Saturday, 7 February 2009

Jamie's brain food

“An independent study shows the performance of 11year-old pupils eating Oliver’s meals improved by up to 8% in science and as much as 6% in English.”
Roger Waite, “Jamie’s food fuels pupils’ brain power”, Sunday Times, February 1, 2009

First of all, the report, Belot, M., and James, J., (2009) “Healthy School Meals and Educational Outcomes” (ISER) actually says that the number of pupils attaining level 4 increased “by 3 to 6 percentage points in English, and the percentage of pupils reaching level 5 (improved) by 3 to 8 percentage points in Science” (my italics). Admittedly, “up to” is correct, in the same way that “as little as 3 per cent” would have been equally as true. But whether 3, 6 or 8 per cent, an improvement is an improvement, right?

Well, first of all, the study which primarily compares improvements in English uses 7 other Greenwich schools as controls. These other schools have a “substantially lower… percentage of pupils speaking English as their first language.”

The researchers are no innocents here. This report is straining to prove the merits of Jamie Oliver’s campaign - the very thing that they purport to be independently researching. Even the opening pages, the authors can’t help their hyperbole: “healthy meals were being put alongside the original junk food” (my italics).

Incredibly, after noting the substantial improvements in the school serving Jamie Oliver’s dinners, they make the startling claim: “So far we have included all pupils in the analysis. However, only part of them has been truly treated, those who actually eat school meals. We do not have individual information about who is eating school meals and who is not.” Don't worry the "modelling" will even out that minor point, eh!

The possibility of the placebo effect seems to undermine any remaining credibility in this report. The authors say: “some of the treated schools were explicitly mentioned in (Jamie Oliver's TV) program, such that one could expect that for those schools the 'placebo-effect' could be stronger than others. We have extended the empirical analysis to allow for this possibility… (and there is) no way researchers can be sure that the effect they estimate is truly due to the change in policy rather than a placebo effect.”

I could go on, but the paper is full of provisos, and relies on “modelling” more than facts. A fair assessment of the research is that it is interesting, but not substantive. However, lo and behold, it was press released by the department and regurgitated by an unquestioning press.

The fact that this stuff can justify an additional £1.2 million expenditure by September 2007 alone, is tragic. Arguing for better school dinners should be enough. Trying to justify better school dinners on the basis of the mystical educational benefits of Jamie's Oliver's brain food, should be as unnecessary as it is impossible.

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