On 15th February 2007, I wrote to the DCC Chairman, Councillor Ernie Foster, pointing out that in my opinion Councillor vasey had made a mockery of the Public Questions initiative by not answering my second question. I asked for his views on how the Public Questions initiative could possibly work if councillors refuse to ask perfectly straightforward, properly submitted questions.

I further pointed out that Councillor Vasey, who had replied to my questions in the chamber, had e-mailed me to say that she was prepared to meet me to discuss the matter, but I had declined her offer because she clearly knew that such a discussion would be off the public record. I also told him that I felt that her observation that the meeting was probably unnecessary because I had already made up my mind on the subject, was insulting.

Councillor Foster replied to me on 20th March 2007, having discussed the matter with Councillor Vasey. he first dealt with my assertion that no amswer had been given to my second question and that as a result there was no DCC response on the public record. His position was that the second paragraph of Councillor vasey’s response explained that the opportunity to use Omega 3 supplement was facilitated by Officers in their normal advisory role to autonomous schools. “This opportunity was supported by officers of the authority in their advisory role to autonomous schools. Schools and toung people and their families were thenable to choose to particiapte or not.”

He went on to say that in a subsequent Radio Four programme on 15th February, in which he understood I had taken part, David Ford, DCC Head of Achievement Services, explained this again and was able to give some further contextual background. he therefore could not accept my claim that DCC had simply chosen not to answer my question.

Let’s look at a transcript of that You and Yours programme of 15th February 2007, to see what David Ford actually said:

Y&Y Well, David Ford from Durham County Council, mentioned in that interview, is on the line.

Could we deal with the first point then? Year 11 pupils in Science could have done better than this in devising some kind of trial/initiative/experiment, call it what you will. Did the members of the County Council really understand what you were about?

DF Firstly, we are not a scientific research orgamnisation and we never claimed to be. We are a local education authority with a long-standing commitment to try to do everything we can to raise pupils’ opportunities in the GCSE exams. So when there is an opportunity to put to our schools to allow pupils, at no cost, to obtain this unique free supplement, we believed there was sufficient evidence of its positive impact on engagement and concentration, to put that to our schools. As far as the involvement of Officers and Members is concerned, Officers of the education authority regularly will put together opportunities for schools and recommend them to schools. members, and particularly the Lead member are aware of that, but it was never seen to be the kind of piece of work that would need full council debate or discussion. It was very much something that, rightly in our view, was between Officers and the autonomous schools with which they deal.

Y&Y So the short answer is that the members were not involved in the detailed planning of it – you think that was a suitable role for you as Officers?

DF I believe that it is an exactly appropriate role in the relationship between a local authority and the autonomous schools, who in the end made the decision.

Y&Y Let’s look again at the second point that Paul Thompson makes. here you had a golden opportunity to do some proper evaluation in an important area of discussion, and you ducked it – why?

DF We believed that this was an opportunity that would be advantageous to our students in Year 11 and therefore we took that opportunity to work with our schools in order to put it into place. It may well be, and I have to disagree with Mr Thompson, it may well provide some qualitative indications that future scientific research might want to build on and we have always said that. And obviously, we would be very happy to co-operate with any scientific institution that wanted to follow it up.

Y&Y Well, it would be hard, wouldn’t it, if you were devising a way of evaluating a project, to choose something that is more subjective than the thing that you have chosen, because what we are going to look at is what teachers expected pupils to do, is entirely subjective evaluation, and then how they got on compared with what the teacher thought they would do.

DF It is not entirely subjective. Education these days is awashy with data. We have very clear indications of how pupils have made progress and what future progress can be anticipated. We also have very good measures of attitudes and engagement and it is those areas that we will look at, and it is those areas that other scientific researchers might want to take up in the future.

Y&Y Could I look, finally, at the last point that Paul Thompson made, that there is no such thing as a free lunch and what about the ethical considerations? Can I just be clear here that although these pills have come free, is it the case that absolutely no money has flowed from the company Equazen to anybody in the employment of the local authority, not even in fees or expenses for attending conferences and discussions and that kind of thing?

DF First of all, to talk about pills is a bit misleading because this is a food supplement and not any kind of medicine. Secondly, it is absolutely true that we don’t receive fees or expenses.

Y&Y Nothing? Not a penny? Not a penny has flowed from Equazen to any individual in the local authority?

DF This project has been completely at no cost to the authority and no fees or monies have been paid to anyone involved in it.

Y&Y Again, looking at the ethics, what about the point that you set a very poor example to school children in carrying out what is an experiment or a trial, an initiative, call it what you will, which will add absolutely nothing to the sum total of human knowledge when you have finished?

DF We are very clear that we were talking about something that we were trying out, no more than that, and we said right at the very beginning that we didn’t see this as a scientific experiment and I spent a lot of time explaining it to a number of press outlets that we weren’t claiming that, nor were we saying there was absolute evidence that it would be advantageous. We believed that there was some strong evidence of that. I have to say I think we are setting a very good example in doing everything we can to support our learners and their families and their schools, to improve education in an area of the country which suffers considerable challemges to that and to say that we are setting a poor example, I think is misleading and I have to say that I am disappointed that the whole discussion about this has been taken down one particular vein.

Y&Y David Ford from Durham County Council. Sorry about the interference on the line. The supplement company, Equazen, sent us a statement from the Chief Executive Officer, Adam Kelliher. He said, “Equazen offered millions of EyeQ capsules free and without conditions to Durham County Council, because we believed the project was worthy of support, despite the considerable administrative and financial costs.”

So at this point, the “supplemental” answer to my second question in the chamber had not yet been posted on DCC’s Public Questions website and Councillor Foster is trying to fob me off by saying that David Ford had given contextual background information in his response to my interview on the YOu and Yours broadcast. In other words DCC was trying to say that my question had been answered, but it had not. Furthermore it was clear that a Radio Four broadcast was no place to try to answer my question in the chamber, which required a posted response on the DCC website. Nice try though!

I give below my letter to the Chairman of DCC, Councillor Foster:

15th February 2007

Councillor E. Foster

Chairman DCC

County Hall

Durham

DH1 5UL

 

 

Dear Councillor Foster,

 

 

“Just the Facts!” – Public Questions at Council Meetings

 

 

I recently sent you a message by e-mail regarding the three questions I asked in the Council Chamber on Wednesday 7th February at the meeting held under your chairmanship. I had previously written to you commending the Public Questions process, in particular the work of the council’s officers involved in it.

 

The County Council’s leaflet on the Public Questions process proudly “trumpets” the following statement, accompanied by an eye-catching pictogram meaning “No Bull!” :-

 

“Straightforward questions deserve straightforward answers…….no fancy spin, just the plain honest truth.”

 

I asked three perfectly straightforward questions and Councillor Claire Vasey gave, what were in my opinion indifferent, answers to two of them. Politics being politics and politicians being politicians, her answers were pretty much what I would have expected.

 

Putting aside any argument about whether or not Councillor Vasey’s two answers were “straightforward answers…………no fancy spin, just the plain honest truth,” there is a more fundamental and crucial issue to be dealt with.

 

Councillor Vasey gave no answer to my second question and in so doing ensured that no County Council response is on the public record. The written record on the County Council Website clearly shows my three questions and her two answers. What kind of council is it that allows members to ride roughshod over initiatives like the Public Questions procedure, one must assume, because she does not wish to answer the question, for whatever reason?

 

Councillor Vasey’s action has made an utter mockery of your Public Questions programme and to add insult to injury, I must wait for three months before being able to ask any more questions. One is reminded of the old joke about the Trappist monastery where the monks were only allowed to say one word per year, other than prayers. It took a new inmate five years to tell them “the porridge is too salty!” (And the Abbot said, (he had a special dispensation to speak) “You’ve only been here for five years and you’ve done nothing but complain!”

 

Jokes aside, can you please explain to me how your Public Questions initiative, with all its publicised talk of “Straightforward questions deserve straightforward answers,” can have any credibility at all, when councillors simply refuse to answer a straightforward question?

 

 Durham County Council’s Public Questions initiative is a “sham” and the initiative’s publicity is “spin,” – so what’s new?

 

I should appreciate your views as Chairman of the Council on how such an initiative can possibly function if councillors do not answer perfectly straightforward questions, properly submitted.

 

Councillor Vasey has e-mailed me to say that we can meet to discuss any unfinished business, but she knows full well that any such meeting is off the public record, having already ensured that there was no answer to my question on the public record.  She also seems to think that a meeting may be unnecessary because I have already made my conclusions on the matter. This is insulting, because I cannot reach any conclusions unless or until Councillor Vasey answers my question. I find her attitude somewhat flippant and her actions morally reprehensible.

 

I suppose what I am seeking from you, as Chairman of the County Council, is answers to the following questions:

 

 

1.      What is the point of your Public Questions initiative, if councillors simply don’t address the questions?

 

2.      In accordance with the procedures of the initiative, I properly submitted three straightforward questions. Why did Councillor Vasey not answer question No.2?

 

3.      Although Councillor Vasey did not answer my perfectly straightforward question no.2 in the chamber, why is there no written answer to that question on the County Council’s website, alongside my three questions.

 

4.      Why does Durham County Council appear to not want any answer to this question to be on the public record?

 

 

Your views, as the leader of Durham County Council, would be appreciated.

 

 

Yours sincerely,

 

 

Having read Councillor Foster’s reply to my above letter, I replied to him as follows:

 

       1st March 2007

 

Councillor Ernie Foster

Chairman DCC

Durham County Council

County Hall

Durham

DH1 5UL

 

 

Dear Councillor Foster,

 

Public Questions at Council Meetings

 

Thank you for your reply of 26th February.

