News / Blog

Facial recognition and biometrics in schools

On November 4, 2021 the House of Lords held a short debate, led by the question from Lord Clement-Jones, to ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the use of facial and other biometric recognition technologies in schools.

Lord Clement-Jones opened the debate noting that after a pilot in Gateshead in England last year, and the recently paused rollout in nine schools in North Ayrshire in Scotland, this technology is already becoming widely adopted on both sides of the border, with 27 schools already using it in England, and another 35 in the pipeline, through just one company.

Where do we draw the line?


Lord Scriven said:

“As a society, we are putting the cart before the horse if we talk about the technology and how it should be deployed in schools as an automatic assumption. The marketing departments of these companies are leading the debate, not the legislators, if we start from that assumption. To put it in its simplest and most understandable way, we are having this debate to ask whether it is acceptable for us as a society to use a child’s face as a proxy purse or wallet to pay for a bag of chips or a slice of pizza in a state school, to solve a problem that does not exist, namely reducing queuing times by five seconds. This debate is not about technology; it is about the use of a child in terms of the autonomy of that child’s body.

This debate is very fundamental. It is a debate about where we, as a society, draw the line in the use of technology—not about what we do once it is deployed but what the limitations of it are before we start talking about how it is regulated. Where do we draw the line? This cannot be left to individual schools or councils. It is for this Parliament to legislate and to decide where we draw that line.

As a nation we need to see where the limitations of its use are and where it should not be deployed, and then to regulate in areas where we feel that it is unacceptable.

If we leave it to individual schools, the unintended consequences and problems that will arise will be not just technical but deeply ethical and societal. There must be a balanced debate within this Parliament and legislation must be brought forward. We have seen the unintended consequences in live facial recognition use by the police when the marketing teams and the technology gets ahead of the legislation. We talk then about the lack of regulation, rather than first talking about where it is acceptable and unacceptable and we start seeing that, as the technology leads, people’s rights are trampled on and we try to play catch-up.”

In work led by Big Brother Watch (BBW), and after research by our co-Director Pippa King who founded Biometrics-in-Schools over fifteen years ago, defenddigitalme joined BBW in October 2021 in writing to all schools we know of, using live facial recognition. We ask them to stop using facial recognition systems, and to instead offer less intrusive means for students to purchase food and make other payments in educational settings.

References (last updated April 2023)

1. House of Lords Library overview Facial recognition technology in schools [link]

2. Full text of the House of Lords debate (November 4, 2021) on Hansard. [link]

3. Lord Clement-Jones also referred to the question put in the Scottish Parliament on October 28th, by the MSP for North East Fife Willie Rennie, who asked what the Scottish government position is, on facial recognition in schools. The First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, responded that she felt the technologies do not appear to be proportionate or necessary. [Link to full text of debate on They Work For You].

4. Download our Biometrics in schools briefing April 2023 [link]

5. Our report published in May 2022, The State of Biometrics 2022: A review of policy and practice in the UK education sector.

6. Recent media coverage [link]

7. Original media coverage October 17, 2021 [paywalled]