2. How I got Involved in the David Ford Fish Oil Farce

September 28, 2008

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.


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.


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.


4 Responses to “2. How I got Involved in the David Ford Fish Oil Farce”

  1. jonhw said

    “Who signed the “deal” with Equazen?”

    Durham Council responded to a FOIA request by stating that “there was no contract or formal agreement between Equazen and Durham County Council and/or Dr Madeleine Portwood.” Which I found surprising.

    Glad to see you’ve started the blog, by the way.

  2. maccruiskeen said

    What about any contract between Equazen and David Ford or any one else? There had to be some sort of formal agreement – hadn’t there?

  3. jonhw said

    Honestly, the whole (non)trial has been so badly conducted that it’s hard to know what to expect…

  4. said

    Ford is a good car 🙂

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