Face scanners to speed up pupil registration and queues for lunches were helping to create a Big Brother regime in schools, it was claimed yesterday.
Infra-red recognition systems – similar to those introduced at passport controls – are able to scan children’s faces as they approach the school entrance.
They can also recognise them as they buy dinners or borrow library books.
Aurora, the biometric firm which has developed the system, will begin trials of its product in St Neots Community College, Cambridgeshire next week.
The school will initially use the technology to help them identify late-comers.
But the use of facial recognition systems in schools merely for administrative convenience was condemned by campaigners, who attacked Big Brother-style surveillance and warned about the risk to pupils of identity theft.
Aurora will also showcase the system at the Bett education technology show in London next week to gauge teachers’ reactions.
It says it is ‘hopeful’ of a positive response since the system is ‘ultra-fast’, can verify an identity in 1.5 seconds and is more accurate than a human.
Schools using the technology would first take an infra-red photograph of students which would be stored on a secure system, possibly alongside their names.
Students approaching the recognition device, which can be attached to a wall or positioned on a desk, can be identified from up to a metre away.
Their faces are scanned using an invisible infra-red light.
Paul Coase, Aurora’s sales and marketing manager, said: ‘The data is stored on a school managed and controlled server.
‘At St Neots it is incredibly secure and it’s encrypted. That is pretty standard across local authorities and schools.
‘The kind of data that’s stored is a grainy infra-red image of a student. The image is stored as an encrypted biometric template. As it’s encrypted, it’s almost impossible to extract any information from.’
Schools have previously experimented with fingerprint scanners and even radio transponder chips embedded in school uniforms but the new system goes further.
Official guidance to schools says they do not have to seek parental consent before introducing biometric systems although heads should ensure they ‘normally involve’ parents in decisions to introduce the technology.
But campaigners said facial recognition technology was appropriate to protect national security – not to issue children with library books or check their absenteeism.
David Clouter, of the pressure group Leave Them Kids Alone, branded the development ‘appalling’ and warned that children could in future be vulnerable to identity fraud.
‘It is alarming that this information will be stored on school systems,’ he said.
‘There’s no way a school could have the level of security of the passport office. That would cost millions and schools would not have the budget.
‘If the data itself is ever compromised, that’s it – you can’t rewind and get a new face or get new fingerprints.
‘If children get used to presenting fingerprints or looking into something, they will do it for trivial situations, and all these things help a Big Brother state and could lead to all databases about you being tied into one place.’
He added: ‘All these things tend to make our schools more impersonal. Whatever happened to the teacher at the gates saying “where’s little Johnny?”‘
The Venerable Bede School in Sunderland installed an iris scanner in 2003 but removed it a year later because it sometimes failed to recognise students and slowed lunch queues.
Fingerprint schemes are growing in popularity, however.
The increasing use of biometric technology by schools comes at a time of growing concern over the safe storage of personal data following a string of security breaches.
Personal details of more than a million bank customers were found last year on a computer sold on eBay.
The month before, a computer memory stick containing the personal details of 127,000 prisoners and high-risk offenders including rapists and murderers was lost by an employee of a private contractor working for the Home Office.
In November 2007, two computer discs holding bank details and National Insurance numbers of 25 million child benefit claimants got lost in the post.