Janet Street-Porter: Pills are no substitute for a nutritious diet

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The Independent Online

It's pretty obvious that schools are now run in order to meet objectives, and you don't get a better example of that than the news that all the Year Two children in 36 secondary schools in Country Durham (around 5,000 in total) are to be offered daily doses of omega-3 supplements in the hope it will lead to improved GCSE results next year.

These eye q pills are being given free by the manufacturers (they get free publicity and a big free trial - a win-win situation), and the county council's chief schools inspector, Dave Ford, is ecstatic. There's a big lobby - and some evidence - that fish oils can improve concentration and reduce hyperactivity. Four years ago, the area carried out a small experiment with the same supplements in two primary schools, in which children aged between six and 12 took the pills and their behaviour was monitored. According to the council, reading, spelling and short-term memory improved as pupils found it easier to focus on their classes.

But does such a small sample justify the radical step of issuing pills to kids desperate to rack up as many exam passes as possible? The manufacturers of the supplements will be delighted, in the hope that ambitious parents around Britain will hear of it and buy the products for their own children. They will also be crossing their fingers that other local authorities follow suit and start dishing out Brainy Pills along with the morning and afternoon register. I think it stinks, just as Mr Blair's "optional" cooking lessons for secondary school students, the big new initiative of last week, did.

There is no doubt that diet affects behaviour, body mass and concentration. But we have to deal with what young people eat at six or seven, not at 14 and 15. We abolished school milk and brought in vending machines. School meals stopped being compulsory and kids were allowed to bring packed lunches.

Choice, as far as I can see, is bad news for learning. Bunging a load of omega-3 pills down the throats of teenagers is a desperate measure dreamt up by an education authority only concerned with its position in the results tables. If they really cared for the welfare of their pupils and wanted to maximise their learning abilities, they would ban packed meals in every school, bring in nutritious lunches (and breakfasts where necessary), rip out vending machines and teach every single child nutrition, how to cook and how to shop.

When I taught in a primary school for a television series, about one third of the pupils made their own meals - mum was too busy or couldn't care less. That is the grim reality of life in working-class Britain. There is no real evidence that 90 per cent of the supplements sold in chemists make any difference whatever. Regular daily portions of fruit, vegetables, oily fish and free-range meat supply all the vitamins, minerals and brain-stimulating material the average child could ever need.

If we start telling them that by taking a pill they'll do well in exams, what is going to happen at the end of the academic year when they step out into the world of work? Their diet will be crap, and they will honestly believe that wasting your money on supplements ensures you're eating healthily. Then there is the dubious association of a manufacturer of a commercially available product with our education system, which is already far too willing to accept sponsorship from junk food manufacturers and giant retailers.

A vile advertisement for his sport

The sight of Naseem Hamed punching the air as he left prison after serving just 16 weeks of a 15-month sentence for dangerous driving was loathsome. Consider the message that arranging for a Rolls Royce and a stretch limousine to meet you at the prison gates sends to young people convicted of motoring offences. If I were a magistrate, I would have cut off his tag and ordered him back to the cells to learn a little humility. For the man Hamed hit while driving his £320,000 sports car at 92 mph, Anthony Burgin, life will never be the same - every major bone in his body was shattered.

Hamed is a vile advertisement for boxing. He should have been ordered to serve his sentence teaching the sport to underprivileged kids in Sheffield. Last Saturday, the Olympic medallist Amir Khan won another fight in his home town of Bolton. Khan is just as charismatic and brilliant as Prince Naseem in his day - I only hope he's taking better career advice.

* Three years ago I received an invitation from Liza Minnelli to "celebrate" her new husband David Gest's 50th birthday with a dinner at the Dorchester. I was introduced first to Liza and then by Liza to David, whose appearance is so bizarre you might think he's been through makeup for an appearance on Star Trek. The evening ended with Liza serenading him with the theme from Cabaret. Now they are suing each other in the divorce court. Mr Gest alleges that after the lovey-dovey dinner he suffered serious physical abuse from his bride back in their hotel suite. Liza has counter-sued, claiming that Gest was drugging her, making her "afraid for her life". The case resumes in New York tomorrow - book tickets now! This is rich material for a Broadway musical.