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Put their hands up over 80/20 rule

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Firms supplying fingerprint scanners to UK schools have put the national procurement authority in the right over whether their biometric components are being bought using funding set aside for teaching software.

Parents campaigning against their children's fingerprints being taken have been worried that teaching funds are being used for the purchase of the equipment that takes their dabs.

BECTA (The British Educational and Communications Technology Agency) told The Register last week that e-Learning credits - central government funding intended to help schools buy teaching software - could be used to buy fingerprinting systems under an allowance in the rules.

For every £1,000 a school spends on teaching software using e-Learning credits, an 80/20 rule allows them to spend £200 on associated odds and ends. Schools are allowed to buy software to manage their libraries using e-Learning credits, so they could use the 80/20 rule to buy the biometric scanners that go with them, BECTA educational content executive director Dave Hassell said.

But he did not have a tally of what specific items had been sold: "The Department [for Education and Skills] has a scheme for auditing expenditure," he said. The DfES funds the e-Learning credit programme.

Two key suppliers of school library systems have insisted they have not supplied fingerprint equipment via e-Learning credits because they use the 80/20 rule to supply other associated components.

Micro Librarian Systems and Softlink Europe have between them supplied fingerprint scanners to over 5,000 schools in Britain. Yet these biometric components are a gimmicky sideline to their core technology, which is the sale of computer systems that tie the management of library stock into the national curriculum - making books interesting to kids.

Micro Librarian Systems managing director Andy O'Brien said: "Yes, they have an 80/20 rule. But our [basic] hardware already takes up that 20 per cent. The biometrics are never included. It's always in an optional module."

Junior Librarian, the MLS system, comes with a bar code reader to scan books, at £95, and is normally sold with a pack of 6,000 bar codes to stick on the books, at £20 per 1,000 - which brings the basic non-educational hardware up close to the limit for a system that's sold at around £1,000.

Paul Dhesi, sales and marketing director of Softlink Europe, which supplies the Alice library system, said: "Eighty per cent is taken by the software and the rest is taken up largely by the scanner and labels they need to get the library up and running."

The fingerprint modules of the library systems are used in place of the swipe cards or names that pupils would normally use to take out library books and are said by suppliers to be popular with pupils. Campaigners against the use of such technology say it gets them used to casually handing over their biometrics for trivial purposes and consumes the trust that characterises normal human society.

MLS and Softlink are the only two of about 1,000 accredited e-Learning suppliers The Register knows to supply fingerprinting systems.

BECTA said it did not know how many more there were on the books. Other leading suppliers of school technology with e-Learning accreditations resell the biometric components of other firms. ®

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