 

In it, you deal with four key issues:

 

  1. The second paragraph of Councillor Vasey’s reported response.

 

  1. My adverse comments on the Public Questions initiative.

 

  1. Councillor Vasey’s attempts to meet with me.

 

  1. My suggestions for improving the Public Questions initiative.

 

 

Councillor Vasey’s Second Paragraph and Public Questions (1 and 2)

 

I cannot understand the logic of your statement, when you refer to the second paragraph of Councillor Vasey’s reported response as explaining, “…..that the opportunity to use Omega 3 supplement was facilitated by officers in their normal advisory role to autonomous schools.”  I take facilitate to mean, making things easier or, assisting the progress of something. (Councillor Vasey actually uses the word, “Supported,” in her response; the word, support, having at least twenty meanings of which I am aware.)

 

I am therefore unable to understand how stating that officers, in their normal advisory role, made the opportunity to participate in the initiative easier for schools, in any way can be construed as providing a remotely satisfactory answer to the question, “Were members of Durham County Council involved in the planning of the Durham fish oil trial (or initiative) and its methodology, prior to its implementation……..”

 

The paragraph to which you refer, states that the opportunity for schools to participate was “supported by officers.”  This refers to the supporting role of officers in the initiative and avoids the substantive issue of the question, which concerns the involvement, or otherwise, of members in the planning of the initiative and its methodology.

 

My question, therefore, has not been answered, because its substantive issue has not been addressed.

 

Your assurances that “Public Questions is a genuine attempt to provide a further opportunity for the public to raise issues with the Council and the responses provided are an honest attempt to explain the situation as we see and understand it to be,” are therefore meaningless, particularly when one considers the “Spin” in the Public Questions leaflet:

 

“Straightforward questions deserve straightforward answers……no fancy spin just the plain honest truth.”

 

My question could not have been more straightforward and  straightforward answers might have been, “Yes,” or “No,”  suitably qualified by additional information (and no doubt a bit of “spin”).

 

Your comment about people sometimes being disappointed with the responses they receive is somewhat patronising. I would have hoped for a straight answer to my straight question (“no fancy spin just the plain honest truth”) and was naturally disappointed when Councillor Vasey did not even address it, let alone answer it. Had I wished to know about the supporting role of officers in the initiative, I would have asked an appropriate question about officers.

 

 

Meeting with Councillor Vasey

 

There seems to me to be little point in continuing a debate with a member, off the public record, when that member has not addressed a legitimate, straightforward question on the public record. Councillor Vasey cannot have her cake and eat it. I am still prepared to meet with Councillor Vasey, but I cannot see what purpose might be served by such a meeting.

 

 

 

My Suggestions for Improving the Public Questions initiative

 

Thank you for your acknowledgement of my submission of suggestions to improve the process of Public Questions.

 

In my opinion, the whole process would have relevance and meaning and would facilitate democracy if the substantive issue(s) were identified, addressed and answered, in accordance with your published leaflet:

 

 “Straightforward questions deserve straightforward answers……no fancy spin just the plain honest truth.”

 

It is as simple as that.

 

To appear to adopt a policy of evasion when faced with questions that may be politically embarrassing, reduces your Public Questions initiative to a sham and to the level of farce.

 

Yours sincerely,

 

I also sent an e-mail covering a point I had missed in the letter:

 

Dear Councillor Foster,

 

Thank you for your letter of 26th february, to which I have appropriately replied by letter, a copy of which I attach.

 

I have also forwarded an electronic courtesy copy to **** ********.

 

One further point, not in my letter, I should perhaps make is that I simply cannot undersatnd how your assertion that david Ford’s explanation in his interview on Radio Four’s “You and Yours” programme, (“explained this again and was able to give some further contextual background.”) can have any possible relevance to Councillor vasey’s response in the chamber to my questions.

 

Does it not occur to you that it was only because I gave my interview to You and Yours that David Ford was constrained to reply? In other words, information is being dragged out of DCC, in dribs and drabs. Why could not Councillor vasey have said this in her response, in addition to perhaps saying, “No, members were not involved in the planning stages of the initiative, nor were any presentations on it made to them by Officers.”? If that indeed were the case, it would represent a “straightforward answer” within the terms of your Public Questions leaflet.

 

I feel that your use of david Ford’s subsequent comments on this affair are a “red herring,” and having been made post facto, his comments have no relevance whatever to my substantive complaint, regarding Councillor vasey’s response failing to address my question, let alone answer it. She had her opportunity – why didn’t she take it?

 

Yours etc etc

 

Councillor Foster replied on 20th March to say that he had studied my letter and discussed it with Councillor Vasey and David Ford. he went on to give the, now official, explanation as to why members had not been involved in the planning of this initiative. he assured me that there was never any deliberate attempt to avoid answering my question (oh, yeah? McC) and that the DCC website and the record of Public Questions had now been officially amended.

 

He went on to assure me, again, that the Public Questions initiative was a genuine attempt to offer the opportunity to the public to raise questions with DCC.

 

So, another phase of the unfolding saga of the great Fish Oil Farce unfolded and in response to Councillor Foster’s, in my opinion, feeble reply of the 20th March, I took the gloves off and gave him both barrels (to mix my metaphors!)

 

 

 

                                      30th March 2007

Councillor E Foster

Chairman DCC

County Hall

Durham

DH1 5UL

 

 

Dear Councillor Foster,

 

Public Questions at Council Meetings

 

Thank you for your letter of 20th March in which you provide an informative and authoritative answer to the questions I asked at the council meeting on 7th February.

 

In response to your contention that your answer represents essentially the intended meaning of the response provided to my question at the Council meeting, I have to say that whilst Councillor Vasey’s response may have intended to say what you have now stated, I think that were you to re-read her text, you will not find any of the essential information you have now given me. The old saying about the road to hell springs to mind! The intention was, demonstrably, not realised and one may be forgiven, therefore, for wondering, why?

 

Are you, for example, telling me that what you have now said is what Councillor Vasey intended to say, but clearly did not? In other words that Councillor Vasey was less than competent in her response to my question, or are you telling me that her response was appropriate and that I should have divined its intention to inform me that whilst members were not directly involved in the decision, key Members were made aware of it and supported it, from what she said (or perhaps what she did not say)?

 

There is absolutely nothing in any part of Councillor Vasey’s response that could be remotely construed as giving that information, which was what my question required, and which you have now given me. You will note that she never once uses the word “Member,” nor ever refers to the involvement, or not, of Members.

 

You state that there was never any deliberate attempt to avoid answering the question. My three questions were perfectly clear. The second question;

 

“Were Members of Durham County Council involved in the planning of the Durham fish oil trial (or initiative) and its methodology, prior to its implementation, or is the Council simply blindly supporting a trial (or initiative) implemented by its officers?”

 

could not have been more specific and yet Councillor Vasey did not answer it.

 

If, as you appear to suggest, Councillor Vasey’s response was intended to say what you have now said, then one can only conclude from the written questions and responses that there is no evidence whatever to support your contention. I can think of only two possible conclusions from the available evidence; either Councillor Vasey was deliberately evasive, or she was incompetent. I have to say that my money is on the former of my two conclusions.

 

I cannot see what other possible explanations might be.

 

Given that my two conclusions are, in my opinion, the only solid ones that can be derived from the available evidence, where does either of them leave Councillor Vasey with regard to the stated objective(s), which I quote below, of the Public Questions initiative of the County Council?

 

q       “Just the facts!”

 

q       “Straightforward questions deserve straightforward answers………..no fancy spin, just the plain honest truth.”

 

q       “If you feel the same way, and have a question to ask about the services we provide or any of the plans, activities or initiatives in which the County Council is involved, you should be able to take it to the very top. AND YOU CAN.

 

q       “It’s as simple as ABC.”

 

All of which brings me to your second substantive point, concerning the Public Questions initiative.

 

Your assurance that this initiative is a genuine attempt to offer the public the opportunity to raise issues with you (DCC) falls back upon the word, “attempt,” in much the same way, it seems to me, that you have used, “intended” with regard to Councillor Vasey’s evasive (or perhaps “e-Vasey-ive”) response to my questions.

 

Anyone looking at the above statements, the published questions and responses and the correspondence between DCC and me, could only conclude, it seems to me, that any, “genuine attempt,” as detailed above, demonstrably failed miserably in this particular case. That is the charitable view. My own view is that, for whatever reasons, Councillor Vasey deliberately evaded answering my questions appropriately and in so doing, severely compromised the integrity of your Public Questions initiative. Put more simply, she made a mockery of it.

 

Your explanation about your remarks regarding my disappointment at the response I received, representing the reality of the situation is interesting, but I am not sure what you mean by that, in particular the meaning of reality. I was disappointed for two reasons. Firstly, because one of my questions had not been answered and secondly, because Councillor Vasey’s response was the very antithesis of the, very laudable, tenets of your Public Questions policy. Are you telling me that the policy is aspirational only?

 

I am aware of political reality and that statements are often coded and contain many subtexts and nuances. I am aware that people, and in particular politicians, can appear to answer questions, when in fact they do not. (Watch any edition of BBC’s Question Time!)

But we are not considering any “normal” political statements here. We are considering very special ones, promised by your Council:

 

q       “Just the facts!”

 

q       “Straightforward questions deserve straightforward answers………..no fancy spin, just the plain honest truth.”

 

q       “If you feel the same way, and have a question to ask about the services we provide or any of the plans, activities or initiatives in which the County Council is involved, you should be able to take it to the very top. AND YOU CAN.

 

q       “It’s as simple as ABC.”

 

Now I took, and still take, this to mean what it apparently, unequivocally says. 

 

Are you now telling me that the reality is different?

 

In other words if the reality of the situation is that despite the proud boasts of your Public Questions initiative, you can evade questions you do not wish to answer and thereby disappoint members of the public who ask them, then where does that leave the allegedly, “simple as ABC,” Public Questions initiative?

