ICT - Face value

24th September 2010 at 01:00
Biometric technology can be used to help out with anything from attendance to healthy eating, says George Cole

Every time sixth-formers enter or leave the school, they look into a screen and enter their PIN code. As little as 20 years ago, it would have seemed straight out of the realm of science fiction, but at the Leventhorpe School in Hertfordshire, it is proving to be a practical way of registering attendance.

"The old system required students to go to the office and use an attendance book to sign in or out," says Myles Hamilton, head of sixth form. "We wanted a better system that helped us to keep on top of attendance."

The face recognition units are sited at both the entrances to the sixth-form common room. If students are late, they are asked to choose a code number to give the reason.

At Leventhorpe, the system is only in use for sixth-formers' attendance, but hundreds of schools are opting for biometric technology to cover a range of activities, from paying for school meals to borrowing library books. Biometric systems use physical characteristics, such as a fingerprint or face, to identify an individual. The advantage of a biometric system is that these characteristics cannot be swapped or lost, unlike passwords, PINs and smartcards.

Mr Hamilton spent several months researching biometric systems before choosing the faceREGISTER system from Aurora. The process takes seconds and is designed to integrate with popular school management information systems, so the data is automatically entered into the school's records.

Cashless catering systems operate on a similar principle: once the child is identified, by either their fingerprint or face, the price of their meal is automatically deducted from their account. This also helps to remove some of the stigma that can surround free school meals (FSM), with children on FSM using the same system. It also records details of the meal itself, creating a potential source of information for parents and teachers on what the children are eating.

Valley School, a specialist technology college in Worksop, Nottinghamshire, has introduced a fingerprint system in its canteen. Brian Rossiter, headteacher, says the system is simple to use and once a fingerprint image has been taken in Year 7 it can be used throughout the pupil's time in school.

To register on a face-recognition system, pupils look into a digital camera which takes several images that are then analysed. Reference points, such as the distance between the eyes, are recorded and stored as a string of numbers, an algorithm. At Leventhorpe, students are also issued with a PIN and both have to match up for the recognition to be successful.

Fingerprint systems, the main alternative to face recognition in biometric technology, optically scan a pupil's finger, analyse various points and convert them into an algorithm, which is stored on the biometric system.

This is not the same as storing a fingerprint and it would not be possible to re-create a fingerprint from the algorithm. The pupil logs into the biometric system by placing their finger on a small reader and the resulting algorithm is compared with the one stored on the system.

Companies offering fingerprint biometric systems to schools include AMI (EasyTrace), Cyclone Industries (Live Register), Facetime, Gladstone Education (On Record), Squid and VeriCool. Some also offer smartcard systems that can be used in conjunction with biometric technology.

Biometric systems can be linked into other tools, such as texts automatically sent to parents if their child is absent from school, or a reward system linked to good attendance. Registers can also be connected to a school's alarm system, automatically printing a list to pupils who are in the school if the alarm sounds.

But there are concerns over the use of biometric systems. Dr Emmeline Taylor, a criminologist at Salford University, questions claims that they are secure, and also argues that they invade pupils' privacy. "The danger is that young people will be desensitised to this level of surveillance," she says.

Schools have also fallen foul of arguments over civil liberties. Capital City Academy in Brent, London, was criticised earlier this year for taking pupils' fingerprints without informing parents. Although schools do not have to obtain parental consent - the law only requires that the child understands what they are doing - it can be good practice to let parents know what is happening.

At Leventhorpe, the school went to great lengths to explain to parents and students why it was using the new system. "We told the students that we wanted to give them a better registration system and that it wasn't about spying on them," explains Mr Hamilton.

The school sent letters to parents and also gave students the option of opting out of the system. In the end, only one sixth former out of 365 chose not to take part. The student response has been very positive, Mr Hamilton adds. "They love it - they think it's a really cool technology."

What to look for

Consider what you want a biometric system for and what problem you want to solve, then look for one that addresses those issues.

Consult staff, pupils and parents before introducing biometric technology. Explain why it is being used, how it will work and answer any queries about privacy and civil liberties.

Prices vary, but expect to pay between #163;5,000 to #163;12,000 for a typical system.

Check how easy it is to integrate the biometric system with your school's existing management information system and network.

Make sure all staff are fully trained, where necessary. Some companies provide this as part of their sales package.

A second level of verification, such as a photograph or PIN code, offers extra security and can be used by pupils who opt out of the biometric component.

Biometric providers

AMI www.easytrace.co.uk

Aurora www.facerec.com

Cyclone Industries www.cycloneindustries.co.uk

Facetime www.facetime.ltd.uk

Gladstone Education


Squid www.squidcard.com

Vericool www.vericool.co.uk.

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