Contract caterers have welcomed the advent of fingerprint recognition technology, which could potenitally speed up queues in school canteens and monitor pupils eating choices.
Fingerprinting is one of several biometric systems (along with photo and iris recognition) that builds upon existing smartcard-based cashless technologies.
The Humphrey Perkins High School in Barrow upon Soar, Leicestershire, is the first to use fingerprinting in its canteens and in-house chef Tom Edwards described the year-long trial as "a great success".
In-house caterers at Brinkburn School in South Tyneside will adopt the fingerprinting system next month, and the Derbyshire County Council catering team will roll it out to five schools in the autumn.
Like smartcards, biometric systems stop parents' cash being spent on junk food in local shops and help keep them informed about what their offspring are eating. Caterers get instant feedback on what is or isn't selling, and the school does not have to store cash overnight.
Simon James, managing director of Initial Catering's Eden Food Service division, said: "I certainly think we will see much more use of cashless systems and biometrics will find their way into the market."
But Mike Bond, UK managing director of Compass's education division, identified two obstacles to widescale adoption; namely parents' concerns about their use of their children's biometric data and the cost of the technology.
Kevin McKay, chairman of the Local Authority Caterers Association, agreed investment costs had limited the spread of smart-card systems so far but remained "the way forward".
Biometric systems cost between £22,000 and £25,000 but can be made to be more cost effective if linked to other systems such as registration and library books.
Benefits of biometric technology over smartcards
1) Removes the often high cost of replacing lost cards on a frequent basis
2) Can increase the uptake of free food as there is no stigma attached to the payment service, which their can be with certain card schemes that "mark" pupils out as receiving subsidised or free school meals.
3) Eliminates potential contamination risk from staff handling food alongside pupils cash or cards
4) Reduces bullying as kids can't be singled out by bullies as paying a particular way, and they don't need to bring cash to school
By Angela Frewin