 

From where I sit, it leaves it as a worthless sham to be manipulated by the Council who set it up, for reasons of political expediency.

 

You have reiterated that Councillor Vasey did offer a further meeting with me. In so doing, you have either missed or studiously avoided my point on this matter. It is yet another piece of political sleight of hand. Councillor Vasey did not answer my perfectly clear question in the Council Chamber on 7th February and, as a result, her answer is not on public record. What is the point then, of Public Questions? Apparently, to answer those that it is politically expedient to answer and evade those that it is not. All of these issues being in contravention of the stated principles of the Public Questions initiative.

 

Having not answered my question, Councillor Vasey then offers a meeting to discuss it. This seems very reasonable of her, but of course it would be off the public record and she has contained me.

 

Further correspondence with you elicits a little more information and you also try to tell me that David Ford explained matters in his Radio Four, “You and Yours,” interview on 15th February, conveniently ignoring the fact that this was a week after I had asked my question in the chamber. As I pointed out to you in my reply of 1st March to your letter of 26th February, I cannot see what possible point there could be in such a meeting, off the public record and I cannot understand why you keep mentioning it. I ask a pertinent question in the public chamber, Councillor Vasey dodges it and then offers to meet me to discuss the matter. You then tell me that she is still willing to meet me to discuss the issues surrounding the fish oil supplement, but you have not even begun to address the fact that she would not answer my question in public, despite all the promises in your Public Questions leaflet.

 

Finally, after much correspondence, radio interviews and newspaper articles, you write to me with an appropriate answer on 20th March, your council having been asked the question on 7th February and a Supplemental Answer appears on DCC’s web page.

 

One wonders just what was so worrying for DCC in revealing such a simple matter as whether or not members had been involved in the planning of the Durham fish oil initiative? Why, for goodness sake, could Councillor Vasey not have said exactly that in the first place?

 

One also wonders what the chain of responsibility for the answers to my questions was? In other words, having presumably been briefed by officers, were Councillor Vasey’s responses to my questions her sole responsibility, or did they require further approval from whatever source?

 

The fish oil saga will play itself out over the coming months and opinion will remain divided over it. As a side issue, you might perhaps make some discreet enquiries as to how many secondary schools are giving year 11 students custard creams, juice and other incentives, probably full of e- numbers, in order to get them to take the fish oil capsules! This doesn’t seem very healthy to me, but I suppose it is the responsibility of the autonomous participating schools and no fault of DCC’s officers in their normal advisory role, who probably never dreamed in their wildest imaginings that schools would do such things.

Anyway, since the results of the initiative have no validity, what difference will a daily custard cream make?

 

Thank you for your explanatory letter and for arranging for the explanatory supplemental answer to be placed on the DCC website. However, I think I may be forgiven for thinking that this is too little, too late.

 

The Public Questions initiative remains problematic, however, and I should appreciate your further comments on what you describe as the “reality” of the situation. I suppose basically, how do you intend to fulfil the underlying principle of your Public Questions initiative:

 

Straightforward questions deserve straightforward answers………..no fancy spin, just the plain honest truth.

 

Assuming, of course, that they ever get answered at all!

 

All the evidence so far indicates to me that political expediency will override the “spin” in the Public Questions leaflet.

 

You could, of course, grasp the nettle and cover all your options by changing the wording of the leaflet as follows:

 

Straightforward questions deserve straightforward answers………..no fancy spin, just the plain honest truth,

unless of course, we don’t like the questions.

 

Now that’s what I call reality!

 

Yours sincerely,

I think I need a rest!

No.10 soon! (I don’t know why I bother becuase no one seems to read them)

 

 

 

Paul Thompson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                               

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                               

 

I simply could not believe what I was reading, with regard to what I came to call the “Fish Oil Farce” and having written to the councillor responsible for scrutiny of education, only to have my letter passed to David Ford so that he could answer it, only confirmed my impression that members knew little if anything about this. I then found out from another councillor that DCC ran a scheme called “Public Questions” which allowed members of the public to submit three questions to the council and to be able to ask them in person at a council meeting in the council chamber. This Public Questions system was introduced by two particular councillors (Nugent and Manton) as an apparent appearance of democracy and public involvement and their publicity leaflet for the scheme was somewhat laughable. After the May elections, the new leader of DCC, Councillor Simon Henig, wanted to review this particular aspect of publicity and the leaflet was withdrawn! One could hardly blame him for doing so! I shall copy the leaflet in a future post about the system of DCC Public Questions, soon. For now, all you need to know is that the leaflet featured a circular sign with a bull’s head in it with a diagonal line through it – i.e. “No Bull!” and the accompanying message was, “Straightforward questions deserve straightforward answers…no fancy spin, just the plain honest truth.”  (Forgive me while I try to stop shaking with laughter – it’s spoiling my typing!)

There, that’s better – in control again!

So I submitted the following three questions to be asked at the end of the council meeting on 7th February 2007:

  1. Why has Durham County Council, in conjunction with Equazen, not undertaken what appears to many to be an obvious and unique opportunity to carry out a scientifically controlled trial, with appropriate controls, of the possible effects of fish oil supplements on the academic performance in mainstream children in the county’s schools?
  2. Were Members of Durham County Council involved in the planning of the Durham fish oil trial (or initiative) and its methodology, prior to its implementation, or is the council simply blindly supporting a trial (or initiative) implemented by its Officers?
  3. David Ford is quoted in the Durham Advertiser (13/01/07) as saying, “there has not been sufficient time for the fish oil supplement to feed through the system and have any influence on the pupils’ mock-exam performance, but they would now have to wait until the results of the proper GCSEs later in the year to measure any impact. Given that by his own admission the “initiative” is not scientifically controlled, how does Durham County Council propose to measure any possible impact with any degree of scientific rigour?

I put on a suit and sat through the council meeting on 7th February. A large contingent of Year 10 students from Easington was in attendance, no doubt viewing democracy at work as I duly read out my three questions.

Councillor Claire Vasey then simply read out the prepared answers, as follows:

This initiative is an opportunity for young people and their families to choose to try, at no cost to themselves or the local authority, a supplement which may assist them in their learning. Our approach meant that the opportunity was open to all. A controlled experiment by definition denies some students that opportunity. This opportunity was supported by officers of the authority in their advisory role to autonomous schools. Schools and toung people and their families were thenable to choose to particiapte or not.

We have said that we will look at outcomes through levels of take-up and through perceptions of staff, pupils and parents following this year’s GCSE examinations. Our review will provide information for our schools and parents and may prompt further scientific research.

This statement was read out fairly quickly and I had little opportunity to note it down. Consequently, when the chairman asked me if I would like to reply to councillor Vasey, I was somewaht at a disadvantage. However, I stood up and said that it was somewhat illogical and incongruous for councillor Vasey to talk about not denying pupils benefits she had not yet demonstrated to exist, despite having the clear opportunity to do so. That was the best I could manage on the day, being my very first time at this caper!

Councillor Vasey apparently  came to talk to me in the lobby after the meeting, but I missed her, having been “nobbled” by a journalist from the Newcastle Journal, who then ran an excellent piece on Thursday 8th February 2007, including a fine editorial comment castigating DCC.

It was only when I got home and read Vasey’s answer in print, online, that I realised that she had simply ignored my second question. I wrote to councillor Vasey, who offered to meet with me to discuss the matter further. I wrote again, declining her kind offer and pointing out that by ignoring my second question, she was ensuring that an answer was not on the public record. I also told her on both occasions that I considered her actions to be morally reprehensible. I summarised my position to her on 13th February as follows:

“In summary:

  1. You did not answer my important question in the chamber on 7th february
  2. You continue to avoid answering that question
  3. You have said that you suspect that I have already made my conclusion on the issue
  4. I cannot reach a conclusion without an anwser from you
  5. You have skilfully avoided putting an answer to my question on public record
  6. I find your actions morally reprehensible

On 2oth March 2007, five weeks after I asked my three questions in the council chamber, a “Supplemental Answer” appeared on DCC’s Public Questions website, as follows:

“A recommendation to use Omega 3 supplement was made by officers in line with the normal advisory relationship between the County Council and its schools. In that sense, members were not directly involved in the decision, although key Members were made aware of and spoorted providing this opportunity to schools.”

So that’s all right then! (even though it took them a while to think that one up)

 

I should add that I had entered into a fairly lively correspondence with the then Leader of DCC (I think “Buggins’ turn” tended to apply) councillor Ernest Foster, who sent me a letter on 20th March 2007, giving the “Supplemental” answer.

I e-mailed the officer in charge of Public Questions (a very nice guy) as follows:

Dear ****,

I do not belieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeve it!! (Imagine a Scottish accent)

I ask a question in the chamber on 7th february, Councillor e-Vasey-ive studiously avoids answering it, newspaper articles ensue, interviews are given on Radio Four, David Ford gets his knickers in a twist and will barely shake my hand, letters fly to and fro between the chairman and me and now, almost unbelievably, on 20th March, Councillor Foster signs a letter to me which actually answers my question appropriately and that answer is posted on the appropriate section of the DCC website. Almost beyond belief (but not in Durham!)

There is only one logical question begging here:

Why did DCC not simply say that in the first place?

Too many greasy poles to be climbed, too many reputations to be saved, too many backs to be covered, too much duplicity, too much political expediency and little sign of integrity. So what’s new?

I am looking forward to the next Public Questions session in August. Why the public should not be able to submit and ask questions after each and every council meeting is beyond me. One would have thought it to be almost essential.

I suppose we are supposed to be grateful for the “token gesture” we actually have (even when one’s questions are not answered!)

The frequency of the Public Questions initiative reminds me of the old joke about the trappist monastery.

The monks are allowed to say one word per year, other than prayers, and it takes a new inmate five years to say “The porridge is too salty.”

