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Schools beating queues at the touch of a button


21/02/2008 :: Northern Ireland :: The Irish News

Cashless catering systems could be the future for schools across the north, as the days of rummaging in blazer pockets for cards or coins are consigned to history.

St Colman's College in Newry, Co Down, and St Paul's High in Bessbrook, Co Armagh, are two schools already using new fingerprint technology to pay for school meals, with St Joseph's College in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, to join them by the summer.

Under the 'school lunch biometric system', instead of paying for food with cash, students just place a forefinger on a small fingerprint reader in the canteen.

The computer system, which would cost around £15,000 for a school of 900 pupils, then translates this electronic print into a mathematical pattern and matches it to a student's account information.

David Swenston of supplier CRB Solutions said around 200 schools across Britain and Northern Ireland now use the system in their canteens.

"It proves very beneficial for the schoolchildren and takes the hassle away from queuing and rummaging in their pockets for money or dinner cards" he said.

St Colman's was the first school canteen in the north to go biometric, in September last year.

Bursar Derek Campbell said the system was proving "brilliant and efficient".

St Paul's in nearby Bessbook adopted the technology just last month and it is also proving popular with students and staff.

"So far, so good - the school children have adapted well to the system, as we have had a similar system in our school library," bursar Sharon Cowan said.

When first introduced in Britain, some concerns were voiced about privacy issues.

Proponents say that although the readers trace fingerprint ridges to make a positive identification, they do not actually save the image - and the information therefore cannot be used for any other purpose.

Asked about fingerprint technology in schools, Commissioner for Children and Young People Patricia Lewsley said: "With all the new policy and practices in schools, we hope that children and young people have been consulted directly."

Schools using the system say they have explained it to pupils and parents and insist the information is secure.

Parents also like the fact they can pre-pay for meals online.

However, the innovation means that parents, schools or other bodies can potentially monitor what pupils are eating for lunch on a daily basis.

Mr Campbell said he did not have concerns about schools holding such information.

"Personally, as a parent, I think it's a positive thing that we know what our children spend their money on," he said.

Ms Cowan also said the system hadn't raised any ethical issues at St Paul's.

"At the end of the day the parents are paying for the food. Personally I think it's no different than giving your child a packed lunch."

Some schools in England have already used the technology to reward children for healthy eating.

It has also been argued it helps prevents bullying by reducing the amount of cash carried by pupils and concealing any stigma attached to children from disadvantaged families receiving free meals.

SDLP assembly member Dominic Bradley, a former teacher at St Paul's, said despite the initial outlay, the system has reduced the burden involved in the administration of school meals.

"It also allows pupils to have greater control of meal accounts," he said.

"I think that the system may well become widespread in schools in Northern Ireland in the future."



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