Saturday September 22 2007
So you will remember the fish oil pill stories of last year. For the new kids: pill company Equazen and Durham Council said they were doing a trial on them with their GCSE year, but it wasn’t really a proper trial, for example there was no control group, and they had lots of similarly dodgy “trials” dotted about, which were being pimped successfully to the media as “positive”. When asked,
It’s back to school time. The fish oil adverts are everywhere. But what were the GCSE results in
This was an area of failing schools, remember, receiving a huge amount of extra effort and input of all forms. The preceding year, with no fish oil, the results – the number of kids getting 5 GCSE grades A* to C – had improved by 5.5%. And now? After the fish oil intervention? Well. This rate of improvement seems to have deteriorated spectacularly. I chased the results myself through
In fact, did the fish oils retard the progress of the children in the year? It’s a possibility we must always be alive to, if we really are to believe that a pill can have an impact on a complex social issue like school performance. Income inequality, underpaid teachers, poor facilities, low morale, and inadequate recruitment would be my preferred explanations for poor education outcomes, but if you’re made happy by the idea that pills
can fix the problem then be my guest.
You might think it’s too early to expect results. Am I being mean? Impatient? Too demanding? Apparently not. Because wondrous, amazing, buy-more-now positive results of even more trials of fish oils have suddenly started appearing out of nowhere all over the media. Toft Hill School in – wait – Durham for example, has been gushingly written up in the Evening Standard, with a picture of the smiling headmaster holding a nice big box of Equazen brand fish oil. Even the Mirror gave it a nice page. This stuff costs 50 pence per child per day (and Durham only spends 70 pence on school meals).
You will remember, at the time, I suggested that this so-called trial in GCSE candidates was meaningless, since there was no control group taking placebo tablets. Getting the TV cameras in, raising expectations, and showering lots of extra attention, as Durham did, is bound to elicit a massive placebo benefit.
You may also remember how, in Durham, it was argued that a placebo control group would be “unethical”, since that would deprive some children of the benefit. This was absurd: we do not know if there is a benefit, that’s why we needed a proper trial, not these publicity shams.
But there is a genuine ethical issue at stake now: nonsense research – and this was probably the single most widely covered trial in the media for the whole of 2006 – undermines the credibility of trial research in general, and makes it more difficult to recruit into trials. It propagates cynicism about research, and encourages people to believe that trials are only done as a sham marketing exercise.
And here is the key ethical issue for today. People consent to being in a trial on the grounds that they will be contributing to the sum total of human knowledge, not to a marketing exercise. They give over their bodies – and their childrens’ bodies – as testing grounds for new pills, on those moral terms. If the results of this “trial” of fish oil pills are not published, in full: then it will be a grotesque betrayal of the faith put in the researchers by the parents and children of Durham.
We enjoyed the blanket media coverage of 2006. It was a meaningless “trial” at the best of times, but now you must give us the results. Especially when the newspapers have already managed to report the apparently positive findings of other “trials” – appearing out of nowhere – which gave you the outcome you wanted.
You can remind yourself exactly how Durham and Equazen marketed this “trial” – before they knew what the results would be – here.
I’ll jog your memory.
The Press Association call it a trial:
“The countywide trial at 36 schools will continue until the pupils finish their exams next summer. The first test of the supplement’s effectiveness will be when they sit their mock GCSEs in December.”
The Daily Mail call it a trial and talk about the results (next to a nice big glossy colour photograph of a box of Eye-Q brand omega-3 supplements, page 4 6/9/06).
“The trial will continue until their GCSE examinations next June – which will need £1 million worth of supplements supplied free. The company hopes the results of the project will then spark orders all over the country.” Quotes Ford talking about measuring the results, and Portwood calling it a trial too:
Mr Ford added: “We will be able to track pupil’s progress and measure whether their attainments are better than their predicted scores.” Dr Madeleine Portwood, senior educational psychologist at Durham county council, who has led much of the previous research into fish oils added: “The scale of this new trial is extraordinary. “Previous trials have shown remarkable results and I am confident that we will see marked benefits in this one as well.”
ITV call it research
Fish oil supplements have been heralded as the cure-all for everything from arthritis to heart disease and now research will see if they really do boost IQ.
Channel 4 news present it very clearly as a research project.
They also feature Portwood spouting: “and if we can improve the connections in the cortex then the limbic system is dampened down so the children are less excitable.” “It sounds complicated…” says the narrator.
Dr Madeleine Portwood calls it a trial:
Dr Madeleine Portwood, senior educational psychologist at Durham county council, who has led much of the previous research into fish oils added: “The scale of this new trial is extraordinary.
“Previous trials have shown remarkable results and I am confident that we will see marked benefits in this one as well.” (my italics). I’m not surprised, love.
Durham county’s own press release calls it a trial. twice! and a study once.
“The County-wide trial will continue until the pupils complete their GCSE examinations next June, and the first test of the supplement’s effectiveness will be when they sit their mock exams this December.”
“The trial has won the backing of Durham County Councillors, who are committed to making a difference to children’s outcomes and improving their life chances.”
“All Year 11 pupils at Durham County Council’s 36 comprehensive schools are to be offered omega-3 fish oil supplements to see whether the proven benefits it has already brought children and young people in earlier trials can boost exam performances too.”
Fish Oil Initiative Could Boost Gcse Pass Rate
County recruits 5,000 Year 11 pupils for unique study
Education chiefs in County Durham are to mount a unique back-to-school initiative today which they believe could result in record GCSE pass levels next summer.
All Year 11 pupils at Durham County Council’s 36 comprehensive schools are to be offered omega-3 fish oil supplements to see whether the proven benefits it has already brought children and young people in earlier trials can boost exam performances too.
“We are able to track pupils’ progress and we can measure whether their attainments are better than their predicted scores,” said Mr Ford.
oh and at the bottom it says “eye q is commercially available through retailers such as Boots and Superdrug. For more information 0870 241 5621 or go to www.equazen.com“
And Equazen’s press release describes measuring the results, and calls it a trial
“The County-wide strategy will continue until the pupils complete their GCSE examinations next June, and the first test of the supplement’s effectiveness will be when they sit their mock exams this December. We are able to track pupils’ progress and we can measure whether their attainments are better than their predicted scores,” said Mr Ford.
“You will be invited to send a reporter and/or photographer to a media launch of the trial at a County Durham school on the morning of September 6 where key players in the initiative, including pupils, will be available for interview.”