The Abbot then chides him (he has a Papal dispensation to speak, commensurate with his rank) and says, “You’ve only been here for five years and you’ve done nothing but complain!”

I look forward to August.

Yours etc…………….****

That was quite a saga to drag some information out of them. I shall post another installment in the ongoing saga of the Fish Oil Farce soon.

 

 

 

                                                                                                          28th November 2006

Dear David,

Key Stage Four (Fish Oil) Trial/Initiative/Project*

(*Delete as applicable)

Thank you for the detailed and robust reply. It is exactly what I would have expected you to write to me.

Thank you for sending me a copy of Radford’s article, which I had read and which I felt probably raised more questions than it answered. Westerman telling parents, “…………don’t change anything or we won’t see the impact of adding these oils” was a classic example.

I appreciate the problem in Key Stage Four. I said for years at every opportunity in Director’s and other meetings that in my opinion, a large part of the problem was connected with the size and organisation of the county’s secondary schools and the attitudes of staff within them towards children. Serving on Exclusion Appeal Panels, I have seen too many examples of children falling foul of impersonal computerised behaviour-logging systems that produce reams and reams of codified data that are virtually impossible to decipher and with little evidence, if any, of any analysis yielding presdcriptive value that could translate into some sort of action plan. Naturally, the ones I encounter in such panels are the extreme, but one wonders just what is going on in some schools in this respect.

I think your initiative to improve performance in Key Stage Four, while highly laudable, needs perhaps to look deeper than it appears currently to be doing and while the “Fish Oil Farce” may have some effects in ways that cannot be determined, I think it is too high a price to pay to have effectively “scorned” science and “gone to bed” with the likes of Equazen.

The lost opportunities here, almost make one weep.

So, as the great Robbie Burns wrote, “Cock up your Beaver!” You have no alternative but to tough it out now, it seems to me.

Finally, I think that your dismissive comment regarding “a small specialist section of the media” is indicative of a perceptual gulf that seems to be appearing between Durham’s version of reality and that of the scientific research community (or at least those who have the time and inclination to crusade for their subject). The amount of ignorance and apathy on the fish oil subject that I have encountered is staggering.

Roll on christmas.

Yours etc. etc.

 

                                                                                                              4th December 2006

 

Dear David,

 

I attach a copy of my reply to Coun. Vasey’s reply to me.

 

Neither your response nor hers addresses the questions related to the fundamental issue that I was raising, which is that of what might be referred to in schoolspeak as governance – what heads tell their governors. I was asking Coun. Vasey, as Cabinet Member for Children’s Services, what information members had been given in the form of briefing about the trial or initiative and whether or not the implications of the particular methodology to be employed were explained. I also asked if the evaluation implications had been explained to them and  whether or not any questions or doubts had been raised by members, including any discussion of the ethical considerations involved in dealing with Equazen. Finally, I asked her what the roles of the Director and Cabinet Member for Children’s Services had been.

 

In other words, do the councillors actually know what it is they are so enthusiastically supporting? Would they recognise a double blind randomised trial if it grabbed them round the throat?

 

 Anyway, if I don’t see or hear from you in the next few weeks, have a good Christmas holiday. With the children long gone and married and being a card-carrying atheist I find christmas an increasing irrelevance, probably as you find me!!

 

Yours etc. etc.

 

 

 Councillor Claire Vasey, DCC Cabinet Member for Children’s services, and the person responsible for scrutiny of this farrago I call the Fish Oil Farce, finally wrote to me on 28th November 2006, explaining that the reason she had passed my initial e-mail to David Ford was because the initiative had been designed as an opportunity for schools, requiring individual decisions by head teachers, rather than a kind of “top-down” strategy to be managed centrally. She went on to say that as such, it did not require formal consideration by the County Council.

 

Councillor Vasey seems to conveniently miss the point that the initiative was centrally planned by David Ford, led by him and was centrally co-ordinated (as e-mails to participating schools from both David Ford and Madeleine Portwood clearly show) by him. This is a case of attempting to have one’s cake and eat it. The technicality that it was individual schools who chose to become involved is spurious. The whole thing was centrally planned and controlled by David Ford. Councillor Vasey, whose responsibility it then was to scrutinise the work of the department in which David Ford worked, is saying that a centrally-planned and controlled initiative, involving 3,000 of the county’s Year Eleven children and a deal worth £1m, at current retail values, of “free” fish oil capsules, did not require formal consideration by the county council. Her response begs the fairly obvious question of what, exactly, she feels might require consideration by the county council, what the necessary or sufficient crireria might be and how decisions are taken as to what should and should not be considered. One wonders just how scrutiny took place (or didn’t as seems to be the case) in this  particular department.

Councillor Vasey went on to tell me that the county council was doing everything it could to give its young people the best chances of educational success and that as Lead member, she was commited to that aim. She then stated that the initiative “may support some of our year eleven students in sustained study through improved concentration and may therefore lead to improved outcomes for them” and further stated that that was why the intiative had council support and why she was keen to be kept up to date with its progress.

 

This is quite fascinating. Councillor Vasey does not state what exactly how the council is supporting the initiative, how it was brought to its attention, by whom and to whom. Did David Ford present his “Brainchild” as an outline proposal to any committee of members, for example? Did he present his plan of the intiative to any committee for consideration and approval, or indeed, support? Councillor Vasey, nor anyone else in DCC has yet revealed to me, despite extensive correspondence on the matter, just who decided that the council would actually support this “turkey” and when. In later correspondence, (to be reviewed in a subsequent post) it was stated that certain “members were made aware of and supported the intiative” but to this day, despite repeated requests from me, their names and the nature of their “support” have never been revealed. Nor, I imagine, are they ever liklely to be.

 

Councillor Vasey continued her letter by reminding me that I knew (I certainly didn’t!!) that No one connected with DCC had ever claimed that they were doing scientific research with this initiative. (Oh yeah?) She went on to explain that it was an opportunity for students, with no cost to the county council, that may make a difference for them. Councillor Vasey also felt that I would be interested to know that over 3,000 year 11 students had taken up the offer. She went on to hail the positive reaction that had been received from schools, families, othger education organisations and the majority of the media, concluding, “…..rather suggests to me that, far from the “laughing stock” that you suggest, the county council is taking every opportunity to make a difference for its young people.”

 

The scientific research issue has been debated at length and I don’t think that any intelligent person does not conclude that David Ford thought he was doing a piece of research, the limitations of which unexpectedly blew up in his face. Just what the head teachers of the participating schools thought they were getting into is anyone’s guess. They are nobody’s fools and would have realised the inherent difficulties of the whole enterprise, but went along with it nevertheless, for reasons that would make an excellent PhD study.

Councillor Vasey is at pains to mention the fact that this was costing the county council (and indeed the parents of the students involved) nothing. The message seems to be, why look a gift horse in the mouth. One would have expected the members of DCC to have carefully scrutinised this deal with Equazen and in particular the planned initiative. They do not appear to have done so. Councillor Vasey claims that it had council support, but there has never been any evidence offered for this. It appears to be support of the “nod and wink” variety! She stresses that she is keen to be “kept up to date with its progress” which appears to be a belated (and somewhat pathetic) attempt to give it some legitimacy in the absence of any appropriate scrutiny. It seems to me that Councillor Vasey failed miserably in her scrutiny role and simply allowed the tail to wag the dog. Allowing this to happen is fine, so long as the tail is delivering the goods uncontroversially. However, in my opinion,in this instance it was far from uncontroversial and what was clearly intended to be a coup for David Ford, blew up in his face and when I fired my letter off to Councillor Vasey, damage-limitation immediately began and a desperate need for some sort of scrutiny to have appeared to have been done was apparent, resulting in the entirely pathetic “spin” about schools being autonomous bodies that took their own decisions to take part and that certain members were made aware of and supported the initiative. This has all the hallmarks of a backtracked cover-up, in my opinion.

Councillor Vasey ended her letter to me by teling me that following the launch of the initiative, she had been approached by numerous elected members all of who (sic) had offered their support.

 

Well they would, wouldn’t they? But what a strange way of working in a county council. A senior Officer has a big wheeze and negotiates a deal with a big commercial company to the tune of £1m and involves virtually all of the county secondary schools and 3,000 of their pupils, trumpets the whole thing in press releases and media interviews and it all goes (predictably) pear-shaped. Where was the scrutiny of Members? Absent, apart from the fact that certain members were informed and supported the intiative and “numerous elected Members” offered their support after the launch. Councillor Claire Vasey, in my opinion, simply failed in her duty of scrutiny as the Lead Member with responsibility for Children’s Services and David Ford overstepped his remit by several miles in planning, implementing and managing the initiative. Interestingly, his current boss has defended both him and the intiative to the MP for North Durham, but only by being economical with the truth. But that affair is for a future posting!

 

I replied to Councillor Vasey on 30th November, as follows:

 

Councillor C. Vasey

Cabinet Member for Children’s Services

Durham County Council

County Hall

Durham

DH1 5UL

 

 

Dear Councillor Vasey,

 

Thank you for your considered reply of 28th November to my follow-up e-mail.

 

As you know, I have received a detailed reply from David Ford, to which I have replied and I also took the opportunity to discuss the matter briefly with him, at a function, yesterday evening.

 

David’s position is simply that the purpose of this initiative (originally a trial) has been misunderstood. The word “trial” was used in its broad English sense of trying something new. I find this difficult to accept. My personal view is that the manner in which it was publicised by DCC in press releases and, as a consequence, in the media, was bound to produce the reaction that it did, because the phraseology implied a scientific trial. 

 

The fact that there is controversy concerning Equazen and its alleged “trials” in this area, adds to my feeling of unease, as it does with many other people.

