Education Quandary: Can our son refuse to join his school's 'fingerprint' canteen system and still have a hot meal at lunchtime?

Hilary Wilce
Thursday 03 December 2009 01:00 GMT

Hilary'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."

Readers' advice

You are not alone in this fight. Students at other schools besides yours have resisted the bringing in of such systems. Some MPs have taken up this cause with the Secretary of State. Simply hold to your beliefs and tell the school your son will not be taking part, but will continue to have hot school dinners. They will be powerless to make him.

Claire Bushall, Birmingham

Civil liberties, identity security and privacy are protected better by biometric ID systems. Why do you not want your son fingerprinted? Many are fingerprinted for a variety of reasons, other than criminal. Fingerprints can be useful in identifying persons who are involved in accidents or fatalities. Think ahead If you really are determined that your son have a hot meal at noon, perhaps you can provide one in an insulated container, however, that may embarrass your son.

Jack Poulter, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

Touch systems in canteens eliminate the need for students either to use cards, which can be lost, forgotten or stolen, or to carry cash. They cut out any fumbling with change, reduce queues, and help make lunchtimes a more pleasant experience for staff and children. They also give pupils on free meals more privacy, which encourages more of those pupils to use the canteen rather than buy junk food. Cashless systems in schools are safe, secure and increasingly popular.

Ian Poulter, Belfast

Next Week's Quandary

My daughter, nine, was reluctant to go back to school after the holidays and complains about stomach pains. She is struggling with maths and has also fallen out with her best friend, but we don't know if these are symptoms or causes. She won't tell us anything. What do we do?

Send your replies, or any quandaries you would like to have addressed, to h.wilce@btinternet. com. Please include your postal address. Readers whose replies are printed will receive a Collins Paperback English Dictionary 5th Edition. Previous quandaries are online at They can be searched by topic.

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