One of the interesting things about the now not-so-new Coalition government is separating out the policies which originate from the Conservative Party and those which originate from the Lib Dems. There is no doubt that one of the areas of common ground between these two otherwise rather unlikely bed-fellows is the civil liberties agenda, and a co-called Protection of Freedoms Bill is currently making its way through Parliament (http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2010-11/protectionoffreedoms.html ).
For schools, there are two areas of the Freedoms Bill which are problematic. The first is the use of CCTV in schools – originally this was to be discontinued completely, but I understand this is now being modified, and is going to be allowed to continue as long as ‘face recognition software’ is not built in. I have no problem with this at all – the CCTV we use is to protect the school’s property mostly from damage by intruders, though of course it sometimes picks up members of the school community doing things they shouldn’t! But we certainly don’t need any kind of clever software to help us identify anyone on the footage, and that footage does not leave the school and is destroyed after a specified period of time.
The second area where the Freedoms Bill will impact more seriously on schools is the so-called fingerprint recognition software. This is widely used in primary and secondary schools now for registration, for lunch payments and for library use. In fact we are using it only for lunch payments. The Freedoms Bill will force the system to be discontinued from September unless written signed permission is gained from BOTH parents of the child concerned and stored in school (the only thing we are required to get BOTH parents’ signature for). This raises a number of issues. Firstly, it is hard to understand why such draconian measures are needed for fingerprints, when a photograph of the face, arguably much more personal, can be stored by schools without any specific rules about permission. Secondly, the fingerprint recognition systems – there are several variations in use across the country – have been designed with the civil liberties issue in mind, and do not in fact store an image of the fingerprint anyway. What they do is convert the fingerprint on the scanner to a long digital code – it is that digital code which is stored, and recognised each time the finger is scanned. There is no facility in the software for converting the other way, from code to fingerprint, so anyone acquiring the data by accident would only have a series of long, meaningless numbers.
The final point is the reasons why schools have been so enthusiastic about this system. There are several: unlike a card, a finger cannot be lost; it cannot be borrowed, under pressure or otherwise, from a friend; it cannot be played with and rendered unusable, like a card; it cannot be spent on sweets or worse, like cash. And the scanners are very rapid meaning that queuing to pay is reduced (although there may be queuing for other reasons, of course). Finally, all sensible schools, including ours, have made provision for any individuals who feel uneasy by simply allowing the operator to call up the individual records by typing in the surname – slower than the scanner, and not so fraud-proof, but adequate for small numbers.
Nonetheless it looks as if this legislation is going to be passed by Parliament and made effective from September, so we will probably have to discontinue the current very effective system until we get the formal permission letters with signatures in place. If anyone feels strongly about this they may wish to make their views known to their own MP.