UK project to assess omega-3 and exam results

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

The local education authority (LEA) in the UK's County Durham is
initiating a project to assess the effects of omega-3 supplements
on 5,000 school pupils taking their GCSE examinations next year,
which could back up existing evidence in a social setting.

A number of scientific studies have yielded positive results of the effects of omega-3 supplementation on learning and concentration. But the evidence to date has not been enough for the Food Standards Agency to recommend that they be given to all school children, after commissioning a review of the data this year.

Having already participated in the Oxford-Durham study which yielded promising results on the effects of omega-3 supplements on children with learning difficulties, the LEA wanted to assess how they might affect examination performance in 16-year-olds. Although non-scientific in design, if successful the project could spur more investigations in this area and potentially shape future policy.

The supplements used in both the Oxford-Durham study and the new project are supplied by UK company Equazen.

Durham local education authority has school records for pupils taking their GCSEs this year from the age of four. According to Dr Madeleine Portman, the county's senior educational psychologist, this means that accurate predictions can be made on GCSE results.

"We know that, plus or minus a grade, they are accurate,"​ she said.

The plan is for statisticians to compare teacher-predicted scores with actual results, and assess whether the omega-3 supplements enable pupils to surpass expectations.

Dr Portman said that there are 6,000 children in the year 11 school year in County Durham, but it is expected that about 1,000 will opt out of the project. This means that comparisons can be drawn between the results of those taking part and those that do not.

The results will not be reported in a peer-reviewed journal since it is not a clinical trial, but Durham LEA will publish interim results based on mock examination results in January 2007, and final results based on actual GCSEs in September 2007.

Six supplements will be administered to the participants at school each week-day until they take their exams in nine months' time. The pupils are also to be given a supply to take at home during weekends and school holidays. At these times the project relies heavily on the pupils' being willing and remembering to take the supplements, but they are given compliance sheets that they are expected to complete truthfully.

The pupils are not being asked to keep food diaries. Dr Portwood told that that if they have to hand in records of food intake, the danger is that they may be inclined to select more nutritious foods, which would skew the results.

Moreover, while it would be interesting to observe the effects of the supplements on children who subsist on very poor diets, it would be too difficult logistically for the LEA to assess food diaries of 6,000 individuals.

County Durham ranks the lowest in England in the multiple indices of social deprivation - that is, in terms of health, mortality and deprivation.

Despite these factors, while the national average of GCSE passes for pupils in maintained schools this year was 57 per cent, Durham's was only just below at 56 per cent.

"Where we can make any difference for education, we do,"​ said Portman.

The supplements to be used in the project have a retail value of £1m, and Equazen's involvement was described by a spokesperson as a "huge investment"​. In terms of publicity for the brand it is already paying off as the project has received coverage from print and broadcast media outlets in the UK.

However some questions have been raised about whether it is an appropriate to have a commercial interest involved in project that could boost educational performance.

Dr Portman said that she does not regard the arrangement with Equazen as being any different from arrangements that LEAs throughout the country have with companies - such as those that supply mineral water, plants for school gardens, and even laptop computers.

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