Freedoms Bill a luddite solution for schools
15 April 2011 12:34 GMT

Schools up in arms about anti-biometric legislation

Proposals in the UK's Protection of Freedoms Bill to introduce harsh controls on biometric systems in schools and colleges is a Luddite solution in search of a problem and will cost the education system between £20 and £45 million a year, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) has warned MPs.

It will also make it much more difficult for schools and colleges to use CCTV to help maintain discipline and order. Evidence shows that in the 30 per cent of secondary schools that have biometric systems, 99.8 per cent of parents have no objection to it being used with their child.

ASCL General Secretary Brian Lightman said: "ASCL completely agrees that parents should have a say in whether their children take part in biometric systems in schools and they should have the right to opt out of if they have concerns or are opposed in principle. However if the bill goes through, the hoops that schools and colleges will need to go through to use these systems will be completely disproportional. The bill introduces burdensome and bureaucratic new rules which are exactly the kind of legislation that the government promised to repeal, not enact.”

“The reality is that in the next few years, we will be using finger recognition to log onto our laptops. This is the future and it is already in one in every three secondary schools. To enact this legislation is a Luddite reaction and a huge backward step.”

“Biometrics in schools are a problem for a small number of pressure groups, not for parents. The technology stores a random number, not a fingerprint, so it only distinguishes between students well enough to charge them for their lunch. The information could not be used to identify a student outside of the school, by the police or any other outside organisation.”

“Schools and colleges have invested heavily in this technology, and for good reason. It means that students eligible for free school meals can take them up without being stigmatised and parents know their children are not buying lunch at the chip shop. These systems prevent fraud and, with dinner money, intimidation and theft by other pupils. Systems using cards are more expensive to install, more open to abuse and not as effective as cards are often lost, stolen or simply left at home.”

“An estimated 30 per cent of secondary schools and many colleges use voluntary biometrics systems for access, catering, and libraries and many more use digital photographs in their administration systems. When parents are made aware of how the system works and what kind of data it collects, 99.8 per cent willingly take up the system. This proposed legislation is a solution in search of a problem. It is a response to a handful of sensationalist reports, not evidence borne out daily in schools.”

“What is particularly worrying is that the Parliamentary committee scrutinising the bill has only called for oral evidence from children’s and civil liberties campaigners. It is considering something that will cause massive disruption in schools and colleges but has not listened to their side of the argument. This is not proper consultation.”

The new legislation will require the written permission of both parents plus any other person with parental responsibility for a child to be eligible to use a biometric system. In virtually all other areas of education, the signature of one parent, as a representative of the family, is required. Obtaining signatures from all adults with parental responsibility will be a costly, time consuming and bureaucratic undertaking, for instance in single parent families where one parent is chronically absent but still retains custodial rights, or where schools are not allowed to contact a parent because of a court order as part of divorce settlement.

ASCL says that it would appear that the use of biometric systems for access, library and catering purposes in schools and colleges is being confused with the use of biological material and biometric data in the criminal and terrorism contexts. The biometrics systems in use in education do not precisely identify individuals in the general population in the way that police fingerprinting may do, but merely distinguish between different students well enough to charge the correct ones for their lunch. The information would not be sufficient for investigative, forensic or evidential purposes even if made available for such, as of course it cannot be under the data protection registration of the institution concerned.The data is deleted once the student leaves.

ASCL argues that the confusion and cost of operating two systems to allow for significant numbers of students who, or whose parents, have not opted in will mean that in practice schools and colleges will have to abandon this technology. They would not have invested in it if it had not offered substantial advantages

Many systems are supplied on lease and involve contracts of some years duration. If these have to be broken there will be further unnecessary costs.