Tom Briggs, education manager, Bletchley Park
“Codebreaking is sort of inherently cool,” says Tom Briggs, education manager at Bletchley Park. “It’s got that link to espionage and secrecy, and that has a certain magic to it.”

The story of the codebreakers stationed at Bletchley Park during World War II remains particularly compelling – with the recent film starring Benedict Cumberbatch further fuelling interest.

Yet while most people have heard of Bletchley Park and the Enigma machine, few understand how the machine worked or how the codebreakers achieved their mission. “It really is – terrible pun intended – an enigma to a lot of people. They know about it, but they don’t know much about it,” Tom says.

For attendees of this year’s NACE National Conference, Tom is offering a rare opportunity to get up close and personal with a real Enigma machine, while exploring how the Bletchley Park story can help teachers improve provision for more able learners in today’s classrooms.

Breaking down the mystery of Enigma

As part of a workshop titled “Codebreaking: past, present … and future”, Tom will explore forms of cryptography throughout history, as well as looking ahead to the challenges of the future.

The session will also break down some of the most common myths surrounding the Bletchley Park story. “There are a lot of misconceptions,” Tom says. “A lot of people think Enigma was the codebreaking machine, when it was actually the machine being used by the Nazis to encrypt. People are also surprised by the simplicity of it. You’d be forgiven for thinking Enigma is this majorly complex device, and it really isn’t. Part of its beauty is in the simplicity.”

Many elements of the story remain relevant today, he adds. “There are a lot of parallels to be drawn between the codebreaking that was done at Bletchley Park, and issues today with online safety. The weaknesses with Enigma were actually weaknesses of the operators, which is exactly the same today.”

Developing the next generation of codebreakers

More widely, the Bletchley Park codebreakers provide a model for the environment in which brilliant minds are able to flourish and rise up to unforeseen challenges. “They needed the space to develop their abilities, in order to excel at the task that was put in front of them. That’s not something they would have been able to do if they were too constricted in their education,” Tom says.

Just as the Enigma codebreaking team had no way of foreseeing the life-and-death problem they’d be asked to solve, today’s teachers likewise have no way to predict exactly what knowledge and skills the next generation will need.

With this in mind, Tom says, teachers should instead focus on instilling a general love of learning, providing the space and inspiration for young minds to explore as many avenues as possible. He points out that famous codebreakers such as Alan Turing were not only great mathematicians, but dedicated lifelong learners in many areas, giving them a rich pool of knowledge and understanding to draw upon.

Of course, this freedom and flexibility must be balanced against the demands of a curriculum, pressure to meet targets, and time restraints – all challenges Tom is personally familiar with, having previously worked as a classroom teacher. Having first become interested in cryptography after starting an after-school codebreaking club, he’s keen to encourage all teachers to draw on the field as inspiration both for themselves and their students.

Want to find out more? Join Tom Briggs’ workshop at the NACE National Conference.