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Moreover, O'Brien said: "We've always recommended with schools the importance of a dialogue [with parents] before doing it."

The fingerprints were translated into codes that could not be reversed back into prints and the data was stored using 128-bit "military-level" encryption so the children's biometrics where safe.

Softlink Europe operations director Paul Dhesi, the other supplier of biometrics known by The Register to be approved for deals involving schools' e-Learning credits, said its fingerprint scanner was also optional.

Only its base software could be bought with e-Learning credits. About 1,000 primary schools had bought the base system at a cost of up to £1,500, while about 2,500 secondary schools had purchased at a cost of up to £3,000.

About 500 to 600 schools had bought the biometric add-on, he said, at a cost of £140. He said his firm also recommended that headteachers consult with parents before installing fingerprint scanners. ®

These reports from the suppliers, however, were misleading.

"There's an 80/20 rule," said David Hassell, executive director of educational content at the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, which part-administers the e-Learning programme for the DfES.

Non-educational and hardware components like fingerprint scanners can be bought to one quarter the value of the main curriculum software purchased with e-Learning credits, he said.

BECTA did random checks on purchases made with e-Learning credits, said Hassell, but it did not have enough intelligence to know which firms where selling biometric components. This would be covered by the DfES.

He that with over 1,000 suppliers and 17,000 products approved for purchase with e-Learning credits, there far too many suppliers for him to know which were selling biometric hardware as part of a software sale.

However, the DfES was responsible for checking schools expenditure, he added.®

Bootnote

Last week, the DfES said that stories claiming it was drawing up guidance in the use of biometrics for schools where overcooked, and that such guidance was perennially revised.

It said its admission that such guidance was being drawn up was "not a u-turn".

However, in answer to other Parliamentary questions tabled by Teather and Gibb, the DfES claimed last July that it didn't have guidance on the the use of biometrics by schools.

In answer last September to an FOI request placed by the Liberal Democrats, the DfES said: "DfES has issued no guidance to schools on the collection and recording of pupils' biometric information and has no plans to do so."

Last week's statement could not have been a u-turn because, though the DfES did admit to drawing up guidance in the context of fingerprint scanning, its guidance was merely in relation to the Data Protection Act.

"We already provide specific guidance to schools on handling all pupil information under the Data Protection Act," it said.

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