The cashless school will bring a dramatic range of benefits for students, parents and schools.

IMAGINE A SCHOOL where dinner money never gets lost or stolen and the canteen never runs out of change. An innovative company has managed not only to achieve that, but has taken it a stage further. In addition to its swipecard and touch-screen systems it has devised a system of accounts which can’t be operated by anyone other than the account owner and which doesn’t rely on students remembering pin numbers – it is all triggered biometrically.

Touch-screen technology

The current set-up, initially designed for primary schools, is a cardless system which comprises a touch-screen terminal located in the school canteen area. This is linked to a school office computer which stores information and photographs for each user. The lunch supervisor simply touches the student’s photograph on screen and the meal is charged to the account. If the account has no credit then the meal can still be issued, but a negative balance is recorded – thus doing away with the awkward position of needing to ‘borrow’ money from the office. All ‘loans’ of this sort are automatically shown at the end of the day, allowing for immediate follow-up. Free school meals can be credited to accounts on a termly basis without any outward sign to other students.

Accounts are credited either via the office computer on a daily, weekly or termly basis or by parents issued with a magnetic stripe card which matches the child’s account and which can be read by a revaluation unit, thus allowing accounts to be topped up when children are dropped off at school. Accounts are credited through the office software, allowing for payment by cheque, direct debit and debit/credit card. All transfer of monies is done in ‘real time’, so that at any time a student or parent can check their balance accurately.

More generally, in secondary schools the students themselves are issued with a magnetic swipe card which allows access to their account, but again a photo recognition element means that the account cannot be accessed at the canteen serving terminal by others.

Biometrics are the future

Biometric recognition kiosks are the latest development in the Nationwide Retail Systems cashless school system. The biometric element increases security by doing away with the possibility of access by others as the terminal is operated by the student placing their finger over a sensor. The information from the finger scan is stored as a data string, not as a fingerprint. Simply by placing a finger over the scanner a student can access their account in order to carry out a range of functions and no other student can access their funds.

There have been some concerns recently about the use of biometric devices in schools, something that Nationwide Retail Systems are acutely aware of, and are addressing through a range of innovative measures. The aim is to make the systems as safe and secure as possible, while also protecting confidential data on individuals.

Multiple purses

With both the current and new technology, the software package for the office computer means that separate ‘purses’ can be set up in any individual’s account to provide a means of paying for other activities (eg trips). Money can be paid into this on a weekly or monthly basis and at any time a student can have a number of purses operating – such as skiing holiday, theatre visit, book club, school lunches – so that parents can pay for activities either in full or spread the cost over a period of weeks. This not only makes budgeting easier when there are a number of children from one family in the school, it also reduces the opportunities for bullying by removing the need for students to carry cash, as well as simplifying the collection procedure.

Safe and secure

Where students themselves are issued with cards the advantage is that the card itself has no monetary value as it simply serves as a means of accessing an account. Therefore if it is stolen, lost or even left in the back pocket of trousers in the wash, the user does not lose their money. Each card has an encoded unique identification number which is linked to the individual’s account and so in the event of loss a new card is issued and the new number reallocated to the account. This number then supersedes the ‘lost’ card and all balances and information is transferred.

Links to healthy eating

Linking the payment and point of sale screens means that healthy eating can be encouraged by awarding ‘points’ to certain food groups or individual products. These can be used in a way similar to supermarket loyalty points, thus encouraging healthy eating promotions as points can be accrued by individuals, forms or year groups. Parental instructions can also be included (eg an individual’s account can be programmed so that they are not allowed confectionery at break time, but only at lunchtime, and that chips can only be purchased twice a week). Financial controls can also be included so that only a limited amount can be spent at break time, with the bulk being available for lunchtime. Similarly, dietary requirements can be factored into accounts so that students with an allergy can be barred from products containing that ingredient.

Individual accounts can also be monitored if there is a particular problem so that parents can receive a detailed breakdown of how money is spent and what is purchased. Restrictions can also be placed on free school meals so that certain products, such as confectionary, cannot be purchased from the lunch allowance but can be available through other credits on that account. Information from the cashless system can also be used to identify spending patterns and eating trends and allows the user to monitor the effectiveness of any changes implemented.

Details of the scheme are available from Nationwide Retail Systems Limited