 

The problem, it seems to me, stems from the fact that although DCC has apparently never claimed that it is doing a piece of scientific research, its press releases and media appearances gave every appearance that it was and were changed from “trial” to “initiative” when the bubble burst.

 

I find your statement about the opportunity presented to students by this initiative, at no cost to the County Council, somewhat worrying. The jury is very much out on fish oil and academic performance and DCC had a unique opportunity to carry out an important piece of research and the person to oversee it, in the form of Dr Madeleine Portwood, but chose instead to involve Equazen in the way it did, thus ensuring that no conclusions could be drawn.

 

Given Equazen’s track record on “studies” this comes as no surprise and they are now basking in the publicity and, I am given to understand, using DCC ‘s name in their promotions and, presumably, laughing all the way to the bank!

 

It is irrelevant that 3,000 year 11 students have taken up the capsules, because you can never know if they had any effect. If DCC is so desperate about its Key Stage Four performance that it adopts tactics such as these, where they associate with a company like Equazen, that is only too keen to supply capsules at cost and reap the resultant sales-enhancing publicity (because they cannot advertise their dubious claims for fear of prosecution) then I feel that things have come to a pretty pass. It smacks of clutching at straws, desperation and, in my opinion, a lowering of ethical standards.

 

In actual fact, it is doubtful that Equazen would ever have supplied the capsules if you had wanted to undertake a methodologically sound piece of scientific research with the appropriate controls, because they would have been scared of inconclusive or negative results. So this “deal” was struck. DCC may benefit from improved GCSE performance in 2007, but no one will ever know why or how and Equazen will make even more money. What an opportunity lost, to say nothing of integrity going down the pan too.

 

What “overwhelmingly favourable reaction from schools”? It seems to me that like DCC, they would clutch at any straw that might improve their results, without caring two hoots how it happened!  How were schools surveyed for their reactions? Who was asked; head teachers, subject teachers, governors? Was a questionnaire used, or a structured interview? Who collated the responses?

 

Similarly, how have the responses of the pupils’ families been canvassed and assessed?

 

What are the ”other education organisations” to which you refer?

 

How many elected members does the word “numerous” mean and what “support” was offered?

 

Finally, if you don’t think that DCC has been made a laughing stock over this Fish Oil Farce, check out some of the links from the Guardian:

 

http://www.badscience.net/?cat=66

 

I wish DCC well with its efforts to take every opportunity to make a difference for its young people, but I cannot help wondering how long that particular piece of string is and how far it is prepared to go, how low it is prepared to stoop, what blind eyes it is prepared to turn and with what organisations it is prepared to associate. How about getting the Church of Scientology to assist you? They are apparently currently assiduously courting the Metropolitan Police. Who knows what they might be able to do for the GCSE results of County Durham, without the ingestion of fish oil capsules. Never underestimate the power of prayer! The trouble is, like your initiative, you would never know if it worked, but who cares if performance (even magically) rises?

 

Once again, thank you for taking the trouble to reply to me.

 

DCC’s Key Stage Four Initiative is highly laudable and I wish David Ford every success with it. It certainly needed tackling, but I feel that the root causes of that poor performance will not necessarily be addressed by unscientific initiatives involving the ingestion of fish oil, which I fear will only serve to increase Equazen’s profits and lower DCC’s good reputation.

 

 However, if you are all happy with it and singing from the same hymn sheet, who am I to carp? (fish oil – carp – geddit????)

 

Yours sincerely,

 

 

You will no doubt be surprised to learn thatI never heard from Councillor Vasey again. As a result, she was never able to answer my questions and clarify the position with regard to her statements about “overwhelmingly favourable reactions” from schools, families, other education organisations and of course, the media. Of course, any objective reading of the media responses shows that the overwhelming majority of articles simply reported what DCC told them was happening and then tried to be balanced in their approach. This “balance” actually tended gave some credence to DCC’s utterly incompetent and unthical Fish Oil Farce by implying that the jury was out, so to speak and that two equally valid positions were actually being compared. There was no comparison to be made between David Ford’s pathetically incompetent “initiative” that was a trial and a study until the bubble burst, and the fact that there was no definitive prop[erly conducted research into the effects of fish oil on mainstream children’s academic performance. David Ford had the opportunity, the free pills, access to all Durham’s secondary schools, a number-crunching school statistics department, Dr Madeleine Portwood (leader in this field) and all the machinery of the DCC  publicity machine and (allegedly) the backing of Members and instead of doing any meaningful research, he instigated a totally incompetent and scurrilous piece of pseudo research and blew any ethical credibility he had, clean out of the water. Now he deservedly takes his appointed place in Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science book and rightly so, in my opinion, because he only has himself to blame for being there. I suspect that vanity and pride meant that he would tough it out and earn his well-deserved place in that particular roll of dishonour. defending the indefensible is always a difficult task, but David Ford clearly thought he was up to it. It, is in effect, a battle of wills between David Ford who defends his position, but from an extremely guarded stance from which we must simply accept his apparently sincerely-held pronouncements and concerned people who understand the science involved, recognise what he is up to and deplore his actions. These two sides are watched by the vast majority who neither understand, nor care and the press attempt to give balanced accounts of what is demonstrably an unbalanced situation. But BBC Look North were not fooled, neither was the You and Yours team nor The Newcastle Journal who published a damning editorial piece. Councillor vasey deludes herself and demeans her position as a councillor by claiming “overwhelmingly favourable reaction”  when that is simply not the case. It is yet another example of DCC’s ongoing practice of inventing their own version of reality and standing by it.

As I said in my letter to Kevan Jones MP (future post!) the Honourable member for North Durham, I could not vote for Labour in County Durham because I consider the local party to be morally bankrupt!

The secret files of J Edgar McCruiskeen will be opened again soon to reveal how he asked three  very pertinent questions in the council chamber in February 2007  and what DCC’s initial and eventual responses were. Their first tactic was to simply ignore one of the questions!

I shall also prepare a post on an analysis DCC’s pathetic Public Questions initiative, which the new leader (who actually has a brain) has discontinued.

On 13th November 2006, David Ford responded to the questions I had put to Councillor Claire Vasey, whose perceptions I was seeking and not those of David Ford. However, I was grateful that he had responded, because it represented an authoritative statement of some kind from Durham County Council. Of course it did nothing to clarify what was or had been going on (or not) between Officers and Members in this affair. Some interesting light was shed on that issue some time later, when I asked questions in the council chamber, but that is for a future post!

David Ford enclosed a printout of an article from the Education Guardian of 12th September 2006, by Tim Radfordentitled, “Fishing for Complements: Can fish oil supplements improve GCSE results?”
This can still be accessed at http://education.guardian.co.uk/print/0,,329573750-48826,00.html David felt this to be the most complete and accurate coverage of what they were doing.

My letter to Councillor Vasey which David Ford answered can be found at http://maccruiskeen.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?action=edit&post=13

David Ford thanked me for the interest I had shown in DCC’s”recent Key Stage 4 initiative.” He went on to explain that Councillor Vaseyhad discussed my e-mail with him (what else could she do? She obviously couldn’t answer it!) and that they thought that I would find it useful if he clarified some of the key points. (my emphases)

David Ford began his agreed clarification process by attempting to explain to me some fundamental principles of semantics:

“A number of your questions are concerned with our use of therwords “trial” or “initiative”. At the start of our initiative we used the word trial in its broad English sense of something new that was being tried. We used the word initiative to indicate something new and innovative and you will be aware that from the very beginning we were absolutely clear that we were not undertaking a piece of controlled scientific research.”

Er……actually, I was completely unaware of that because of DCC’s press release and David Ford’s statements in the media. David Ford seems to think that if he makes, what seems to him, to be an authoratitive statement on a matter, then it becomes some sort of infallible pronouncement, to be adhered to when the evidence and rational scrutiny indicate otherwise. This tactic, variously called spin, rewriting history and making it up to suit circumstances, is only believed by the gullible.

Some 18 months later, the explanation from the DCC Press Office was somewhat different. I began by checking out what Dr Portwood had said. Dr Madeleine Portwood was interviewed on You and Yours on Radio 4 on Monday 14thApril 2008, by Catherine Carr. I give below a transcript of the exchange:

MP = Madeleine Portwood
CC = Catherine Carr

MP The information we gave to anyone involved in press publicity was certainly labelled (indistinct words) as the Year Eleven Initiative and I am aware that the press release went out with the label “trial” and that has caused us a lot of the difficulties that we are experiencing.

CC In the Daily Mail on 6th September you are quoted as saying, “The scale of this trial is extraordinary. Previous trials have shown record results and I am confident that we will see marked benefits of this one as well.”

MP Yeah, well I can again confirm that every reference I have made to this as being an initiative, but I will have referred to previous trials that we’ve done in Durham.

So presumably, Madeleine Portwood is implying that she was misquoted by the Daily Mail. David Ford, when interviewed on an earlier edition of You and Yours referred to “this trial” and had to begin again and say “this initiative.” It is also interesting to note that Dr Portwood’s e-mail to head teachers of secondary and special schools of 08/09/06, is headed “the Omega 3 Fish Oil Trials” and in the body of that e-mail, she refers to it as a “study.”

But the situation becomes truly bizarre when one considers the response of the DCC Press Officer, Fraser Davie. I telephoned him on 18th April 2008 and put it to him that Madeleine Portwood was effectively passing the buck to him for having changed “initiative” to “trial.” His response was as follows (I took careful notes)

The information for the press release was given to him at various briefings

He had substituted the word “trial” for the word “initiative”

Even if Dr Portwoodhad used the word initiative he would have changed it to “trial” because he needed to grab the attention of busy news editors and this was for “Joe Public” and not for the specialised scientific community.

I put it to Fraser Davie that he might be seen as somewhat disingenuous in claiming that a professional Press Officer and ex journalist of his undoubted experience could not see that his press release, using the word “trial” would not produce the effect it did. He simply reiterated his earlier statements.

