find answers to some of the students’ questions.

Following significant interest in cyber security from our students, we ran a cross-curricular alternative curriculum day for all Y8 students where pupils competed against each other to solve steganography challenges by finding passwords hidden in a range of files, documents and web resources.

We used a feedback form from that event to identify and recruit students who said they’d be interested in taking part in the excellent CyberFirst competition for Y8 girls. This involves working in groups of up to 4 to solve increasingly challenging puzzles over the course of two weeks. Private schools who had competed in previous years were encouraged to mentor state schools (like mine) in recruiting and supporting students through the competition, so it was great to receive some tips from colleagues willing to share their experiences.

Further up the school, this year was the first time that I’ve got round to entering teams into the Cyber Centurion competition. A local business with links to the school had very kindly donated some laptops to the school which we could use for the competition. Like CyberFirst, students worked in teams of up to 4, but whilst all the challenges for CyberFirst were online, CyberCenturion challenges involved booting up insecure operating systems as a virtual machine and then finding and fixing security vulnerabilities. For some teams, this was the first experience of booting Linux or Windows Server but they seemed to love the buzz of discovering and resolving security concerns and watching their score slowly creep up the leader board (whilst tucking in to the occasional slice of pizza).

It’s too early to tell if running these activities and competitions has had any impact on recruitment, either in breadth of numbers or depth of diversity. But it’s certainly been fun to see a wide range of students thrive in a competitive and collaborative cyber security setting.

My school doesn’t currently offer a vocational cyber security course but I’d love to speak to someone who offers a Level 3 Certificate in Cyber Security Practices or similar qualification either alongside or instead of an A Level in Computer Science.

Have you had any experience of a competition that has inspired your students? Have you read a good article about a club or extra curricular activity that your students would enjoy? Does your school or college have a successful vocational cyber security pathway? I’d love to hear about it.

The newly redesigned Computing At School Community website is the perfect place to bounce ideas around and discuss teaching and learning opinions in a safe and positive environment. Come and join the discussion!