Blog post

CyberFirst: 4 years on

Created:  02 Nov 2018
Updated:  02 Nov 2018
Author:  Chris E
Part of:  New talent
CyberFirst final 2018

It has been four years since CyberFirst began its journey and I thought it would be a good time to blog about some of the success it has had as well as reflect on the activities we've been involved with this summer.

I remember first reading about a scheme to identify and nurture future talent in a newspaper over Christmas 2014, it was called “SpyFirst” and to my surprise GCHQ was running it – we even had a few enquiries! Whilst the article was slightly ahead of its time, at its heart it talked about how the UK might draw on Israel’s experiences of their Talpiot initiative to create a programme that would identify the people we would need in the future to protect the UK in cyberspace.

Bursaries and apprenticeships

In 2015 we searched for our first cohort made up of 20 students from the finalists of national STEM competitions. Today, our third cohort of 250 students are about to start on their CyberFirst journey through university and into an exciting career in cyber security - that is progress. 

Those with a keen eye will have also noticed that we have been inviting applications for the next cohort of CyberFirst bursary students (ends 16th November) and the new GCHQ degree level apprenticeship scheme (ends today!). Both promote opportunities for students due to start in September 2019 and offer two distinctly different routes into cyber security. We now have over 500 students within our bursary scheme and over 60 students on our degree apprenticeship programme. It has been hugely successful and we are now well on our way to meeting our target of 1,000 students by 2020.

CyberFirst girls competition

Whilst the bursary scheme is at the core of CyberFirst we are also running a number of other activities to inspire and encourage a diverse range of students. We kicked off 2018 with the CyberFirst girls competition which saw over 4,500 girls, aged 12-13, from 400 schools take part. The ten highest scoring teams then took part in a grand final at Old Trafford Cricket Ground, Manchester. All of the teams did really well to get to the final and were all were rewarded with tea at Buckingham Palace in the presence of HRH the Duke of York.

Summer courses

CyberFirst ran 24 free courses for over 1,100 students, aged 14-17, at locations across the England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland this summer. I’m pleased to say that we saw 43% of those places being taken up by girls. We are still seeing almost 3:1 ratio of boys to girls when it comes to applications. We hope that this will begin to change with the effect of some of our other initiatives such as free Adventurers courses and the girls competition.

For the first time we have also seen some of our industry partners run their own courses using the CyberFirst mould. Energus are at the forefront having already run their own CyberFirst Defenders course and already have plans to expand the initiative over the coming years. This autumn Cardiff University, BAE Systems, Think Marble, Santander and the Metropolitan Police will all be running CyberFirst courses – helping to inspire a new generation of young people into cyber security.

The result of hard work...

Over the summer holidays, our existing bursary students were divided into two groups. 154 students were found work placements across 54 locations in government and industry whilst 100 students attended one of two CyberFirst academies at Scarborough and Cheltenham.

The academies offered eight weeks of intensive training and were supported by regular talks from CyberFirst industry and government members helping to prepare students for future placements and employment. You can imagine that finding 154 placements is not trivial, but thanks to the hard work and dedication of the CyberFirst team, with support from partner companies and government departments, we achieved this. The feedback has been excellent and demonstrates just how talented the students we have onboard are.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of those organisations who were able to offer summer placements for the students. If your organisation is not yet involved but you'd like to learn how to do so then please get in touch via

The ultimate aim is to make this programme sustainable by encouraging as many organisations as possible to sponsor their own students, moving away from graduate programmes to undergraduate sponsorship that can be far more rewarding in the long term.

I’m really pleased to be able to say that Airbus, BAE, Cyber1st, NCC Group, Thales and Qinetiq are leading the way by sponsoring 12 students between them with a commitment to sponsor an additional 19 students this year. Again, my special thanks for their commitment to the programme.

It can take time to change business processes and secure budgets so we've introduced a ‘transfer window’ that will enable those companies offering placements to take over the funding of a student – if mutually agreeable – at any point in the programme. So, if a company thinks a student is fantastic and the student likes them too, they can take over the funding and secure that student for the future.

Careers fair at GCHQ

In order to help employers and meet potential future employees we held our very first CyberFirst careers fair at GCHQ in Cheltenham a few weeks ago.
More than 160 students attended with family members giving them the opportunity to escort loved ones round GCHQ itself - a little different but they were cleared to do so!

We also welcomed 32 government and industry members to the fair giving them an opportunity to meet the students and showcase the opportunities within their organisations in lightning talks. The feedback has been excellent and it was a great way to utilise an iconic building for such an important subject.

What's next for CyberFirst?

As mentioned earlier the 2019 bursary process is now open as well as our Degree Apprenticeships. We’ve also just launched our CyberFirst Adventurers programme of events for Autumn. These are aimed at encouraging 11-13 year olds to think about a career in technology and cyber security. Cardiff University ran one of these sessions the other week with 22 students attending a one-day course getting hands on with technology.

As we edge closer to our target of 1,000 students we'll be looking to increase the industry share of sponsorship from 7% in the 2018 cohort to at least 20% for 2019 as well as seeking to double the industry placements! This is on top of the pledge we've made to quadruple the number of schools in the CyberFirst girls competition from 400 to 1600!

We do like a challenge especially when the potential benefits to the UK can be so great...

Chris Ensor
Deputy Director Cyber Skills and Growth


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