David Ford went on to say:

“It became clear that some sections of the scientific community and associated media interpreted “trial” in the strict scientific sense and therefore to eliminate this confusion we have subsequently tried to avoid using the word. The most complete and accurate coverage of what we are doing may be found in a full page article in the Education Guardian by Tim Radford on Tuesday September 12th. This makes perfectly clear what we are, and are not, seeking to do.”

David Ford then listed brief answers to my questions, as follows:

With regard to the supply of the free capsules, it was DCC who approached Equazen.

This is confirmed in DCC’s press release of 6th September 2006 which states: “As a result of these projects, the county has built a unique relationship with Equazenand felt able to approach the company for this much larger scale initiative.”


There had been no financial inducements from Equazen in cash or kind.

Of course not; only £1m worth of “free” fish oil capsules!


The initiative was planned by David Ford.

Who is remarkably reticent about publishing his plan. It is difficult to imagine that he did not prepare one.


The aim of the trial/study/initiative was to support their existing Key Stage 4 strategy.

My question was, “What are its stated aims and objectives?” This answer is so broad and general as to be meaningless and one can only presume that that was David Ford’s intention. Some clarification of  what the Key Stage 4 strategy was and how it would be supported was an obvious addition, one would have thought. That would have then led to the objectives (presumably behaviourally measurable) and a brief account of how they were to be measured, which would have led, naturally to a brief description of the initiative’s methodology and proposed evaluation. Timescales, responsibilities and costings would also be listed.

David Ford says he is upset by the criticism he has received about his initiative. he has only himself to blame, in my opinion, because of his lack of openness. By giving deliberately evasive answers such as this, he invited more criticism.


This aim (presumably of supporting the Key Stage 4 strategy) had not been changed.

The aim may not have changed, but then it was so broad, that it was hardly necessary to do so. But I specifically asked about the initiative’s objectives and whether or not they had changed. David Ford studiously avoids any answer. One has only to compare what he says below about the evaluation of this “initiative” with subsequent statements to realise the extent to which the goal posts were not just moved, but uprooted and placed in a different field!


“The initiative was offered as an opportunity for schools. Individual head teachers (in their capacity as managers of autonomous institutions) agreed that the initiative should take place in their schools.”

My question was:

“Who sanctioned its implementation in schools?”

One would havethought that Governing Bodies, rather than head teachers were the appropriate decision makers in this matter, but David Ford ignores the real issue behind my, perhaps, badly framed question – who, in DCC, decided to offer this plan, with £1m of “free” capsules to the schools and then trumpet the trial in the press? It is the involvement (or non-involvement) of members that is crucial here and this will be examined in more detail in a future post when DCC’sresponse to my three questions in the Council Chamber was made.


“A project plan was prepared as an information pack for schools which was shared with them at a briefing meeting. Similar packs were distributed to all parents and there were also information meetings for them.”

My question was: “Was a written plan for the trial or initiative prepared?”

“There are two completely different “plans” here. One is the plan that David Ford describes, giving the participants and their carers an overview of the trial/study/initiative. This is the one David Ford mentions and any such initiative would have such an information pack. That Information Pack, what it contained and how it was to be distributed should havebeen part of David Ford’s trial/study/initiative plan. Is David Ford saying that he did not prepare a documented overall plan for his “Brainchild”? Such a plan would set out the overall aims and go on to state specific objectives, methodology, timescales, costings, logistics, instruments of measurement and evaluation criteria. Or does David Ford have the plan, but simply does not want to become involved in discussing or revealing it? It seems to me that this plan (if it exists) holds the key to unlocking all of the unanswered questions that David Ford’s and DCC’s stonewalled critics have been repeatedly asking. David Ford should publish his plan, not the parental information one, the writing, production and distribution of which should be covered in his overall strategic plan for the “initiative”.

 


The evaluation approach has been discussed with head teachers and would focus on uptake, teacher’s (sic) perceptions and outcomes compared with predictions.

David Ford has accused people of unfairly criticsing him. This answer, together with his other statements in the press and DCC’spress releases should be compared withwhat David Ford is currently saying his trial/study/initiative is about. For example:

“The county wide initiative 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 (sic) their attainments are better than their predicted scores,” said Mr Ford. (DCC Press Release, 6th september 2006)

“(Dave Ford) added that there had not been sufficient time for the fish oil supplement to feed through the system and have any influence on the pupils’ mock exam performance, but they would now have to wait until the results of the proper GCSEs later in the year to measure any impact.”
(Durham Advertiser, 13th January 2007)

“Mr Ford said the plan had always been to identify pupils who had not taken the tablets and compare their GCSE results to (sic) those who had, rather than havea control group.” (Newcastle Journal, 26th September 2008)

How does David Ford’s statement of 26thSeptember to the Newcastle Journal equate with his answer  to me of 13thNovember 2006, which was that outcomes were to be compared with predicted scores? And how were “teacher perceptions” to be utilised? When did his Damascene conversion take place?

 
The leader of the initiative is David Ford.

He should therefore not be surprised when he is asked pertinent questions and criticised when his responses are felt to be inadequate.


The evaluation of the initiative would be carried  through the participating head teachers.
“All press releases are prepared in our press office at County Hall.”

The question I asked was, “Who prepared the material for the DCC press releases on the “trial” or “initiative?” Giving answers comprising self-evident truths such as this, is one of the reasons that David Ford has come under fire. The press officer(s) needed to be briefed. Who provided those briefings and how? I acknowledge that my question was not specific enough and should have asked who had briefed the press office. From my conversation with Fraser Davie, DCC Press Officer, it is clear that no written briefings were given to the press office. Trying to untangle who said what and to whom will be like trying to nail the proverbial jelly to the ceiling, but it is indicative of the loose and unaccountable nature of things in DCC.


“I cannot comment on the content of BBC radio programmes and, as I have already said, the initiative is planned as an opportunity for head teachers and it is they who have made decisions on whether or not the initiative will take place in their schools. As you will be aware that is the proper place for such decisions to be made.”

Quite so, and David Ford’s “PontiusPilate” act is quite impressive, but who in DCC took the decision to roll this complex and expensive planned programme out to the schools and then centrally control it as a DCC initiative? Was the decision to do so solely made by Officers or were members involved? If members were involved and gave permission, who were they and with what mandate did they issue that permission?

This is one of the crucial issues in the great “Fish Oil Farce” – accountability! Did the members have a clue about what was going on? Would they have understood the issues if they had known? Was David Ford running the show? In other words, was the dog wagging the tail or, as I strongly suspect, was the tail wagging the dog?  DCC’sresponse(s) to my questions in the council chamber in February 2007 are most instructive and will be considered in some detail in a later posting.

David Ford then told me that the local authority supported the initiative as an opportunity for young people and their families to choose to try a supplement which may assist them in their learning. In the end it is their decision based on the information pack which has been supplied to them. Well over half of the eligible students have decided to take part.

David Ford neglects to say in what way the Local Authority supported the initiative. This again is contentious and will be examined in greater detail in the future post, mentioned above. The rest of his answer is of course an extension of his “Pontius Pilate” act, only this time passing the buck to parents and not head teachers!

David Ford felt that, contrary to my assertions, the public and professional educational response to the initiative, both in Durham and more widely, has been one of positive interest. he went on to say that it was only a small specialist section of the media that had been critical.

This self-delusional claptrap falls into the category of statement that I mention earlier in this post; by making an authoritative statement, it becomes true! It certainly makes one wonder just what David Ford reads.

David Ford went on to talk about how DCC was commited to providing every possible opportunity for its young people and that this initiative was but a small part of a wider range of strategies.

One hopes that the other strategies are slightly more scientifically and ethically rigorous than the farrago I call the “Fish Oil Farce!”

There are several issues here that need to be further examined, explained and cleared up. In particular the involvement (or not) of Council members, the truth about the Equazen deal (who approached who?) the apparent changes in David Ford’s initiative measurement strategies and of course the existence (or not) of the trial/study/initiative plan, which would obviously provide the answers to some of these important, contentious issues.

I can think of nothing that could be in the plan of this initiative (assuming it exists) that could not be placed in the public domain and I wonder why David Ford has not published it. My guess is that what has eventually transpired probably bears no relation to what was originally intended. Worse, there may not even have been a prepared plan (as David Ford and his team of inspectors require of head teachers for all school initiatives). Who inspects or scrutinises David Ford et al? What was Councillor Claire Vasey’s role in this affair in 2006? These are some of the major issues in the Fish Oil Farce.

Somewhat puzzled by her reply of, “=” I fired off another e-mail to Councilor Claire Vasey on 25th November 2006 as follows:

Dear Councillor Vasey,

Thank you for your e-mail, containing the single symbol, “=”. I am now racking my brains as to its significance!

As I expected, David Ford has appropriately rplied, in his customary succinct fashion, robustly defending his position. I would have expected nothing less from him.

David’s twelve point reply and its associated explanation, raise even more questions, in my opinion, but it would appear that both Officers and members of DCC are united and supportive of this “initiative” and so further discussion on the matter would appear to be fairly pointless.

However, I do find it stretching my credulity somewhat to accept that the extremely politically (both p and P)astute Chief Education Inspector chose to use the word “trial” and equally that Fraser Davie et al in the DCC Press Office apparently went along with this. That, it seems to me, is where the trouble started.

I can think of three possible explanations to account for what happened:

(1)
The word “trial” was used, perhaps naively, in its broad Englsih sense of something that was being tried and DCC was genuinely surprised when the furore surrounding its use blew up.

(2)
It was obvious that this was not a trial in the scientific sense of the word, but the word trial was used to give apparent respectibility to the project and the extent and strength of the hostile response from sections of the scientific community was somewhat unexpected, requiring immediate damage limitation initiatives.

