THE world’s biggest experiment to see if food supplements can boost exam results has concluded that fish oil capsules do make a difference.
The results have been revealed two years after Durham County Council held a press conference at Belmont comprehensive school, near Durham City, to announce that 3,000 teenage pupils would be offered free fish oil capsules supplied by supplement company Equazen.
Effectively, the youngsters would become guinea pigs in the world’s largest attempt to see if supplements can improve a child’s academic performance.
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Yesterday, in response to request from The Northern Echo, Durham County Council issued a statement making it clear that education officials believe that the omega-3 fish and evening primrose oil capsules improved exam room performances.
The local education authority’s (LEA) conclusion was last night attacked by Ben Goldacre, who recently published a book called Bad Science.
Mr Goldacre has always maintained that the fish oil experiment was a missed opportunity because the council failed to establish a control group of youngsters who were not given the capsules. Yesterday, he said the results were “meaningless” and amounted to “laughably incompetent science, in an experiment performed on thousands of Durham children”.
The LEA came to its conclusion after discovering a significant difference in GCSE exam results between students who took regular fish oil capsules, and youngsters of a similar background and academic ability who did not take the supplements.
The council’s education chiefs believe that, while the results of the study are not definitive, they could justify more clinically-based scientific trials to determine whether fish oil supplements boost educational attainment.
Dave Ford, head of achievement for Durham County Council’s Children and Young People’s Services, said: “We have always maintained that if the outcome was positive, it would then be for scientists to examine in more detail.
“The findings of our study suggest it may now be worth them following it up in more depth through proper clinical trials.”
Initially, just over 3,000 year 11 pupils began the study, taking the omega-3 tablets at school and at home.
By the time GCSE examinations came round last summer, 832 pupils had 80 per cent or greater compliance in terms of taking the supplements every day.
Mr Ford and his colleagues then sought to identify the same number of year 11 pupils who had not taken the supplement and match them to those who had, according to school, gender, prior attainment and social background.
The GCSE results of 629 “matched pairs” – fish oil takers and non-fish oil takers – were then analysed.
“To reach comparative levels of their attainment prior to the study, we used a nationally accepted system, which took into account the results for each pupil at key stages two and three,” said Mr Ford.
At both stages, the difference in predicted GCSE outcomes between the groups was on average less than three points. But when it came to GCSEs – results between those who had taken the supplement and those who had not – rose to 17.7 points.
In terms of GCSE grades, this is the difference between a student getting three C grade GCSEs and five D grades, and another getting five Cs and three Ds.
By stepping up to five good GCSE passes, the student has the opportunity to take A-levels and go on to university.
“If there had been no difference in attainment between the two groups, we would be tempted to dismiss the benefits of omega-3,” said Mr Ford.
“However there seem to be some very clear indications that pupils taking the supplement do significantly better.”
Mr Ford said the council made no claim that the results of its GCSE study could be attributed only to omega-3 supplementation.
“Other factors may be responsible for the difference in performance – for instance, the benefit may be a placebo effect, or it may be that those students who achieved 80 per cent compliance were better organised and had families who provided support at home and so might have done better anyway,” he added.
Mr Ford said the study has produced “some interesting and possibly exciting issues”
for further investigation that could be the basis for future scientific trials.
Mr Goldacre, who has a column in The Guardian, said: “They could easily have determined if fish oil capsules are beneficial in this ‘trial’ if they had performed it competently, which they chose not to, despite all offers of help and criticism at the time.”