The head of a Gloucestershire school, in partnership with GCHQ, is determined to inspire the next generation of female cyber security experts. Claire Penketh, Senior PR Officer at BCS, met him.

A headteacher of a rural Gloucestershire school has been a man on a mission for the past couple of years, trying to fulfil a task given him by the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC). Alan Johnson, Head of Newent Community School and Sixth Form Centre in the Forest of Dean, has been doing his best to make computer science more appealing to girls and encourage them to take up a career in cyber security. 

He’s been so successful that his school was selected by the NCSC to become the country’s first ever standalone Cyber School Hub. The number of girls taking up computer science in his school has doubled - a sign his approach is hitting the mark.

A national programme

Two years ago, the NCSC, which is part of GCHQ, set up a county-wide pilot and asked every school in Gloucestershire to explore three questions that were vexing it: how to get more diversity into the cyber security profession; the best way to teach elements of the computer science GCSE to younger children; and, finally, how to embed existing cyber-security content into the curriculum.

Johnson said: ‘I started looking at the question of diversity and as far as I was concerned it was how we could affect change for the most children.’

He looked at the facts and found that, in the UK, just 11 per cent of the cyber security work force was female and only 18 per cent of computer science graduates are women. He compared this to the early days of computing where two thirds of staff at Bletchley Park were women. 

Part of the problem, he thinks, is the current perception of IT. ‘It doesn’t have a very good press. It’s seen as something quite nerdy and so I wanted to make sure, right from the start that we weren’t compounding that idea,’ he said. 

Think different

Taking the task to heart, Johnson decided it was far from mission impossible, but it would need a new approach. He said: ‘I came up with some ideas that were very much about doing things differently.

I didn’t want to go down the computer club model because then you’re preaching to the converted. I didn’t want to do anything that would reinforce the idea that women going into cyber security was in any way unusual.’

Then he had a lightbulb moment - to use the weird and sometimes wonderful world of interactive talking toys. ‘I looked at the way some toys are connected to the internet, through wireless technologies or Bluetooth,’ he said. ‘I thought about how we could explore the vulnerabilities inherent in those toys that often have no password protection or security, and demonstrate to young people the cyber security concepts through things they would understand.’ 

At the next stage, the children then learnt how to, momentarily, become cyber researchers: ‘By teach-ing children Python, we could enable them to hack into these toys and turn them into covert listening and recording devices,’ said Johnson.

Then the youngsters were asked to think of the worst-case scenario: if someone could hack into such a toy, then it could be possible for it to chat with, say, another smart voice enabled device. If that de-vice was already set up for home shopping, then potentially the hacker could go on a spending spree.

Scary stuff - but relevant to the real world that young people are growing up in. ‘We need to get the message out there that cyber security skills are vital not only for the safety of individual young people, but for the country itself,’ said Johnson.

As for the NCSC, it’s more than pleased with how this pilot scheme is developing, and it is looking to extend it across the country.

A NCSC spokesperson said: ‘As a major employer in Gloucestershire, GCHQ/NCSC has a history of out-reach to local schools and the new Cyber Schools Hubs have been selected through a competitive tender process.

‘After using this pilot phase to test the concept and particular approaches we hope to have a model that can be replicated across the UK.’ 

Seeing the results

Johnson said he’s more than happy for his pupils to pursue a career in cyber security. His school is situated in Gloucestershire, the same county as GCHQ, which is based in Cheltenham. Cheekily, I asked him if he would be glad if his school became a feeder school for the NCSC or GCHQ.

Johnson’s response was unequivocal: yes absolutely. ‘I would advise young people locally to get involved in a career with cyber-security - and they’ve already got a foot in the door by coming to our school, he replied.

‘There are also plenty of national opportunities. I would suggest that it is a job for life. It’s one of the fastest growing areas and I think it’s a very exciting industry to get involved in.’

Newent Community School is one of three NCSC Cyber Schools Hubs in Gloucestershire. They’re all encouraged to work with other schools, including those at primary level.

Johnson’s staff have developed a mobile, hands-on labs using cheap and readily available technology like a Raspberry Pi, which communicates with several connected ‘smart’ things - including toys.

‘I felt I had to do something, to provide an education that meets the needs of society’, Johnson said. ‘It has become a passion of mine that we prepare our children for the world we are all living in.

‘The technology is fantastic, but we have to be aware of the limitations. It’s also about ensuring safety, and safeguarding, for all young people.’

As he talks, it’s clear Johnson is constantly thinking of ways to enthuse and engage children under his watch - and the fun doesn’t stop with merely hacking into talking teddies and turning them into covert recording devices.

As well as the interactive talking toy, Johnson is keen that pupils learn about how to succeed in the real world of enterprise, and therefore the school also co-hosts a Dragons’ Den competition.

Originally an idea that came out of GCHQ, the Dragons’ Den annual competition for Gloucestershire schools is now run by NCSC, in partnership with GFirst Local Enterprise Partnership.

A GCHQ Dragon’s Den

The aim of the annual competition is to celebrate new and imaginative business ideas dreamed up by pupils. The children work in small teams to come up with a new product or service. They are given advice by business leaders and go on to develop a marketing campaign, along with a price and a pitch for their goods, and pitch them to a panel of ‘friendly’ dragons.

The dragons at Newent School included Jacqui Chard, Deputy Director of NSCS; Diane Savory OBE, Chair of GFirstLEP and formerly Chief Operating Officer of the clothing company at SuperGroup; Neil Watkin, Managing Director of Think IT; and Andrea Litherland, Head of Europe, Middle East and Africa Cyber Security Defence at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Another of the judges was Simon Humphreys, the national coordinator of ‘Computing at School’ (CAS), a BCS-supported network of computer teachers that exchange ideas, best practice and re-sources. Newent Community School is also a lead school for CAS.

The Dragons’ Den competition theme was wearable tech and Simon was very taken with the winning idea . He said: ‘What a privilege to meet such engaged and enthusiastic young people.

‘All the ideas presented were innovative, imaginative and inspiring and all who took part deserve high praise, as does Newent Community School and the NCSC for providing this opportunity and organising the day so beautifully.

Speaking about the winning design he said: ‘I’m certainly looking forward to purchasing, one day in the future, a new running jacket that will keep me both warm, fuelled and can track my distance. Well done everyone.’ 

In response to the question of how he managed to get such a stellar line-up of experts to judge the competition, Johnson replied: ‘It helps working with the talented people at NCSC, but ultimately I just asked.’

This sums up the overall approach of this headteacher - he’s a man who likes to get things done - especially if it means completing his mission.

Inside cyberfirst

Meanwhile, nationally, the NCSC has been running a competition through its CyberFirst site to attract more girls into cybersecurity.

 The competition itself closed in late January and the finals for the top ten teams will be held in late March in Edinburgh. The CyberFirst programme offers a range of courses, competitions and student bursaries for 11-to-17 year olds. The competition programme is aimed at girls aged 12 and 13  across the UK

Chris Ensor, NCSC Deputy Director for Skills and Growth, said: ‘Trebling the number of young people taking part on CyberFirst courses is an encouraging start. However women still only make up a small proportion of the global cyber workforce and throughout GCHQ and the NCSC we are looking to address the imbalance.’