(3)
The word “trial” was deliberately used, knowing that a furore was bound to erupt as scientists and peoploe who care about integrity and truth, naturally challenged the ethics and methodology of the project, thus gaining even more publicity for Equazen.

Naivety or cynicism?

It seems to me that the loser is Science – the quest for truth and knowledge.

The winner is Equazen – laughing (all the way to the bank!)

DCC, it seems to me, has ploughed its own furrow, constructed its own reality and is sitting in its ivory tower, sticking to its “principles” – whatever they might be.

What an opportunity lost for the advancement of knowledge in the effect of Omega 3 on children’s educational performance. What a waste of money and what priceless advertising and profits for equazen.

Only time will tell what effect this has had upon the reputatiuon of DCC, but one of the saddest things I have discovered when talking to people, including teachers and head teachers, is that they know nothing about it and basically don’t give a damn either.

Asavid Ford will tell you, I have always spoken my mind at Director’s and Chief Inspector’s meetings with head teachers and I have done so in this case because I felt that it needed saying. Whilst I have to accept the response I have received (from David Ford) I still think the whole thing stinks and david will know that I do, too.

So, thank you for your response to my second e-mail, which should go into the Guinness Book of Records as perhaps the shortest and most unintelligible reply, in history, from a local government politician to a genuine request for her personal views, from a resident of her county.

You never know, I may well meet you and David at XXXX XXXXXXXX’s leaving party next Wednesday. I shall wear a badge saying “FISH OIL” so you can either come and talk to me or studiously ignore me.

Yours etc etc

(This e-mail has been checked and is guaranteed to be free of viruses and fish oil)

Of course I met David Ford, but not Councillor Vasey, at the leaving “do” as I described in the previous post. He was not amused! It was a pleasant evening with lots of people there, including Keith Mitchell, the recently retired Director of Education. His predecessor, Keith Grimshaw gave the address. There was no official photographer, but I had taken along my Sony R1 and flash gun and took a large selection of pictures for the departing lady. Keith Mitchell asked me if I was the official photographer! I put him straight.

Educational Research the Dungham Way


Welcome to my BLOG! Thank you for looking in.

I thought long and hard about what my first posting should, or might, be and rejected the rather obvious one of a diatribe on crap research methods, vaunting ambition, cock-up and cover-up and instead decided to wite a short play. It’s a playlet, really, in one act, and has been written to amuse as its appalling characters, so far removed from any that could occur in reality, are meant to entertain and perhaps inform. Anyway, if it manages to raise a chuckle or two, then my labour will not have been in vain. The geographical location of the county of Dungham is beneath Contempt, slightly to the right of Cuckoo Land, above The Law, behind The Times and beyond Belief.

“Educational Research the Dungham Way”
A Trial, a Study and an Initiative in One Act
By
Policeman MacCruiskeen

Dramatis Personae:
Dayfydd Prod, Chief Education Inspector (aka The Welsh Wizard) Assorted inspectors of all ages and both genders.

The scene:
A room in the Education Department of Dungham County Council. There is a flipchart at one end of the room, faced by a semi-circle of seated inspectors, glancing at each other somewhat nervously. There is a general air of unease.

The Chief Inspector, Dafydd Prod (for it is he) enters. (All rise)

He removes his jacket, loosens his tie and sits on the edge of a table beside the flipchart, smiling at his inspectors.

Dafydd Prod: (Still smiling) “Do sit down.” (all sit)

Dafydd Prod: “I wonder who can tell me what alfalfa is?”

1st Inspector: (Sotto voce) “Oh my god! Here we go again, back to
bloody primary school!”

2nd Inspector: (Laughing) “Can you smoke it?”

Dafydd Prod: (His smile disappearing) “I’ll give you a clue. It was used
As a nutrative tonic by King Darius, 550 to 486 BC.”

2nd Inspector: (Whispers to neighbour) “F**k me! Why doesn’t he just
go and inspect something, like the bloody toilets for instance?”

Dafydd Prod: (Looking at 2nd Inspector) “So, Alec, are you going to
Share what you know about King Darius with all of us, or
Just with Diedre?”

2nd Inspector: (With faux seriousness) “Didn’t King Darius smite
the Amalekites, with the arsehole of a giraffe?”

3rd Inspector:
(Also fighting to maintain straight face) “I think you’ll find
that it was the jawbone of an ass!”

(Everyone, with the exception of the Chief Inspector is now in convulsions of mirth and mayhem briefly ensues, interrupted by an un-amused Dafydd)

Dafydd Prod: “Right! If you’ll just settle down, I see that I shall have to
explain, yet again, about aspects of education of which
you all appear to know nothing.”

2nd Inspector: (Annoyed) “I was only trying to lighten……….”

Dafydd Prod: (Pointedly ignoring him) “So listen carefully.”

Dafydd Prod: (Stands and faces them all) “Alfalfa extract is marketed by the
Alfalfa Research Studies Enterprise who, for reasons that need
not concern us, are unable to advertise the amazing benefits of
their alfalfa extract capsules.”

3rd Inspector: “What the f**k is alfalfa?”

Dafydd Prod: “I’m glad you asked me that. It’s
actually grown as cattle food and
it’s also known to be a galactagogue.”

3rd Inspector: “Dafydd, are you making this up?”

Dafydd Prod: “I can assure you that I am…..”

3rd Inspector: (Interrupting) “What the f**k is a galactagogue?”

Dafydd Prod: (wincing at the profanity) “If you’d only listen – ask
no questions and you’ll be told no lies. A galactagogue
is a substance that induces lactation.”

2nd Inspector: (Gazing longingly at Diedre’s ample, underwired breasts) “I fail to see what possible relevance this has for schools.”

Dafydd Prod: “Having talked to Arthur Curleyhair from ARSE, I am
convinced of alfalfa’s unique brain-enhancing properties.”

2nd Inspector: (Tearing his gaze away from Diedre’s bosom) “So what is
alfalfa, really?”

Dafydd Prod: (Beaming) “The answer to our prayers – and it’s free!
We’re all going green, at least the Year Elevens are.
There’s lovely, isn’t it?”

1st Inspector: “What’s the scam then, Dafydd?”

Dafydd Prod: “It’s a piece of cake! ARSE provide their green alfalfa
extract capsules for free, for any Year Eleven student
who wants them and we put out press releases about
how we are trialling the effect of alfalfa extract on student
performance, you know – increased brain nutrition equals
more alert students, equals increased performance,
equals better GCSE results, equals promotion for me.”

3rd Inspector: (Seriously) “But Dafydd, how do we know if alfalfa extract
actually works?”

Dafydd Prod:
“Why are you always so negative? Here is a unique
opportunity that is going to cost neither the kids nor the
County Council of Dungham a penny.”

3rd Inspector: (Quite studiously) “But surely there must be some
evidence, Dafydd?”

Dafydd Prod: “Well, there have been about seven trials conducted by
ARSE, that have indicated promising results, but have not
yet been published. And don’t forget, we have been
trialling the capsules in some of our primary schools.”

2nd Inspector: “With what results?”

Dafydd Prod: “They have been encouraging.”

2nd Inspector: “What about the data?”

Dafydd Prod: “We’re currently working on them.”

2nd Inspector
: “Were there any controls?”

Dafydd Prod: (Getting annoyed) “Look! You’re at it again – being
negative. Don’t you want the best for Dungham’s
children and their parents? Even if it doesn’t do what
ARSE claim it does, the fact that the kids and their
parents think that it might is all that matters, and the fact
that they are taking part – the Hormone effect!”

1st Inspector: “I think you mean Hawthorn effect, Dafydd!”

Dafydd Prod: (Dismissively) “Whatever – the main thing is publicity.”

2nd Inspector: “Didn’t some of the primary bairns turn green?”

3rd Inspector: “And if there are no controls, how will we evaluate?

Dafydd Prod: “Right! Meeting over! I’m sure we all have things to do.
Just get the schools involved and leave the rest to me. I’ll
handle the media.”

They all stand and wander out of the room, chattering.

2nd Inspector: (To Diedre) “For god’s sake don’t you take any of those
bloody capsules!”

1st Inspector: (To colleague) “The trouble is, he thinks he can juggle
with soot.”

Dafydd Prod: (Ominously) “Alec, a word please.”

Curtain

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead, councils or companies is purely co-incidental

© Policeman MacCruiskeen 2008

Edit |

I received Councillor Vasey’s utterly pathetic response on 9th November 2006 (see page 3) and I sent the following reply the same day:

Dear Councillor Vasey,

Thank you for your reply to my e-mail.

David Ford and I know each other very well (he was my link inspector when that system was first instigated) and I have debated many issues with him since then. We are old “sparring partners” who go back a long way and I think he will not only notb be surprised by my comments (I have tackled him on many issues in my professional career) but will also vigorously defend his position (as I would expect him to do.)

If I had wanted David’s reactions to my questions, I would have e-mailed him or indeed phoned him or “collared” him at some education event and “bent his ear” about his Fish Oil Trial (sorry – initiative!) He knows I would, because he knows me too well.

In a recent e-mail to him, I made a joking reference to “Fish Oil” which he chose to ignore!

In sending my questions to David, it seems to me that you entirely miss my point and my purpose in writing to you, as Lead Councillor for Children’s Services. I didn’t want to know what he would say. I wanted to know what the Lead member for Children’s Services would say.

Are you telling me that as Lead member for Children’s Services, you do not understand the issues I have raised?

It may be that I have been somewhat imprecise in conveying my concerns.

They are that the Fish Oil “Trial” (or “Initiative”, depending upon Dave’s memory or perhaps political expediency) is reported to be supported by County Councillors. Accordingly, I simply wanted to know what members’ involvement was. I have contacted two other County Councillors with 50% success. One has replied and the other has not! The one who replied knew little of the matter. Obviously I don’t know the views of the one who didn’t reply.

