Education Quandary

Should we be giving our children fish oils to boost their IQ? The parent teacher association says we should
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The Independent Online

Hilary's advice

The PTA may be on to something. These are called essential oils because our bodies need to get them from our daily diet; they can't store them up. But when did your child last eat a pilchard or a mackerel?

Evidence is mounting that these oils have an impact on children's attention, co-ordination, volatility, concentration and memory. A study in County Durham showed that they significantly boosted concentration and achievement in primary-age children with learning problems. Another found that fish oils lowered the rate of violent behaviour among young offenders by a third. Every day schools see evidence of a direct - sometimes almost instant - correlation between what children eat and how they behave and learn.

This isn't surprising. The brain is 60 per cent fat and needs omega-3, the family of polyunsaturated fatty acids, to help it process thoughts and reactions.

But how to get this benefit? Dieticians say: put diet first. Children should be stuffed with sardines and tuna before parents turn to supplements. But there are worries about the high level of toxins in some fish, as well as in cod liver oil capsules, so either route isn't exactly straightforward.

A junk food diet actively blocks children from synthesising fatty acids, so a fish pill followed by pizza and chips may well be pointless. Then there is the question of the right balance between the fatty acids EPA and DHA, of whether boys need more fish oils than girls, of how far flaxseed oil does the same job...

Parents must do their research before deciding when and how to get these oils into their children. And it's certainly not the job of any parents' association to tell them what to do.

Readers' advice

People used as testers for dietary supplements - prisoners, young criminals, deprived children - are groups who've had a very poor diet all their lives. To bodies fed only fast food, fish oils are bound to come like rain on to parched earth. But to conclude that all children will show the same benefits, even those who are properly fed, is snake oil, not fish oil! This PTA is talking through its hat.

Roland Lewis Worcestershire

It isn't the job of any PTA to tell parents how to bring up their children. In our PTA newsletter, we point out articles to parents or tell them about websites that might be of interest, but we wouldn't dream of offering advice on something so sensitive. It would not come within our remit. And suppose an article comes out saying that fish oils poison children?

Megan Chandler Berkshire

My daughter had constant eczema as a baby, terrible tantrums at two, and poor attention when she started at nursery. She seemed "all over the place". A friend told me her doctor had suggested evening primrose oil capsules for her eczema. I tried them on my daughter. The change was miraculous; her skin cleared up, and she was much more attentive and calm. I don't know how common this response would be, so I hesitate to recommend it. I can only say what worked for her.

Valerie Dickens Northampton

Next quandary

My son is studying Hitler again this year. This is the second time he has been taught about this period: once when he was 13, and now for GCSE. He doesn't seem to know anything about British history. Isn't it bad planning to go over the same ground? What should school history cover?

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