New GCSE to focus on cyber-security, encourage students to DoS around

News by Doug Drinkwater

A new computer science GCSE course, developed by examining body OCR, looks set to bring cyber-security education to secondary school children in the UK.

The draft new Computer Science GCSE is due to be submitted for approval to Ofqual next week, with the intention of rolling out the course to secondary schools in September 2016.

In a press release published today, OCR said that the course is designed to “boost essential 21st century computing skills”, with a specific focus on developing students who might later have the skills and experience to "join MI5's elite rank of cyber-spooks, create the next Facebook or developing a blockbuster computer game". 

A distinctive feature of the course is that a significant portion of it is dedicated to cyber-security matters, including phishing, malware, firewalls and that old-adage of humans as the weak point in secure systems. Students will also study ethical and legal concerns around computer science technologies, a timely theme in light of FBI claims of a security researcher hacking airplanes.

OCR says that around 60 percent of the course is based on "computational thinking", which involves breaking a complex problem down into smaller parts, establishing a pattern, ignoring unnecessary information and designing a solution through programming.

Students will subsequently use these programming skills to work on an independent coding project, which is worth 20 percent of the overall grade. This problem could be a game or perhaps an application to help teachers.

On that last point, the OCR has recognised that teachers are likely to need help with the course. A YouGov report last year suggested that most teachers are not confident about teaching the new compulsory computing curriculum, which replaced ICT last year, while experts tell SC that some schools have struggled to find staff familiar with coding, resulting in university and others undertaking outreach activities to train up local teachers.

For this new course, OCR partnered with specialist education technology company Codio to provide the schools with a cloud-based programming and course content platform where students can learn the theory and apply it in real-life situations, in any computing language.

Rob Leeman, subject specialist for computer science at OCR, said in a statement: “This specification builds on OCR's pioneering qualification development in this subject area. We have consulted with companies such as Google, Microsoft and Cisco, as well as teachers and higher education academics and organisations like Computing At School (CAS) to ensure that the content is relevant."

He continued: “There is growing demand for digital skills worldwide. Whether students fancy themselves as the next cyber-spook, Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates, our new qualification will be the first exciting step towards any career that requires competence in computing.”

The UK Commission for Employment and Skills predicted there will be 146,000 job openings for programmers and software developers between 2012-2022, with jobs commanding an average salary of £38,000. SC Magazine's own research has indicated that security salaries go up to £200,000, partly as a result of a huge shortage in this area, especially at undergraduate level.

Professor Richard Benham, who co-founded the National MBA in cyber security with Coventry Business School, told that the move makes sense in an increasingly digital age.

“This new GCSE is very welcome and I am sure will quickly become a core subject for secondary schools and colleges in an ever-increasing digital age. 

“The need for increased awareness is further highlighted by the launch later this year of the National Cyber Awareness Course, a non-technical one-day course designed for employees and students who have left school. Broadly along the same content, this has cross-party support including that of the prime minister and is being run through the National Cyber Skills Centre and four regional universities including Coventry Business School.”

Dr Gareth Owen, senior lecturer for the school of computing at the University of Portsmouth, added in an email to SC: “We have a real shortage of technically excellent candidates in cyber-security and whilst universities do their best to train students in the time available, the education really needs to begin at school. By teaching students computational thinking at an earlier age we may better preparing them for university education and a career in cyber-security.”

He added it wouldn't be hard to keep students interested in the subject, in order for them to take further security courses at A-level and degree level.

“It's fairly easy to make cyber-security interesting to students because the topic is interesting and challenging. If we can reach students at an early enough age then we can get them to pursue education in this field from school. Universities nationwide are currently working on standardising a cyber-security curriculum for Higher Education.”

Gavin Millard, EMEA technical director at Tenable, told SC that engaging youngsters at an early age would help potentially fill the skills gap.

“The UK already has multiple universities offering courses, for example Abertay's excellent Ethical Hacking Course, but with a huge increase in market demand for talented security practitioners, engaging students at a GCSE level is key to encouraging more into the infosec industry,” he said. 

“With so much being online now, the skills students learn in courses like this will be incredibly useful in later life [regardless] of [whether] they end up in the infosec industry.”

Dr Olga Angelopoulou, senior lecturer of digital forensics at the University of Derby, added: "I think it's just a great initiative, it could encourage more young people to get involved in cyber-security and computing. It is also an enabler that could inspire more young girls to study and advance in cyber-security or any STEM field."

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