The government has told head teachers to lighten up after one British school told children in the dinner queue that if they didn't give their fingerprints they wouldn't get any food.
The Department for Education and Skills said this week in a statement to the BBC Radio 4 Programme You and Yours that schools who refused school dinners to kids who won't scan their fingerprints might be in breach of the law, contrasting with the long-overdue guidance note it issued on school fingerprinting in the summer.
This draconian application of fingerprint technology at Morley High School, Leeds, had forced one parent to make her child packed lunches, since the school provided no alternative way for children to get their dinner.
John Townsley, head teacher of Morley High School, told You and Yours: "We have given parents an opt out. The opt out is that you don't have to have anything to do with the system whatsoever and that you then have the responsibility as a mum, dad or carer to provide a very healthy alternative to your child."
But the DfES said: "Schools have a legal duty to provide meals for pupils who want them. So telling concerned parents to provide pack lunches if they were unwilling to sign up to the fingerprint system, as Morley High was doing, might amount to a breach of the Education Act 2002."
However, the DfES said when it released the guidance in July that it supported schools' "freedom to run their own affairs", including whether they offered the children of dissenting parents an alternative way of getting their school dinners.
The guidance said: "It may be that some parents and/or pupils will seek to opt out from using the biometric systems. In this case schools may want to build into their plans the option for some pupils to have an alternative means of accessing the same services."
After the DfES U-turn, Morley High School subsequently told You and Yours that it would not refuse dinners to any child after all, even if their parents refused to allow their fingerprints to be scanned in the dinner queue.
Schools minister Jim Knight said on the programme that reports in the media about school fingerprinting "need to be less paranoid".
"The technology is being introduced with a lot of care... those schools that are offering should be explaining that to parents and hopefully then they can be introduced with consent," he said.
However, the earlier DfES guidance Knight endorsed said that schools did not have to seek parents' consent for scanning pupils' fingerprints - they merely needed to involve parents in their decisions.
The DfES sold the benefits of fingerprinting school children to the press when it issued the note. It said children could be processed through the lunch queue more efficiently and cost-effectively, and that children who get free school meals could evade stigmatisation.
It stressed that schools should follow guidelines set out in the Data Protection Act and thus allay parents' concerns, but noted that the Data Protection Act did not specifically address biometric data. Chinese data protection authorities have banned school fingerprint technology under similar laws on the grounds it is disproportionate to the job. ®