Facial recognition systems off the menu as schools reverse plans

Schools rethink approach after data privacy watchdog advises 'less intrusive' policy

Schools rethink approach after data privacy watchdog advises 'less intrusive' policy

22 Oct 2021, 5:00

More from this author


At least two schools in England are reversing their plans to install facial recognition systems in their canteens after a Scottish council faced widespread criticism for its use of the technology.

Nine schools in North Ayrshire launched the biometric systems this week to allow pupils to make contactless payments for their lunches.

The move sparked a backlash from campaigners and prompted the UK’s data privacy watchdog to make enquiries and advise schools to use a “less intrusive approach”.

This advice has led to schools in England rethinking their approach.

‘We weren’t aware of the advice’

CRB Cunninghams, the cashless catering company, is behind the scheme in Scotland, but also provides facial recognition technology to 27 English schools.

Another 16 schools were preparing to go live with the system, but Schools Week understands two have pulled out and opted to use fingerprint technology.

Great Academy Ashton, in Ashton-under-Lyne, had planned to roll out facial recognition systems after half-term and had parental consent from all pupils. It currently uses fingerprint technology to increase speed of purchase and reduce cash handling.

This week the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) warned that “organisations need to carefully consider the necessity and proportionality of collecting biometric data before they do so”.

Schools should consider “using a different approach if the same goal can be achieved in a less intrusive manner”.

David Waugh, the head of Great Academy Ashton, said: “The ICO is saying it’s essentially overkill in terms of data security and the use of facial recognition as a data source for catering in schools.

“Because I’ve now been made aware of the [views of] the ICO we’re obviously acting upon that.”

Backlash against ‘border-style’ checks

There are wider concerns, too.

Silkie Carlo, a director of Big Brother Watch, said no child should go through “border-style identity checks” to get a school meal…“this is highly sensitive, personal data that children should be taught to protect.”

David Swanston, CRB Cunninghams’ managing director, confirmed a second school had also decided to revert to the fingerprint system.

“We went through the same thing when we introduced fingerprints until people realised it was completely contained in the school,” he said. CRB launched its fingerprints system in 2006, now used by about 2,000 schools.

“Fingerprints are normalised now… Everyone wants to be reassured that they’re doing the right thing.”

Swanston told Schools Week the facial recognition system was developed after schools requested an alternative no-touch biometrics solution because of fears over Covid. It was launched in June.

He understood the response of campaigners, but said: “You’ve got to take it for what it is being used for, and in this case it’s purely for ease for the user.”

Speed of processing pupils was a main driver, he added.

Biometric data ‘stored on secure database’

On data concerns, he said that pupil biometric data, in this case eight to 12 points on their face and the distance between them, was stored on a secure database and linked to a student number.

It was not a live scanning system, only picking up faces when the operator touched the screen.

Each database was unique to the school and usually stored on the school’s server. The data was not shared with any outside parties and biometric data was protected behind military grade encryption, Swanston said.

“It’s only used for cashless payments in a closed loop environment . . . all it does is link a person to their account in the school.” 

Under the Protections of Freedoms Act 2012 schools must seek consent from parents of pupils under the age of 18 if they wish to use the child’s biometric data.

It costs up to £12,000 for a school to install a fingerprint biometrics system, plus up to £3,000 a year, depending on the size of the school and package ordered.

The Department for Education said it was up to schools whether they used facial recognition or other biometrics.

More from this theme


80 winners scoop silver at the 2022 Pearson National Teaching Awards

Education secretary praises 'incredible educators who support our children to achieve their potential'

Freddie Whittaker

Crackdown to ensure schools face ‘rigorous checks’ on ECT training

Investigation revealed mentors were not being given their legal entitlement to time off timetable for training

James Carr

Half of new teachers struggle to balance teaching and training

Government evaluation report also reveals three in four mentors have struggled to spend time on their own training

Freddie Whittaker

‘Recovery premium’ rolled out for all special school and AP pupils

Catch-up cash will double for mainstream secondaries, rising to £60k on average, but rates frozen for most primaries

Tom Belger

£200 grants to encourage small school staff to take NPQs

£22.6m set aside as free scholarships also opened up to private schools

James Carr

DfE hiring up to 8 more advisers to oversee attendance push

A handful of councils alone have slashed more attendance staff than the DfE plans to recruit

Tom Belger

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.