I doubt if I am making friends and influencing people here, but there you are!

I think that what has gone on has been fairky appalling, with the good name of Durham County Council being made a laughing stock. In contacting you, I was attempting to discover to what extent members were involved, had been briefed and if they had actually understood the “Trial” (sorry – “Initiative”) My own view is that members probably hadn’t much information about the scheme or its implications, as this harebrained “stunt” rolled out. And I think it has been a classic case of how not to conduct a damage limitation exercise and retain any credibility.

What Dave Ford, Madeleine Portwood et al get up to in this affair and what their motives might be is one thing and one could specualte at length about the psychology and sociology of what used to be the LEA, but is now something else, with presumably all manner of power struggles and vacuums at work. My interest and concern was entirely with members and their roles in this “affair.”

So, having forwarded my questions to you, to Dave Ford, how about grasping the nettle as Lead Member for Children’s Ser4vices and having a go at giving me the politician’s perspective of this sorry saga.

What was County Councillor involvement in the planning, approval and implementation of this “initiative?”

The rest of my questions are in my previous e-mail to you. It was your answers I was seeking. David Ford’s comments will be informed by the exigencies of his position in this affair. As I said earlier, if I had wanted his views, I would have asked for them – from him!

Are you happy with the way DCC has been pilloried in the media?

Have you actually forwarded my direct questions, that only the Lead Member for Children’s Services can answer, to the CHief Inspector so that he can answer them for you?

is the tail really wagging the dog in Durham County Council?

I should love to hear your views! (If I want the Gospel According to Ford, I can ask him!)

Yours, ever hopefully (Go on – grasp the nettle!)

Yours etc etc………………

Some two weeks later, I received an e-mailed reply from Councillor Vasey which read as follows:

“=”

Yes, I was a bit puzzled too!

But hey – this is Durham County Council we are dealing with – two weeks to think of a reply and then send an “equals” sign is probably good going! It also buys time to get briefed.

The cabinet member for Children’s Services, Councillor Claire Vasey, replied on 9th November 2006 to my detailed enquiry as follows:

“I have forwarded your e-mail to the Chief Inspector David Ford in order for him to address the issues you have raised.

I hope this is helpful.”

In other words, I am not even going to attempt to adddress the issues you have raised, because I haven’t a clue what it’s about.

This from the woman with responsibility for scrutinising what David Ford et al were doing.

Easy Peasy – collect attendance allowance!

I read Ben Goldacre’s article of 16th September 2006 in Bad Science, criticising Durham LEA’s Fish Oil Trial. I found it hard to believe what I was reading. Could it be true that David Ford was doing what he was alleged to be doing? The more I learned, the worse it turned out to be and I felt that the Education Department must have taken leave of its senses. This, the very department that had warned its head teachers, of which I had been one, about the dangers of being seen to endorse any particular product, was “getting into bed” with a well known food supplement supplier. What the hell was going on? I wondered. As it dawned on me just what was being proposed, I couldn’t believe it and I became quite angry. I felt that certain Officers must have “slipped their leashes” and were taking advantage of the fact that most of the councillors who were supposed to be scrutinising them would not have the specialist knowledge to understand what was going on. David Ford had been a colleague head teacher of mine, then a Primary Inspector, Senior Inspector and, finally, Chief Inspector. he had been my school’s LEA Link Inspector for some time. We therefore go back a long way.

I therefore wrote to Councillor Claire Vasey (via e-mail) who was the Lead Member for Children’s Services to ask what I felt were very pertinent questions. My letter to her, on 31st October 2006 (can it really be almost two years ago?) is reproduced below.

31/10/06

Dear Councillor Vasey,

I retired from primary school headship in Durham three years ago, having worked in the authority for 36 years. I am genuinely saddened by the appalling business of this so-called Fish Oil “Trial.” I have seen so many “initiatives” in Durham over the years, with less than objective evaluation, but this “trial” with its blatant commercial sponsorship and the subsequent pillorying of DCC in the national media, have both angered and saddened me. I am saddened to see DCC made a laughing stock and I am angry that integrity seems to have gone out of the window. I have contacted a couple of members, with whom I am aquatinted, to ask “What the hell is going on here?”

The “pasting” and ridicule that DCC have taken in the national media has been quite without precedent, in my opinion and one hopes that members are conducting a robust enquiry to find out how this sorry state of affairs that has done so much to damage DCC’s good reputation, came about and who carries responsibility for it.

I understand that you are the Lead Member for Children’s Services. In the time-honoured tradition, whilst I protest that I would not wish to tell you how to do your job, I attach a list of questions that I, for one, feel require answers to an appropriate committee.

Did DCC approach Equazen or vice-versa?

Have there been any financial or other inducements from Equazen, in cash or in kind?

Who planned the “trial” or initiative?

What are its stated aims and objectives?

Have they been changed following the recent events in the national media?

Who sanctioned its implementation in schools?

Was a written plan for the “trial” or initiative prepared?

If so, who wrote it?

What supporting documentation, if any, was given to the participating schools?

Were briefing meetings held for the participating schools?

Was a coherent evaluation strategy for the “trial” or initiative prepared as part of the “trial” plan?

Is so, how was the “trial” to be evaluated?

Who is leading the “trial” or initiative?

Who is responsible for its evaluation?

Who prepared the material for the DCC press releases on the “trial” or initiative?

Why was it that nobody, including Dr Portwood, Senior Educational Psychologist, and David Ford, Chief Education Inspector (whose main subject in his teacher training was science) could see that without some form of “control” in the “trial,” the results will be absolutely worthless?

Why did David Ford, following ridicule of the “trial” by Ben Goldacre in the Bad Science column, suddenly declare to him that it was not a “trial,” but an “initiative”?

Why is it reported by the “You and Yours” team that the “trial” or “initiative” has the full backing of county councillors?

Has the “trial” been discussed and agreed in any committee of members of DCC?

If so, what briefing papers were provided and was the “initiative” described as a trial?

Were the methodological implications of the “trial” or “initiative” explained to members?

Were the evaluation implications of the “trial” (i.e. that any results would be meaningless) explained to members?

Did members raise any questions or doubts and if so, how were these dealt with?

If so, what discussion, if any, took place regarding the ethical considerations of becoming involved with a company such as Equazen, which has a clear commercial imperative?

Who signed the “deal” with Equazen?

Do members actually realise the damage that has been done to DCC through being pilloried in this way in the national press?

Why has no-one in DCC realised that what eleven year-old children in science in the authority’s primary schools are taught concerning controls in experiments and fair testing, would enable those very children to understand why the “trial” was not only fatally flawed, but worse than that, a travesty of scientific method?

Students in Year Eleven, being given fish oil capsules and studying science, will be more than capable of understanding the glaring flaws in the methodology of the “trial” in which they are participating as part of the study cohort. Does a scientist like David Ford, who presumably inspects science teaching, or indeed anyone else in his department, not appreciate the inherent irony here, that the students could certainly have designed a proper trial, yielding significant data?

Now that the “trial” is apparently an “initiative” (although somewhat worryingly, David Ford had trouble remembering that when interviewed by the “You and Yours” reporter, last Thursday) from which no reliable conclusions can be drawn, what is the point of continuing and thereby heaping further opprobrium upon DCC, especially as the summer of 2007 approaches, when the GCSE results are published and the national media engage in a “feeding frenzy”?

Who has been co-ordinating the “climb-down” and “face-saving” strategies, so apparent in the You and Yours broadcast?
Now that DCC is a virtual laughing stock in intelligent society, who carries the responsibility for that, and has any form of inquest been undertaken by members?

What has been the role of the Director of Children’s Services in all of this?

What has been the role of the Lead Member for Children’s services in all of this?

There are literally dozens more questions that I could have asked, but one becomes numbed by the sheer volume and complexity.

There have been some mighty “Turkeys” in the Education Department in the past (Ashfield’s sadly misnamed “Education Success 2000″ springs readily to mind as one that crashed before take off, cost an arm and a leg and wasted everyone’s time, but didn’t stop her becoming CEO of Cumbria (for a while)!)

In my opinion, DCC has shot itself repeatedly in both feet in this affair. Presumably, the tactic of those involved will be to backtrack slightly, explain that it was not actually a “trial,” but an “initiative” then tough it out and wait until the fuss blows over. That is until the chickens come home to roost next summer with GCSE results.

It seems to me that the only people to come out of this laughing (all the way to the bank) are Equazen. Supplying the capsules at cost price must be the cheapest and best advertising they have ever had. Actually, the sad fact is that most Guardian readers have also been laughing (in sheer disbelief) at the unfolding saga. You couldn’t make it up!

I despair!

I do hope that you will consider the questions I have posed and perhaps use them to assist you to ask some very pertinent ones of your own.

Yours etc etc

Two weeks after sending this letter, I met David Ford at a function to celebrate the leaving of a colleague. We met in the foyer of the hotel where this particualr reception was being held and I smiled at him and proffered my hand. He was reluctant to shake it, but eventually did with the words, “Well, I will shake your hand, but it would have been a different matter two weeks ago.”

“Why is that?” I asked. (I belong to the school where one could slug it out in a courtroom as apparent deadly enemies, but meet up for a pint in the pub afterwards.)

“It wasn’t what you did” he said, “So much as the way you did it.”

I realised that I was now “off the team.”

We did shake hands, however.

I suppose you are wondering what Councillor Vasey said in reply to me.

Nothing!

She obviously hadn’t a clue about it and simply passed my letter to David Ford for him to answer, and he eventually duly responded. Because Councillor Vasey and I were exchanging e-mails and she was clearly ducking her responsibilities, I gave her the title, “Councillor e-Vasey-ive.”

I suppose I had better find David Ford’s reply.

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