Is your school cyber-secure?

Written by: Dave Gibbs | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Is your school cyber-secure? Are you preparing your students for life in a world where cyber-security will be crucial to their futures? Computing and technology specialist Dave Gibbs urges schools to step-up their focus on cyber-space


Our constantly connected world presents opportunities undreamed of a generation ago.

However, navigating cyber-space requires new skills and new knowledge, and everyone in every school needs to know how to keep themselves and their community safe. But what do cyber-skills mean to school leaders, and how can teachers and learners thrive online?

Bearing in mind that there are many different definitions of cyber-space, we might say that it is a global domain comprising the hardware, software, data and interactions shared within and between computer networks via the internet.

It exists everywhere as a largely virtual world experienced through computers of all shapes and sizes. For its users – including you and me – it is just as real as our “real lives”, and increasingly sensory.

As a digitally advanced nation, we are especially exposed to the challenges of cyber-space – but also well-placed to seize its opportunities. This is also true for the many schools which have embraced internet technologies – never more so than during the pandemic when digital platforms became vital.

While digital capability has leapt forward in schools, it is critical that upskilling and awareness keeps pace to avoid unacceptable risks to individuals and infrastructure. An increasing number of school ransomware attacks, and breaches of sensitive data perpetrated from inside and out, indicate that complacency is not an option.


Cyber-secure from the top

Cyber-skills, and the knowledge necessary for cyber-secure behaviour, pervade schools at all levels. Cyber is both a technical and resourcing issue, requiring network oversight by up-to-date specialists, working under the direction of well-informed leaders within policy and budgetary limits.

The EdTech Demonstrator schools can help you secure your infrastructure by asking the right questions of technical staff and by making informed investments when equipping or upgrading school systems.

Online behaviours can present the biggest risk to your school, making cyber-skills a staff training priority. In 2019, the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) found that 83% of schools have experienced at least one cyber-security incident, but only around a third of schools train non-IT staff in cyber-security (Kerr, 2019).

Considering 2021 saw attacks on the UK education sector almost double, many schools are leaving themselves unnecessarily vulnerable (NCSC, 2021).

The NCSC provides a range of resources and training materials to help schools improve their cyber-security. These include questions for governors to ask school leaders, and for leaders to ask of those providing services to the school. There is advice and guidance, too, for teaching and non-teaching staff, many of whom are charged with the secure care of data of the most sensitive nature.

Maintaining a conversation between school staff and technical support teams is important, too. It is no use setting an ultra-secure password policy if no-one can remember the string of random letters, numbers and special symbols it enforces, and they resort to writing passwords in the back of planners. School leaders must take the lead in these decisions, weighing evidence and managing risk through multiple means.


Cyber-safe young people

Cyber-security and online safety are closely linked, and are deeply embedded in the primary and secondary school curriculum. Well-trained and informed teaching staff are best placed to provide outstanding teaching, leading to safe, responsible and creative practices throughout the school community – as well as the effective delivery of subjects such as computing and PSHE.

Whether it is an understanding of cyber-attacks; the defensive programming approaches that make applications secure by design, the legal frameworks that govern cyber-space, or the political and societal implications of disinformation, cyber-crime and cyber-warfare, it is important that teachers are able to access professional development to give them confidence when approaching such hot topics.

And with a range of academic and technical qualifications available, leading to attractive careers with salaries that reflect the high demand for cyber-skills, knowledgeable and effective teachers and curriculum leaders are key to opening the door to great opportunities for our young people.


You don’t need to face this challenge alone

There are many ways to build cyber-capability in your school. The STEM Ambassador programme brings volunteers from the world of work into the classroom – including cyber-security specialists – and many more who work in cyber-secure settings. They are perfectly placed to provide real-world contexts, skills and careers information to learners and teachers.

The Cyber Centurion and Cyber First programmes offer engaging practical experiences to young people, building awareness and confidence alongside team-work skills.

Quality-assured curriculum resources are available, for free, to support improved teaching of cyber-security and digital skills while, for secondary teachers, a range of funded CPD is provided for specialists and those adding computing as a second specialism.

With so much at stake, it is vital that school leaders turn their attention towards cyber. Both their future, and your present, depend on it.

  • Dave Gibbs is a computing and technology specialist at STEM Learning, a non-profit organisation dedicated to raising young people’s engagement and achievement in STEM. Visit www.stem.org.uk


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