When is a trial not a trial? When is a Council decision not a Council decision? When is an attempt to improve exam results not an attempt to improve exam results? The answer, it would appear, is when Durham County Council have anything to do with it.
Back in September 2006, Ben Goldacre wrote about a proposal to feed fish oil tablets to 5,000 Year 11 students in County Durham in the hope of improving exam results. He contacted Durham asking why they did not conduct a proper controlled trial and requested other data relating to the trial.
Durham’s response was quite surreal. Despite having called it a trial in their own press release, they now claimed that it was not a trial but an initiative. They further refused to supply the information he had requested as it would be too burdensome.
A number of posters at badscience wrote to Durham council requesting parts of the information. Rather than do that, I wrote requesting:-
“…copies of briefing papers and/or reports submitted tosenior officials in the Education Department and to Elected Members.”
I wrote about this here and here so I hope you don’t mind if I don’t repeat it all on this blog. The short version is that Durham claimed that my request was vexatious, too burdensome to comply with and part of a campaign. I appealed and was told that the documents I had requested did not exist.
I have worked in local authorities and know how they operate. Major decisions are always well documented. Councillors are, after all, spending public money and need to account for it. I appealed to the Information Commissioner’s Office.
Yesterday I received a reply from the Complaints Officer, Laura Booth:-
“…The ICO wrote to the Council on 29 January and asked it to respond to the following:
If no written reports or papers were prepared regarding the fish oil initiative, please explain how the Council took the decision to introduce this policy into schools
The Council has stated that the decision to implement the fish oils initiative was not made by the Council; it was an initiative supported by the Council, however the decision whether or not to introduce the supplement was a matter for individual schools. Therefore the Council did not require formal approval for the project, and thus the papers one would expect the Council to hold in relation to the exercise of its formal powers were not required.
The Council has provided details of the minutes of a meeting at which a similar query was raised by a member of the public. The relevent information is available online at the following link:
I took a look at that link. I note Durham are now claiming that the purpose of the initiative was not to improve exam results. This is not what they were saying in the press release referred to above.
There are some interesting statements in that press release:-
“Education Chiefs in County Durham are to mount a unique back-to-school initiative today which they believe could result in record GCSE pass levels [in summer 2007]”
“The initiative is the brainchild of Dave Ford, the Councils Chief Schools Inspector”
“The initiative has won the backing of Durham County Councillors”
These all suggest a central decision, not one made by schools and merely “supported” by the Council.
Laura Booth concludes:-
The Council has explained that it does hold some information that it distributed to schools when advising them of the possibility of introducing the supplements [is this not an admission that this initiative originated with the Council and not with schools? – JQH]. The Council suggested that you may have been provided with this information already [have I fuck – JQH] If you have not , and you would like to be provided with a copy, please let me know and I shall ask the Council to forward this information to you. [emphasis Laura Booth’s – JQH]
I have already written to say I would like this information and will blog about it when it arrives.