6. David Ford Writes to Me (on Behalf of Councillor Claire Vasey)

October 13, 2008

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 https://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.


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