Demand for places on introductory level courses in cybersecurity is ‘growing rapidly’, according to the national qualifications body.

Scotland became the first country in Europe to offer a school-based vocational qualification in cybersecurity three years ago after a call from government to plug a growing skills gap.

And official figures now show that since the introduction of the National Progression Award (NPA) in schools, the rate of new learners is almost doubling each year.

Since 2015, around 1,400 learners have undertaken the NPAs at various levels, up to Higher, figures to July 2018 show.

There are currently 46 schools nationwide and six colleges which offer the course to 15 and16-year-old learners, and those figures are expected to grow “significantly” this year.

In response to the level of interest, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) introduced a Higher National Certificate in Cyber Security earlier this year, and is currently developing a Higher National Diploma Cyber Security which it hopes to have available in 2019.

The courses have been developed by employers and sector specialists in a bid to encourage more young people into cyber-security careers, where industry surveys show starting wages for cybersecurity analysts fall between £25,000 to £35,000; in senior roles, cyber experts can be expected to earn up to and in excess of £70,000-a-year, according to Prospects, the UK’s biggest graduate careers website.

Bobby Elliott, Qualifications Manager at SQA, said: “We really are seeing demand for cyber growing exponentially. At one college, they had run a HNC in Computing for years and had virtually no up-take; so they changed to an HNC in Cybersecurity and filled three classes in around a fortnight.

“Scotland genuinely was the first country in Europe to offer a cybersecurity qualification in schools and that is something we’re really proud of.”

Cybersecurity skills are the third most in demand digital skill in Scotland, according to the most recent Scottish Technology Industry survey. It also estimates that there will be up to 2,120 unfilled cybersecurity-related job roles in Scotland by 2020.

‘Safe, Secure & Prosperous: A Cyber Resilience Strategy for Scotland’, published in 2015, put a clear emphasis on ensuring there was a “skills pipeline” into the cybersecurity industry.

That was why the NPA was developed, says Elliott, and it was part of a bigger objective to ensure “every child, young person and adult must have the cyber resilience skills for learning, life and work.”

It appears to be having an effect and while no formal analysis has taken place, Elliott says there are reliable anecdotal accounts from colleges and universities that the NPA is helping to boost take-up levels on Further Education and Higher Education courses.

The NPA – which teaches data security, digital forensics and ethical hacking – is available overwhelmingly in state schools, but there has also been strong interest from private schools, which is unusual for a vocational qualification, Elliott adds.

Initially there was some opposition to the inclusion of ‘hacking’ as a formal education concept for young people, but that has swiftly been overcome with the wider realisation that hacking can be as much about defence as offensive capabilities. Although the course is hugely popular, and Elliott expects to see around 4-5,000 learners progressing through the NPA within the next three years, there are still big national challenges to be solved.

The gender imbalance is particularly acute in computer science and cybersecurity especially, where Elliott says the current rate is around 90% boys to 10% girls.

One school in Ayrshire, however, is breaking the glass ceiling with reports that it has achieved a 50% equal split between female and male pupils. Elliott singled out Scott Hunter, a computing science teacher from Kyle Academy, for special praise and said that if his “outstanding” example can be replicated elsewhere then Scotland stands a good chance of not only achieving some degree of gender equality but in closing the skills gap, too.