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MPs investigate school fingerprinting

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Opposition MPs have begun investigating the use of biometric scanners in UK schools and the use of funds that might otherwise be spent buying books and learning materials to buy the systems.

Foremost in written parliamentary questions tabled by Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs was the question of fingerprint scanners being bought with e-Learning credits, which are a mechanism used by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) to provide schools with direct funding to buy educational software.

Sarah Teather, shadow education secretary and MP for Brent East, asked the government whether it had given schools permission to use e-Learning credits to buy biometric scanners that took children's fingerprints.

"I believe that the collection of biometric data from young pupils without parental consent is illegal and must cease," she told The Register in a written statement.

"The DfES needs to consult with parents, pupils, and local authorities. This can't be a decision made by ministers behind closed doors."

Parents who have been campaigning against their children being fingerprinted at school without their consent met yesterday with Teather and Nick Gibb, the Conservative shadow minister for schools.

A Conservative spokeswoman said Gibb was writing about his concerns over school fingerprinting to schools Minister Jim Knight.

Gibb asked the government if it knew how many schools were collecting their pupils' fingerprints, whether fingerprint scanners could be bought with e-Learning credits, and what advice the DfES was giving schools about the security of data they kept about children.

The DfES gave £330m straight to schools for spending on e-Learning materials to April 2006, after which it dished out another £125m to last until 2008.

Campaigners are concerned that thousands of schools have used their money to buy fingerprint scanners to get kids' dabs at registration, at the library counter, and at the canteen checkout.

The Register could find only two known suppliers of fingerprint systems on the list of those whose products are approved for purchase with e-Learning credits.

Micro Librarian Systems (MLS) managing director Andrew O'Brien said about 9,000 primary schools had bought its base system at an average cost of £1,100.

Schools were authorised to buy MLS's system using e-Learning credits, but the purchases where justified because the software tied children's experience in the library into the ICT and literacy curriculum, he said.

But the biometric module, which scanned children's fingerprints before authorising their borrowing of library books and cost £260, was an additional module that could not be bought with e-Learning credits.

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