TOP performing girls from a Chelmsford school who took part in a in a nationwide cyber security challenge – the CyberFirst Girls Competition – were invited to a celebration at Buckingham Palace by The Duke of York.

After more than 4,500 girls from all over the UK raced through the challenges, the top 10 performing teams – including Chelmsford County High School for Girls’ team ‘Zen Coders’ – were invited to a live action final in Manchester in March.

The competition was won by pupils from the Piggott School, Berkshire, and all 40 finalists were invited to a celebratory reception in Buckingham Palace hosted by HRH as a reward for coming in the top 1% of entrants.

Now in its second year, the CyberFirst Girls competition is the brainchild of experts from the National Cyber Security Centre, a part of GCHQ, who devised 170 challenges of varying difficulty for female pupils aged 12 to 13 to complete.

It is hoped that the CyberFirst Girls competition could spark a lifelong interest that could be turned into a fulfilling career in cyber security, helping make the UK one of the safest places to live and do business online.

Speaking to the girls at Buckingham Palace, The Duke of York said: “CyberFirst is absolutely crucial to encourage girls to be at the forefront of cyber security. We do have a shortage of skills in this area, but this is an open field of opportunity, and all those standing in this room should recognise their capability and potential.”

The competition has seen a highly positive take up on its return, with thousands of girls from 399 schools taking part – a 52 per cent rise in the number of schools from the previous year.

However, organisers have set a target to quadruple the number of schools taking part, including from Essex, in 2019 - GCHQ’s centenary year.

Chris Ensor, NCSC Deputy Director for Skills and Growth, said: “CyberFirst is a bold and innovative programme aimed at supporting and developing the UK’s potential cyber security talent.

“The CyberFirst Girls competition show us the vast amount of female talent in our schools and just how skilled they are – we hope this will inspire the next generation of tech-savvy young women to consider a career in cyber security.

“Females are worryingly under-represented in the global cyber workforce, but there are exceptionally talented girls in our schools that can help make the UK the safest place to live and do business online in future years.

“The girls all had a wonderful time at the Palace, and this very kind invitation from the Duke of York shows just how vital cyber security is to the United Kingdom.”

Speaking after the final in March pupil Aleshia Mead said: “The Final was fun and exciting. I thought it was going to be quite stressful but it was a lot more relaxed and enjoyable.

“This isn’t something I’d typically be interested in, but my teacher encouraged me and it was really nice to learn something different.”

The UK government is fully committed to defending against cyber threats and addressing the cyber skills gap to develop and grow talent. A five-year National Cyber Security Strategy (NCSS) was announced in November 2016, supported by £1.9billion of transformational investment.