Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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The Quandary - 03 Dec 2009

Can our son refuse to join his school’s ‘fingerprint’ canteen system and still have a hot meal at lunchtime?

Hillary's Advice

The answer appears to be a resounding yes. According to the law firm Cobbetts, a biometric system like this raises issues of data protection, and unless the school is rigorous in how it obtains, stores and uses these fingerprints it could be in breach of the Data Protection Act. The new system also raises questions of possible unlawful pupil surveillance. Pupils need to be able to understand the full implications of giving their biometric information before consenting to join a system like this, and is it unlikely that the law would consider any pupil under 13, and probably many over 13, to have such a competency. So introducing a fingerprint system without parental consent – which is what you say has happened at your son’s school – would immediately suggest that existing legislation is being ignored.

But you will be glad to know that pupils cannot be coerced into giving their biometric data, so if the school were to threaten to deny your son hot lunches if he refused to join the system this would almost certainly constitute unlawful pressure.

Cobbetts also advises parents that, to comply with the law, biometric information must be stored under the very highest standards of security, and this could well be prohibitively expensive for a school. Parents should also be aware, it says, that there is a very real danger that fingerprint material could subsequently be used for many other purposes than just the canteen. A database like this, they warn “is a slippery slope.”