ALMOST half of all local authorities in Scotland have schools using fingerprint or palm-print machines to record the identity of pupils.

A Sunday Herald survey revealed the speed at which biometric systems have spread since a palmprint reader was piloted at a Paisley primary school just one year ago. Since then, 14 educational authorities have introduced biometric identification, with at least two others planning to put such systems in place.

The technology is currently used to record information about library accounts and register pupils' school meal status in the hope that anonymity will help tackle the stigma of free school dinners. Despite fears that such systems are eroding civil liberties by creating unnecessary banks of identity data, experts believe "kiddyprinting" will continue to expand in the near future.

Alan Cunningham, of Yarg Biometrics, the Scottish company which introduced palm-vein scanners in cafeterias, believes new projects could soon place biometric systems at the school gates.

He said: "It is possible to have a secure access system at the door that would register pupils, and could send an automatic text message to parents to let them know if children attended school that day."

Parents across the UK, concerned about such a future, have formed the campaign group Leave Them Kids Alone. Spokesman David Coulter said: "Schools are not the right place to hold this kind of sensitive data.

"There isn't sufficient protection in place. The (UK) government is failing in its duty to uphold children's rights, to protect their most precious commodity, their future identity."

The private firm Amey is now presenting biometric systems as part of its pitch for all new school building contracts. The company was keen to assure parents in Renfrewshire, where 11 more schools are set to adopt palm readers, that the technology was safe and data could not be stolen or misused.

Grant Henderson, Amey's director of education, said: "The parents of all children who use the palm-vein scanner are fully aware of the system and have given permission for the children to use them. This information is retained only on our local secure server and is not shared with any external bodies."

A Renfrewshire Council spokesman added: "The experience we've had so far has been positive, with support from staff, parents and pupils."

Coulter rejected the argument that data could not be compiled on any national database at a later date. "All these systems are potentially compatible. If someone has access to biometric data, we don't know how it could be used in 10 years' time."

Patrick Harvie MSP, who raised questions about the implications of school fingerprinting in the Scottish parliament last year, is concerned its rapid spread its sending the wrong message to young people.

"They could impinge directly on civil liberties, but in a wider sense, they seem to be preparing young people to surrender their biometric data. We should be teaching children to be very careful about protecting their identity."

The Green Party MSP also said previous proposals about the introduction of scanners, CCTV, compulsory ID cards and random drug testing in schools were a worrying indication of a shift in educational ethos. "It feels like an environment where pupils are being policed, rather than the nurturing, learning atmosphere we should be creating."

Amid concern that some schools had not properly consulted parents on finger and palmprinting, the information commissioner recently issued best-practice guidelines on gaining the consent of both young children and their parents. The Data Protection Act, however, does not prevent school fingerprinting without parental consent, and campaigners are angry that students over 12 are deemed mature enough to make up their own minds.

Yarg's Alan Cunningham said only appropriate biometric systems would be introduced in schools, but predicted a boom in the widespread use of the security scanning technology.

"Secure access is the biggest market for biometric systems. Down the line, in the next three to five years, biometrics will be used in bank cards. In the next five years, we'll see an explosion in where biometrics are used."