Pupils get smart with clocking-in card

THE dreary ritual of taking the class register will be consigned to the education history books by a Scottish school later this year.

St Thomas of Aquin’s High School in Edinburgh will become the first in the country to replace the age-old Biro ticks on graph paper with a sophisticated new clocking-in system based on ID swipe cards.

Education chiefs say the system will allow them to monitor truancy rates much more effectively, as well as freeing up precious time for teachers. If it proves successful, pupils across Scotland will be clocking-in to lessons within a few years.

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However, civil rights organisations have criticised this latest development in the use of ID technology as just another step down the road towards compulsory identity cards for all.

Several schools have already issued pupils with electronic photocards which can be used for a range of services from paying for food in the canteen to taking out library books.

But Edinburgh is the first Scottish council to use the cards to register pupils’ attendance at every class during the day.

The One Edinburgh Card is currently being distributed to 21,000 pupils at all but one of the city’s 24 secondary schools to be used for cashless catering.

St Thomas of Aquin’s is going a step further with electronic registration because its pupils have been using cashless catering for two years and are used to carrying ‘plastic’.

Under the scheme, wall-mounted scanning panels will be installed in the doorways of virtually all classrooms in the school and pupils will have to pass their cards over them as they enter the room.

Teachers will monitor the entry of pupils as they come into the classroom through laptop computers on their desks. As each pupil scans his card, a thumbnail picture of the student appears on the teachers’ screens, allowing them to verify that pupils used their own cards and automatically keeping a tally of pupils.

At the moment, registration takes place in the morning and in the afternoon in most schools, but the technology would provide class-by-class information on individual attendance.

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The system gives schools a potentially massive amount of very detailed information about pupils’ attendance patterns, allowing repeated truancy to be quickly identified. The council refused to say how much the system had cost to install.

Councillor Ewan Aitken, Edinburgh’s education convener, denied any suggestions that the registration scheme was Orwellian and would be used to control children. He insisted it would make them more responsible.

"It is because the young folk are up to speed with the cards and the technology that we are introducing it," he said. "One of the things pupils say is their experience of school is totally different to the rest of their lives.

"They use passes throughout their lives to get on a bus or to borrow a book, but they don’t at school, and when they go on to work they will also probably use them to get in and out of their building."

East Renfrewshire Council, Highland Council and West Lothian Council are among the councils that have expressed an interest in using smart cards for registration in the future.

In the past two years, 13 Scottish councils have introduced cashless catering schemes for secondary schools and a number are now looking at using the system to monitor attendance.

But civil rights campaigners expressed worries about the implications for children’s rights. Marion Pagani, chairman of the Glasgow children’s panel, said: "Although parents may find it useful to know where their children are, some people will ask whether there are human rights problems about monitoring children."

Some parents’ groups were dubious about whether the new technology would actually give teachers more time to spend on lessons.

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Eleanor Coner, convener of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, said she was concerned about over-reliance on an automated system. "Where there is technology there is also room for fiddling things and also things breaking down."

Fiona Hyslop, SNP education spokeswoman, said swipe cards could improve attendance by making pupils take responsibility for their own registration.

"The issue is how it would work in practice and how effective it would be. It depends on pupils bringing their cards into school and using them.

"The big danger is that it is seen as a Big Brother scenario, but quite frankly parents now expect teachers to know where their children are at all times and it is not necessarily an authoritarian thing."

Schools have been encouraged to introduce cards for cashless catering after an Executive report claimed it would reduce the stigma faced by those receiving free school meals and could also be used to run healthy eating schemes.

The Executive, which has been funding cashless canteen schemes, said that it had intended the cards to be used primarily for dinner halls and it was individual councils that had decided to use them for registration.

"They have been given the funding to take these things forward. It is up to them exactly the way they go ahead with it," a spokeswoman said.