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School for teenage codebreakers to open in Bletchley Park

Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch as Bletchley Park codebreakers Joan Clarke and Alan Turing in the 2014 film The Imitation Game. Photograph: Allstar/Black Bear Pictures

Its first operatives famously cracked coded messages encrypted by the Nazis, hastening the end of the second world war.

Now Bletchley Park is planning a new school for the next generation of codebreakers in order to plug a huge skills gap in what is fast emerging as the biggest security threat to 21st-century Britain.

The College of National Security, a first for the UK, is scheduled to open in 2018 in a specially adapted premises on the Bletchley Park site.

The sixth-form boarding school will be free to the 500-odd applicants, with a mix of venture capital, corporate sponsorship and very possibly state funding underwriting the multimillion-pound costs.

The school will teach cyber skills to some of the UK’s most gifted 16- to 19-year-olds. It will select on talent alone, looking in particular for exceptional problem solvers and logic fiends, regardless of wealth or family background, according to Alastair MacWillson, a driving force behind the initiative.

“The cyber threat is the real threat facing the UK, and the problem it’s causing the UK government and companies is growing exponentially,” said MacWillson, chair of Qufaro, a not-for-profit organisation created by a consortium of cybersecurity experts for the purposes of education.

Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes, which is to be the site of the UK’s first cybersecurity sixth-form college
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Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes, which is to be the site of the UK’s first cybersecurity sixth-form college. Photograph: Chris Radburn/PA

“There is a shortfall in terms of the professional resources to combat this right now and it will get so much worse unless there is a programme to get to grips with it,” MacWillson said, adding that a shortage of about 700,000 cybersecurity experts in Europe has meant that companies are struggling to get the right people.

The college will offer a curriculum that balances cybersecurity tuition – approximately 40% – with related subjects including maths, physics, and computer science over a three-year study period.

Beyond the boarding school option, there will be a selection of virtual short courses. Staffing and a detailed curriculum are still being thrashed out. Qufaro is discussing with the Department for Education whether state funding will apply. If it does not, the backup plan is to rely wholly on corporate sponsorship and money earned from other Qufaro initiatives.

Bletchley Park buildings that are being renovated
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Bletchley Park buildings that are being renovated. Photograph: Qufaro

The college will be boarding partly to ensure attendance by those who do not live in the south-east, but also, according to MacWillson, so individuals attending the college see themselves as a collective “inspired by their surroundings, and linked by a common goal”. One in 10 places will be offered to day students.

“It will be open to anybody providing that they can demonstrate the key talent – people who have natural ability to solve logic problems,” MacWillson said.

Cybercrime is growing at an unprecedented rate. According to the 2016 Internet Security Threat Report, spear-phishing campaigns targeting corporate and private data via seemingly innocuous emails have increased by 55% over the past year. The report also found that 75% of all legitimate websites have serious security flaws.

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