London: Schoolchildren in England will be offered lessons in cyber security in a bid to find the experts of the future to defend the UK from attacks.
It is hoped 5,700 pupils aged 14 and over will spend up to four hours a week on the subject in a five-year pilot.
Classroom and online teaching, “real-world challenges” and work experience will be made available from September.
A Commons committee last week warned that a skills shortage was undermining confidence in the UK’s cyber defences.
The risk that criminals or foreign powers might hack into critical UK computer systems is now ranked as one of the top four threats to national security.
Russia in particular is suspected of planning sustained attacks on Western targets.
Cyber security is a fast-growing industry, employing 58,000 experts, the government says, but the Public Accounts Committee has warned it is proving difficult to recruit people with the right skills.
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is providing £20m for the new lessons, which will be designed to fit around pupils’ current courses and exams.
Digital and Culture Minister Matt Hancock said: “This forward-thinking programme will see thousands of the best and brightest young minds given the opportunity to learn cutting-edge cyber security skills alongside their secondary school studies.
‘Pipeline of talent’
“We are determined to prepare Britain for the challenges it faces now and in the future and these extra-curricular clubs will help identify and inspire future talent.”
The government is already providing university funding and work placements for promising students.
An apprenticeship scheme has also begun to support key employers to train and recruit young people aged 16 or over who have a “natural flair for problem-solving” and are “passionate about technology”.
Mr Hancock told the BBC he wanted to ensure the UK “had the pipeline of talent” it would need.
Cyber security expert Brian Lord, a former deputy director at GCHQ, told BBC Breakfast that the scheme was an “essential initiative” to recruit more people into the profession.
He added: “There is perception that cyber security is all about techno geeks who have long hair, glasses, wear heavy metal t-shirts and drink red bull.
“There are those, and they do an extraordinarily good job. But there is a whole range of other activities… that can appeal to a wide cross section of children, graduates and apprentices, and at the moment they don’t know what [is on] offer.
“The more exposure [children] can get [the more it will] prepare them for a future career and, as that generation needs to understand how to be safe online, you get a double benefit.”