Jamie\’s school dinners

Eating Jamie Oliver’s school dinners improves children’s performance in tests, according to researchers who claim that the celebrity chef’s campaign to improve school food has had more impact than government literacy programmes.

The paper is here.

I would like to persuaded, really, I would. But I\’m afraid I\’m not.

Not everyone eats school meals of course. But some get free school meals. We would thus expect those who get free scool meals to have a greater take up of eating school meals than those who do not.

Yes?

So whatever the effect is, if it truly is just the better school meals (as opposed to anything else, like a general rise in standards, which they note, or more attention being paid which is a likely result of such an experiment or other confounding factors) we would expect such effect to be greater among those who get free school meals.

Yes?

Ah, no:

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. The only information
we have is whether the pupil is eligible for free school meals. One could argue that
“free school meals” pupils are more likely to have been treated than the other pupils.
However, we cannot be sure that the change in diet has been most significant for these
pupils in comparison to others. Thus, we should be careful with the interpretation of
the results. Table 7 reports regression results based on the sample of free school meal
children only. We find that most of the positive significant effects decrease or
disappear entirely. Thus, we fail to find evidence that the campaign specifically
helped those children who benefit from free school meals. This result may seem
counter-intuitive, as the FSM pupils should presumably be the most likely pupils in
the school to be eating the meals. One possible story is that FSM pupils are those for
which the change has been to most difficult to implement, since these pupils were
probably eating the “unhealthy” meals on a daily basis and would therefore maybe be
the most put off by the change in menus. Anecdotal evidence (from the TV
programme) suggests that some children refused to eat the healthy meals, which
would probably have harmed cognitive performance more than eating anything albeit
something of little nutritional value.

Those explanations could also be true reflections of reality.

Now I\’m perfectly willing to agree that better food could lead to better performance. Entirely happy with the idea that a full belly of decent nosh improves matters. Certainly that Jamie deserves the knighthood he\’s definitely going to get for even trying.

I\’m just not convinced that this specific paper proves the hoped for link. For it finds exactly the opposite effect that we would hope for if it really was as simple as sticking better food into the little blighters.

I will make one prediction though. This paper will be used as absolute proof that it does work and as all the proof that is needed to ban vending machines, lock the pupils in so that they don\’t go off to the chippie, as \”proof\” that additives destroy young minds and that turkey twizzlers are child abuse.

Any and all of those things could be true and or necessary: but this paper doesn\’t prove them.

4 comments on “Jamie\’s school dinners

  1. There you go again, Tim, reading the small print, fussing over details, getting the facts straight… where’s the fun in that?
    Gx 😉

  2. What’s the Hawthorne effect?

    Tim adds: Anything being studied….or perhaps any groups of people being studied….improves because it’s being studied. Sorta the opposite of the Heisenberg Effect (but not really).

  3. Monty,

    To add to Tim’s point – it’s an improvement in the measurable variable because attention is being paid to the studied population. Placebo effect for the social sciences.

    Most famous, now, for the fact that the original research appears to have be, well, nu-Labour if not actually Ritchie in its thoroughness.

    Steven Levitt has done some recent work on it – can’t find a non-pay for copy, sorry.

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