Managing the threat of cyber attacks in schools 


Since the introduction of remote learning in schools, the reliance on technology has increased and so too the risk of cyber attacks. However, with good cyber security culture and awareness amongst staff and students, schools can decrease the chances of cyber attacks. Here’s our take on what cyber attacks are, why schools are targets and what can be done about it. 


What are cyber attacks?

While there are various definitions of what a cyber attack is, according to the Australian Cyber Security Centre, a cyber attack is a deliberate attempt to gain access to computers or networks with the intent to manipulate, disrupt or destroy them or the information contained within them. Cyber attacks are estimated to cost Australian businesses $29 billion each year, being one of the most significant threats to schools, businesses and individuals. Oftentimes these attacks occur due to a lack of cyber awareness. Common cyber attacks range from adware, phishing, and ransome. 


News coverage on cyber attacks

Schools have been more reliant on technology than ever since the introduction of remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. While online learning was established to provide a continuity of learning during lockdowns, schools became more reliant on technology which increased their susceptibility to cyber attacks. There have been a number of cyber attacks in the education sector. Just hours after the NSW department of education announced that schools should return to remote learning due to another COVID-19 outbreak, several internal systems were deactivated in a cyber attack which caused disruptions to term 3 preparations.  


Why schools?

Instances of cyber attacks have been on the rise since the introduction of remote learning.  But why?  Here are some reasons:


Data – Regardless of how many students a school may have, schools acquire a large amount of valuable and sensitive data. This includes addresses, credit cards and bank details, staff information such as tax file numbers and student medical records. In the hands of cyber criminals, such data can be sold for significant sums of money. 


Disruption – Cyber attacks such as distributed denial of service (DDoS) are common and cause loss of productivity and widespread disruption. 


Financial gain – Online transactions can be intercepted by cyber criminals. Paying school fees through online portals is common practice for independent schools. Therefore, without proper security protection these transactions can be intercepted in a cyber attack. 


Easy targets – Schools are particularly susceptible to cyber attacks due to the sector’s cyber skill shortage. A lack of cyber culture and awareness results in increased click rate for malicious emails, vulnerability to phishing attacks and more. Inadequate training means schools can become easy targets for cyber attacks. 


What can schools do?

To mitigate the risk and event of cyber attacks, adequate cyber security training within the school community of student, staff and IT departments are essential. 



As student learning becomes more digitised and remote learning more accessible, it is necessary that schools and families understand potential cyber threats and how their technology usage can influence their online privacy. 


Schools can provide assistance to students by:

  • Passwords – educating students on the importance of strong passwords and to keep such information private.

  • Personal information – informing students on what constitutes personal information, the value of it and to be selective about the information they share online. 

  • Phishing emails – providing students definitions and examples of phishing attacks and scams to assist with their understanding. 

  • Staff – Opportunity for cyber criminals to gain access to databases and school systems is increased when staff access systems using home Wi-Fi and computers. The lack of home security arrangements can result in hackers taking advantage of valuable information and systems. 


Schools can support staff in understanding what they can do to protect their information by:

Providing adequate information and resources that inform staff about identifying suspicious emails, websites or links, and how to ensure their devices are up to date. The Australian Government’s Australian Cyber Security Centre provides relevant cyber security information for individuals, small and large businesses. 


  • Upskilling staff in cyber security with learning courses. 
  • – Utilising two factor authentication for passwords as the most effective way to prevent unauthorised access to school systems and databases. 

  • – Ensuring IT department expertise is reviewed and adequate cyber security infrastructure is established. 

Cyber attacks in schools can be prevented with the right support, training and understanding of how threats can occur. By doing so, learning environments for students will be more safe and supportive.


Beware: data breach

Schools need to be aware that a successful cyber attack can constitute a data breach, and may be considered a Notifiable Data Breach under the federal Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) if:

there is unauthorised access to or unauthorised disclosure of personal information, or a loss of personal information, that an organisation or agency holds this is likely to result in serious harm to one or more individuals; and the organisation or agency hasn’t been able to prevent the likely risk of serious harm with remedial action.


If a Notifiable Data Breach occurs, the affected individual(s) and the OAIC must be informed. However, it is important to note that not all data breaches occur as a result of cyber attacks. The OAIC’s Notifiable Data Breaches Report found that, while 58 per cent of data breaches are a result of malicious attack, 38 per cent are due to human error. Therefore, establishing and embedding effective privacy policies and processes is integral to ensuring an effective defence against cyber attacks.