Saturday March 29 2008
And so an epic saga comes to a close. You will remember the Durham Fish Oil tale – don’t switch off now, the punchline’s funny. The county council said it was doing a “trial” of fish oil pills in children, but the trial was designed so that it couldn’t possibly give useful information – not least because it had no placebo group – and was very likely to give a false positive result.
The idea was to give 3m pills to 2,000 children over eight months and see if their GCSE results improved. Unfortunately the GCSE results for Durham were rather disappointing this year, as we pointed out at the time. This fact was not press-released by the county council.
But would Durham publish the apparently disappointing data from the “trial”? Would Equazen – recently chastised by the Advertising Standards Authority for its misleading use of the Durham data – publicise it?
I can now answer this question for you. Durham has finally announced, in a formal response to a written question to the county council, that the trial in 2,000 children was never intended to produce any data on children’s performance. Specifically they said this: “It was never intended, and the county council never suggested, that it would use this initiative to draw conclusions about the effectiveness or otherwise of using fish oil to boost exam results.”
That’s funny. Because in the Daily Mail article from September 5 2006 headlined “Fish oil study launched to improve GCSE grades“, Dave Ford, the council’s chief schools inspector, says: “We will be able to track pupils’ progress and measure whether their attainments are better than their predicted scores.”
Dr Madeleine Portwood, senior educational psychologist at Durham county council, who ran the “trial”, says: “Previous trials have shown remarkable results and I am confident that we will see marked benefits in this one as well.”
Durham county council’s own press release from the beginning of the “trial” reads: “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.”
It says that children are being given pills “to see whether the proven benefits it has already brought children and young people in earlier trials can boost exam performances too”. The council’s chief schools inspector is “convinced” that these pills “could have a direct impact on their GCSE results … 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.”
“We are able to track pupils’ progress and we can measure whether their attainments are better than their predicted scores,” says Dave Ford, in the press release for the trial which, we are now told, was not a trial, and was never intended to collect any data on exam results. Perhaps in future journalists will regard the grand promises of Dr Madeleine Portwood, Dave Ford, the Equazen pill company, and of course Durham county council, with appropriate cynicism.
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