Is the future of the dinner queue at their fingertips?

14th September 2007 at 01:00
Is it a handy method of keeping track of students or an Orwellian instrument of control? Irena Barker weighs the pros and cons of fingerprinting

RODERICK WOO, Hong Kong's privacy commissioner, banned fingerprinting in schools on the grounds that it could infringe children's rights.

But in England, the collection of biometric data from fingerprints has become hugely popular over the past five years.

Not without some outcry from parents, the press and MPs, an estimated 3,500 schools have scanned pupils' fingerprints so they can withdraw books from libraries, gain access to buildings, or even buy their lunch.

With the introduction of fingerprint technology, items that could easily be lost or stolen by bullies, such as library cards and cash, have been all but eliminated in some schools.

Other body parts may soon be put to similar use. Iris recognition technology, which proved too slow in a recent Sunderland school canteen trial, is developing fast.

In future, registers could literally be taken "in the blink of an eye". Or pupils could have their faces scanned to enter buildings. And the Government has already commissioned studies on using voice recognition technology to conduct oral exams over mobile phones.

All these emerging options, and their accompanying controversies over data protection and human rights, can leave school leaders bewildered especially as decisions on which systems to install, or whether to introduce them at all, are generally left up to individual schools.

Becta, the educational technology agency, which was unable to provide figures on the uptake of biometric systems, has only recently issued guidance on the issue.

The question of consent is clearly one of the most controversial. Should parental permission be sought for scanning children's fingerprints and turning that data into a unique string of numbers? Can that information be passed on to the police or other agencies?

The Becta guidance is foggy, but it says there is "nothing explicit in the Data Protection Act" requiring schools to gain parental permission. They advise schools to inform pupils about the use of their data, but there is nothing to specify when a child is too young to give consent. Becta does advise schools to involve pupils and parents in any decisions they make.

Earlier this year, a cross-party group of 85 MPs signed an Early Day Motion calling for compulsory consent for such systems. Despite the vagueness of the existing law, those headteachers who have been through the process advise others to seek parental permission first. If parents are helped to understand the system, they say, there tends to be less opposition to the idea.

"It can be an emotive issue, a Big Brother thing," says Ray Priest, head of the City Academy in Bristol, which has 1,300 pupils. He installed a pound;20,000 fingerprint system in the school's new cashless canteen, after pupils lost pound;7,000-worth of smart cards per year.

"I wrote to parents and held an open session for them to come and see how it worked," he said. "We asked if anyone had any objections and I only had one parent saying they were concerned.

"We explained that the system doesn't even store an image of the fingerprint. The scanner maps 16 points on the print and converts this to numbers. We made it clear it wasn't something that could be handed to the police."

Some heads have been less fortunate. When Tony Davies, of St Matthew's Primary in Cambridge, wrote to families about plans to install a fingerprint system in the library, the local media went wild.

Unfortunately for Mr Davies, David Clouter, founder of the anti-fingerprinting campaign group LeaveThemKidsAlone, was a parent at the school. He said parents had not been given their say.

"The media attention took up a lot of my time," said Mr Davies, who has yet to install the system, "but the vast majority of parents didn't have any issue at all."

He advises other heads to have confidence in their schools' decisions, but to make it clear to parents that an opt-out is available.

Another key issue is how biometric data will be used. The law states that it should be treated as any other information under the Data Protection Act.

So when such data is obtained, schools must produce a Fair Processing Notice, indicating who controls it, why it is being held and if it will be passed on to a third party.

Under the Human Rights Act, the processing of pupils' personal data can be justified if it is in the interests of the school.

The common law of confidentiality, which obliges the data holder not to pass information on to a third party, can be circumnavigated if the disclosure is deemed to be in the public interest.

Becta recommends that schools make data security of "paramount importance". Parents should be assured that all such data will be destroyed when a pupil leaves school.

But before even considering the legal and ethical issues, technology experts say schools should think carefully about whether they actually need such systems.

Steve Moss, strategic director of ICT at Partnerships for Schools, which is delivering the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, said: "Schools need to ask themselves what outcomes they want to achieve, rather than thinking about specific technology."

Under BSF, Mr Moss said, far more schools are opting for smart card systems, which do not necessarily contain biometric information.

Keri Facer, head of research at Futurelab, an education innovation charity, added: "Don't dive at the technology for the sake of it it may be a case of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Perhaps taking the register in the traditional way is useful social time for children and you don't need an automated system after all."

On the other hand, she says, a decision to take up the new technology could be used as an interesting basis for a civil liberties discussion in a citizenship lesson.

Heads also need to beware that anything they invest in works effectively.

Russell Dyas, founder of IT educational professionals' website, said: "Sticky fingers can jam fingerprint recognition set-ups and some biometric set-ups don't match up with other data systems in schools.

"The best advice is to talk to other schools that have already installed a system and get your IT technicians involved, especially when choosing what to buy."

For further information, go to

For more on the legal aspects of data handling in schools, go to

Thinking about going biometric?

* Consider the costs which can run into thousands of pounds: will the benefits of the system be great enough to justify the disruption and outlay? Is an automatic registration system really necessary in a school of 55 pupils?

* Discuss the issue with staff.

* Shop around for the best price and most reliable technology. Consider all available information, not just the manufacturer's sales literature.

* Visit another school to see how the system works there.

* Keep parents and pupils in the loop at all times. Invite them to ask questions and try out the system in school.

* Inform parents of exactly how pupils' biometric data will be used.

* Offer an opt-out for the children of parents who are still not convinced.

In practice

Pressing matter

of school dinners

Ian Johnson, headteacher of The Marlowe Academy in Ramsgate, Kent (pictured, left), installed a fingerprint recognition system in the school's canteen a year ago to speed up lunch queues.

A fingerprint is taken from each child and that is converted into a unique identity code. This allows them to access their school meals account, which is credited with cash by cheque.

Pupils collect their lunches in the usual way, the items are tapped into the till by the cashier, and the pupil "pays" by pressing their fingertip on to a scanner.

The system was very slow at first, as some children couldn't remember which finger they had given, but it soon gained speed.

The head even uses it to get to know his pupils sitting by the tills as their names pop up on screen.

The system, which also records exactly what each pupil is eating, has created local outcry in some schools, but Mr Johnson says his parents were reasonably relaxed.

They were invited in to see how the system worked and given the chance to ask questions. No one chose to opt out.

However, Mr Johnson has no plans to introduce systems such as automatic registration.

"On things like that," he said, "I think it's important to keep teachers in the loop."

Irena Barker

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