Concern as school takes children's prints

Biometric 'experiment' to aid payment system

Chris Benfield

A Yorkshire school is taking fingerprints from pupils – to keep a check on payments for school trips.

The system, which means pupils can be instantly identified when they touch a scanner attached to one of the school computers, is expected to recoup the 2,500 cost of its installation by saving time on form-filling.

If the experiment in "biometrics" works, it might be extended.

But some parents and children at Ilkley Grammar School, which has more than 1,500 pupils, are not happy with what they see as a sinister development.

One said yesterday: "Of course we want teachers to concentrate on teaching. But is it really necessary to fingerprint our children?"

The organisation of trips at Ilkley Grammar involves a turnover of 250,000 a year, mostly collected in 10 or 15 instalments. It means close to 20,000 transactions a year.

The fingerprint recognition system means that when a pupil takes a payment instalment to the school office, his or her account can be called up automatically, with no question of any confusion between names.

Head teacher Gillian James said in an explanatory letter to parents that the system would store a number based on a fingerprint reading. No fingerprint images would be stored.

The Information Commissioner and the Department of Education and Skills had said they had no concerns.

Mrs James said yesterday: "We haven't done a detailed calculation of how many hours it will save but it should be a big help and it is a way of trying out a system which might be useful in other ways Payments can still be made, and receipts issued, in the old-fashioned way, if parents insist."

She said 42 of the 1,532 current pupils, aged 11 to 18, had been kept out of the fingerprint registration process for one reason or another.

One of the objectors is Christian White, a journalist who reports on Westminster for the BBC but lives in North Parade, Ilkley, and has a 14-year-old step-daughter at the school.

He said yesterday: "Mrs James has effectively admitted this is not just a trivial bit of bureaucracy. It is the thin end of a wedge, the start of a process which could eventually enable the school to track our children every minute of the day. And it is a matter of proportionality.

"You do not give any organisation more intimate information than it needs to do its job and if my bank can manage my salary without getting my fingerprints, I don't see why the school cannot manage a couple of 12.50 payments from a 14-year-old for a trip to Lightwater Valley."

The Ilkley system was installed by Pinecone Associates of Carrington, Greater Manchester. Its marketing manager, Martin Parsons, said yesterday: "It is misleading to talk about fingerprinting children. The fingerprint is just a convenient shape to read to create an identity profile."