7. I Reply to David Ford on 28th November 2006

October 14, 2008

                                                                                                          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.

Advertisements

One Response to “7. I Reply to David Ford on 28th November 2006”

  1. Jaybe said

    Congratulations on an excellent blog. It seems evident that everyone in this debacle has only considered the possibility that feeding capsules to kids can only ever have a beneficial or, at worst, a neutral outcome (as evidenced by their changing methodology to achieve desireable result). Perhaps Councilor Vasey should consider how she might respond were future randomised, blinded trials to indicate these capsules deliver a detramental or deleterious effect.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: