Though Durham County Council says the results of its fish oil initiative proves food supplements can improve educational standards among schoolchildren, the experiment is still mired in controversy. Health Editor Barry Nelson reports.

EDUCATION authorities in the North-East did not realise the kind of critical flak they would attract when they announced an ambitious plan to give thousands of teenagers brain-boosting fish oil pills.

The initiative, announced in September 2006, was seen as a logical extension of a series of smaller scale trials involving giving food supplements containing very pure fish and evening primrose oil to children with learning difficulties or behavioural problems.

The success of what became known as The Durham Trial in 11 of its primary schools spurred Durham County Council into organising the biggest massmedication ever attempted in the interests of boosting the little grey cells.

Researchers found that in the earlier trial, the fish oil capsules improved performance, concentration in the classroom and pupil behaviour.

Headteachers and parents spoke of their amazement at improvements in some children.

But the launch of the fish oil initiative in mainstream secondary schools – backed by £1m worth of eye.q fish oil supplements donated by supplement manufacturer Equazen – was criticised by a number of experts.

Journalists were told that the capsules used in the scheme were rich in substances called omega-3 and omega-6, fatty acids which modern diets lack and which many scientists believe are essential to good brain function.

But crucially, unlike other, earlier trials in County Durham, there was not a control group of pupils given dummy capsules to enable comparisons to be made.

Instead, every pupil who signed up the scheme got a daily allocation of capsules.

Initially, it was nutritionalist Dr Alex Richardson, director of charity Food and Behaviour Research, who expressed doubt about the value of the scheme.

In September 2006, he told The Northern Echo: “Durham is really going to struggle to come up with some hard evidence to prove they have made a difference.”

The doubts voiced by Dr Richardson were echoed by Professor Tom Sanders, head of nutrition at King’s College, London, who said Durham County Council was being duped because the project was “not good science”.

The Durham fish oil experiment also attracted the attention of persistent critic Ben Goldacre, a selfproclaimed enemy of bad science, whose column in The Guardian newspaper carried a string of attacks on what was happening in the North-East.

Last night, Mr Goldacre told The Northern Echo: “First they said they were doing a trial, then when it was over they refused to release the results, and claimed – in defiance of everything they’d already said at the time – that it was never their intention to do a trial. Now they claim to have some results. This is extraordinarily irresponsible and unprofessional.

“Durham County Council has performed an experiment giving six capsules a day to thousands of children and they have a responsibility to behave ethically and transparently.

They have failed in this regard.”

Mr Goldacre said it was “appalling” that the education authority’s conclusions had failed to take account of the 2,168 pupils who dropped out of the trial.

In selectively looking at the results of pupils who were compliant to the capsule regime the LEA had “skewed their sample and are simply measuring children who are likely to be more hard-working at school.”

Mr Goldacre claimed that the entire experiment was “nothing more than a marketing project for some pills” which had “misled the public”.