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Did fish oil help grades to surge?

Experts urge caution over claims that omega-3 capsules were behind GCSE improvements. Shafik Meghji reports

The debate over whether fish oil supplements help pupils perform intensified this week after a Lancashire school claimed they contributed to its best GCSE results.

Fleetwood sports college gave 184 pupils tablets with omega-3 fish oil for 12 weeks in the critical run-up to their exams last year.

A total of 34 per cent passed five GCSEs at grade C or higher, up from 27 per cent in 2004. On average, pupils exceeded the results predicted for them by one grade.

The 15 and 16-year-olds taking the chewable Haliborange orange-flavoured supplements also did significantly better than expected in reading tests set by researchers.

Steve Roe, head of the school which takes a high proportion of children with behavioural problems, said: "Last year saw Fleetwood sports college get the best GCSE results ever.

"We were aware of omega-3 fish oil studies being conducted among primary children and were keen to see if it could make a difference with teenagers.

The school community has no doubt that the supplement had a role to play in our GCSE success."

However, experts have urged caution.

Dr Frankie Phillips, a spokeswoman for the British Dietetic Association, said: "We know that omega-3 is important for the structure and function of the brain and we support more research into this area.

"But while 27 per cent to 34 per cent is a significant improvement, it is important to remember that the exam results are from two different sets of children. Omega-3 fatty acids aren't a panacea that will turn a mediocre academic performer into an Einstein."

Dr Madeleine Portwood, Durham county council's senior education psychologist, who has carried out research on pupils' nutrition, said: "If children have a nutritional deficiency, omega-3 supplements can help their brain work at the optimum level. However, they also have to study hard and have good teaching."

The Fleetwood study was carried out by the University of Wales and funded by Haliborange. Pupils were given chewable orange-flavoured supplements produced by the company. Girls showed the biggest improvement.

Dr Amanda Kirby, who led the study, said: "Previous omega-3 studies have focused on the behavioural and concentration problems of children.

"The results of this trial have also highlighted the need for further investigation into the role of omega-3 in an educational context looking at academic measures," she said.

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