Final Instalment of the Fish Oil Saga

I have had a final response from the Information Commissioner on my attempts to find out what brought about the decision to procede with the fish oil trial initiative.

I am informed that:-

“The Council has again confirmed that it does not hold any information which is relevent to your request. It has stated that no documents were prepared for senior officials or members and that the initiative came about as a result of verbal discussions at the Council. Forms and leaflets were then sent out to schools to enable them to decide whether they wished to take up the opportunity to introduce the supplements.


“I understand your concern that the Council has made a recommendation to schools to introduce the fish oil supplement without having a written record of this; however there is no evidence that the Council holds but is refusing to supply the information you have requested. For this reason I am unable to investigate this matter further and your case file remains closed.”

In one sense I could call this a marginal victory as I started out with the aim of finding out how the decision to go ahead with the “initiative” was made. The answer is clearly on an ad hoc unattributable basis. You can read the previous instalments here, here, here and here.

Clearly, however, there is a lot which is never going to be revealed because these decisions were arrived at verbally. I take some consolation from the fact that the adverse publicity Durham attracted will have put other Education Authorities off trying anything similar. That and the fact that the pills almost certainly did not have the desired effect. Almost eleven months on from the 2007 GCSE results being published, Durham is still holding the results of the initiative close to its chest.


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7 Responses to “Final Instalment of the Fish Oil Saga”

  1. draust Says:

    Have you been in touch with Paul (PJ) Thompson, JQH? He is the ex-headteacher in Durham who knows several of the protagonists well and has popped up on relevant blog / press threads and in the local papers there asking awkward questions. Perhaps if you pooled your joint info you could get the local press interested.

    It does seem extraordinary that something this large scale could be nodded through without any real assessment in advance, or even discussion. Although one could argue that Equazen were footing the bill, I wonder how much taxpayer-funded teacher and teaching assistant time went into servicing all this?

  2. CGR Says:

    First, kudos to JQH for persisting with this (loud applause echoes around the room).

    I won’t list all the points again, but in addition to the cost implications, I was shocked at the time by the apparently casual attitude to ethics displayed by this farce and now I’m even more outraged to discover that it seems there was no formal, written approval process – AT ALL.

    Presumably there are no national guidelines for Councils to follow for planning this kind of experiment – otherwise there would be comments about whether or not they had been complied with. (I mean, guidelines beyond the niceties of public servants accepting ‘gifts’ either for themselves or their organisation.) If indeed no guidelines exist, perhaps they should: not necessarily to prohibit trials but to insist on minimum standards for accountability, cost and outcome audit and to demonstrate that all ethical issues have been considered.

    Does the Helsinki Declaration ( have an legal bearing on this?

  3. jaycueaitch Says:

    IIRC Ben Goldacre asked about the ethical considerations a couple of years ago when the trial (they called it a trial then) was announced with much fanfare. Durham told him it would be “too burdensome” to find the information.

    Just how burdensome would it be to write saying “we’ve not done that”?

  4. BobP Says:

    This certainly raises questions about the standard of professionalism (or otherwise) at Durham’s Dept of Education, as well as about the standard of corporate governance exercised by Durham Council over its schools and staff.

  5. Shaun Whitfield Says:

    Dear Letting Off Steam

    Sory if you have already investigted the avenue I am suggesting here, but the way to do more probing is to check out the Council’s Constituion. this will set out what decisons are taken by Councillors and what ones are delegated to officers. Sometimes there is a hjybrid of the two, ie where the officer can take the decison in consultation with a key Councillor. Whatever their system, it should be comparable with what actually happened in the ‘trial’ case. If it transpires that officers took a decision that should have involved the Councillors but did not they ought to be in deep doo-doo. There is often a financial cut-off for the level of decision making, eg officers being only able to authorise spending temselves up to a certain threshold. It might be worth trying to find out how much the ‘trial’ cost and whether it exceeded any threshold above which only Councillors could authorise the expenditure.


    Shaun Whitfield

  6. Paul Thompson Says:

    Dear JHQ,

    Do get in touch with me about this. I have an interesting letter from the Corporate Director of Children and Young People’s Services to the Honourable member of Parliament for North Durham.


  7. A Year of Steam « Letting Off Steam Says:

    […] uncover the decision making process that had initiated the Great Durham Fish Oil Saga here, here, here, and here. The answer would appear to be that the decision was made on an ad hoc unattributable […]

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