Gone fishing...

2nd June 2006 at 01:00
Fish oils have been shown to help children with behaviour and learning difficulties. Stephanie Northen visits a special school that hopes to reap the benefits of omega-3

Eaton Hall school is calm. The large, airy reception leads into tranquil corridors with classrooms leading off. A boy walks quietly past with a teacher. His hoodie is on back to front and the hood is up, covering his face. An hour later, two teachers go past at a brisk pace. They are not running - quite. A boy has become upset in maths and has left the building to hide behind a bush.

Staff at this Norwich school for boys with emotional and behavioural difficulties take things in their stride. Even the glare of publicity doesn't make them blink. Eaton Hall, which is seeking specialist status in special needs, has been mentioned in national and local newspapers and seen on TV.

And Total Sea Fishing magazine got in touch. Why Total Sea Fishing? It's all down to fish oils, of course, and those omega-3 essential fatty acids.

Children with dyslexia, autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder may be deficient in these acids, and they have been linked to behaviour and learning problems in boys.

Since January, Eaton Hall's 38 pupils, aged 11 to 16, and 40 staff have been swallowing three fish oil capsules twice a day. Lianne Quantrill, senior care manager at the residential school, is behind the project, the first involving a special school. She was inspired by the results of a trial carried out in Durham, which showed dramatic improvements in the reading, spelling and behaviour of 117 dyspraxic pupils.

There could be similar benefits for Eaton Hall's pupils whose special needs include autism, Asperger's, ADHD, and oppositional-defiance disorder. But organising such a study is not straightforward. Ms Quantrill found herself involved in questions of ethics, science and commercial sponsorship. There were also practical issues such as how best to track the children's progress and, as always, money; fish oil supplements are notoriously expensive. Still, Ms Quantrill is "passionate, organised and a bit cheeky".

She accepted capsules worth pound;6,000, enough for six months, from the same company that supplied the Durham primaries. She talked to the senior education psychologist involved in the Durham trial, who agreed to help her assess the results. She even got a donation from the Bethel child and family centre in Norwich to pay for the detailed assessment forms.

Parents' co-operation was vital, so she prepared a three-page document entitled Anyone for Fish? explaining the scientific rationale behind taking omega-3, which has lost the battle with the bad fats of the western junk food culture. She phoned parents, chased up permission slips and assessment forms. And she explained the idea to staff. "We didn't want the children to feel like guinea pigs, as if we were watching them. We wanted it to feel like we are all doing this together," says Ms Quantrill, who is also the school's award-winning well-being co-ordinator.

Everyone has the right to withdraw from the study. "Given the kind of school we are, I didn't want fish oil taking to be manipulated or used as a weapon. If you don't want to take it, just don't do it. It's up to you."

Thanks to Ms Quantrill's efforts and the support of the head, Valerie Moore, everyone signed up, apart from two staff who are vegetarian.

Before they started in January, staff and parents filled in Conners forms, which assess pupils' behaviour. The same form will be completed when the study finishes at the end of the summer term. Literacy and numeracy tests conducted in December will be repeated again this month. Detailed daily diaries were already kept on all the boys, but Ms Quantrill will be scrutinising the results more carefully than usual. Changes in, for example, sleep patterns, physical appearance, appetite, clumsiness, levels of aggression and hyperactivity will all be noted.

The main area of interest for Ms Quantrill will be the physical management statistics - the number of times staff have to intervene to prevent a boy damaging himself, someone else or the building.

Ms Quantrill has brought more than fish oil to Eaton Hall. "I was thinking about what else we could introduce to modify behaviour, which is our main job. So I started looking at improving children's diet, sourcing local food, bringing in organic produce and reducing salt and sugar intake. We are also trying to increase the amount of exercise pupils take."

This holistic approach has caused Ms Quantrill some difficulty. Eaton Hall's work has been reported as a scientific "trial" by the media and Norfolk county council. It isn't, because there is no control group and because improving nutrition and exercise levels at the same time will make it impossible to determine whether any changes are down to omega-3 alone.

Dr Alex Richardson, the Oxford scientist behind the Durham trial and author of a forthcoming book, They Are What You Feed Them (Thorsons), says: "This is not a trial. The fish oil company is just after a free advert." The trouble with labelling it a trial, she says, is that it gives sceptical medics and policymakers "who want to drop a brick on this from a great height" an opportunity to pour scorn.

"Hats off to the school for taking a leap of faith on existing evidence.

They've used their common sense and looked at the obvious, that food affects your brain, and have decided to take some practical steps to improve meals and exercise."

Dr Richardson, currently raising pound;1 million to launch a study of the benefits of fish oils for children in mainstream schools, despairs of the food industry and the Government. The politics of the debate are clearly fraught. "The commercial exploitation that goes on is distressing. I'm being besieged by food companies, wanting my name on their product."

For Lianne Quantrill the issue is simpler. "I was criticised on the radio because this isn't a scientific trial. I know the company wants PR from it, but we were going to do it anyway. We didn't do a proper trial because it would have taken months to get it off the ground. I wanted to start it now for the sake of these children.

"It's funny, you think you are doing something good, but then someone says 'oh but you're not thinking of anyone else are you?' Well, I'm thinking of 40 children and 40 staff."

For more information on omega-3 visit the Food and Behaviour Research website: www.fabresearch.org. Also see www.tes.co.ukstaffroomfish

Super cereal and peer massage Parents do many unusual things to support their children's school. But the group of 20 at Ashbrow nursery and infants, in Huddersfield, who started taking fish oil supplements at the end of April are probably unique.

Dora Plant, the headteacher, invited adult volunteers to join the 50 key stage 1 pupils who have been taking omega 3 since January. "They looked at the research and wanted it for their children, and decided to try it for themselves as well." The parents are taking capsules, while the pupils are piloting cereal bars with added low levels of omega 3. "We wanted to make it as normal as possible," says Mrs Plant. "When you are working with young children you have to be careful what you encourage them to put in their mouths. I do have issues about children taking supplements, but ultimately the bars are a food."

Ashbrow had already done much to improve its pupils' well-being. Two years ago, it introduced peer massage. After lunch the children give each other upper torso massages following the lead of an adult, and there is 100 per cent take up. Mrs Plant also tried to improve the quality of the food - "long before Jamie Oliver" - but lack of money stopped her doing as much as she would have liked. So she investigated the research and decided there were children at Ashbrow, many of whom have special needs, who might benefit from omega 3.

Now one company supplies the bars and another the capsules for the adults in a study that scientist Dr Alex Richardson is advising on. "We are open with parents," says Mrs Plant. "We hope that it will make a difference for the children and we will use that to try to lobby to get better quality products for meals. If we had the money we would prefer to improve the meals and for all children to get omega 3 naturally through their diet."

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