It’s probably not a good idea to smear endocrine disrupting chemicals all over your children’s bodies

By | Big Fat Lies, Conflicts of Interest | 6 Comments

There has been a bit of fuss lately about people getting seriously burnt even though they used sunscreen.  For a while now, I’ve been a little concerned about the long list of unpronounceable names on the back of our ever-present library of sunscreens. Prompted by the latest bout of bad news, I decided to finally do the research I’d been putting off. So far, the results are both infuriating and worrying.

I was a kid during the slip, slop, slap era. We were told (by a seagull with a lisp) to thlip on a shirt, thlop on sunscreen and thlap on a hat. There is absolutely no doubt that overexposure to the UV radiation in sunlight is likely a cause of skin cancer (although probably not melanoma). And so advice aimed at ensuring we minimize that risk is smart. This is particularly true in a country where most of us have a complexion more suited to Norway than the equator.

Staying out of the sun and wearing a hat and long sleeved shirt are all very effective ways of keeping our sun exposure at safe levels. The trouble is doing that is often incompatible with our favourite activities. Young netballers want to look like the Diamonds (who play indoors at night) so wear short dresses with cutout shoulders. We want to spend all day at the beach, not five minutes, and while we’re there we don’t want to be rugged up like we’re on a polar mission.

This has meant that increasingly, sunscreen has become the all-purpose panacea. The Thlip, Tholp, Thlap messaging hasn’t changed but we have decided we can do what we like and dress how we like, whenever we like, as long as we load up on the sunscreen first. Sunscreen has changed from our last line of defence to the only thing we do.

Because sunscreen has become the must-have accessory, the market for it has exploded. And like all rapidly expanding markets there is lots of ‘innovation’ to tempt the consumer from one brand to another.

When I was happily watching the lispy seagull tell me about the virtues of thlapping on sunscreen, I knew exactly what he meant. The tub of white zinc in the bathroom. It wasn’t exactly pleasant stuff. It had approximately the sticking power of superglue and the durability of house paint, but it did the job. No sun was getting through zinc in hurry. But it was difficult to apply and pretty greasy so there was plenty of scope for competition.

Now we can choose from thousands of products. Products for children, products that can be sprayed on, products that can be rolled on, products for sporty people, products to wear everyday and even products for babies. We don’t take time of day or sunniness into consideration at all, even when toting babies, because there’s a sunscreen for everything.

That greasy zinc was a physical barrier. It worked exactly the way house paint would work, by blocking out the sun. Two innovations enabled the explosion of more ‘user-friendly’ sunscreens, pulverizing the zinc so it didn’t stay white on the skin (but still worked) and the use of a whole new class of sunscreen that relied on chemical reactions to diffuse the UV radiation. Those chemical sunscreens are now what make up the majority of the stuff on the supermarket shelf.

Almost all chemical sunscreens sold in Australia are a mix of (generally) 4-methylbenzylidene-camphor (4MBC), Octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC), Oxybenzone, Homosalate, Butyl Methoxydibenzoylmethane and Octocrylene. And despite the huge variety in prices, labels and bottle shapes, there isn’t that much variety in what’s in them.

The problem with these convenient chemicals is that there is mounting evidence that they are endocrine disruptors – meaning they can affect human hormones (particularly reproductive and thyroid hormones).

4-MBC for example, is not approved for use in the US or Japan because the safety data is not sufficient. It is permitted in Europe but manufacturers and importers in Denmark agreed not to include it in sunscreen products marketed for children under 12. This was then extended to all products to ensure pregnant and breastfeeding women were not exposed (as the chemical was found to be present in breast milk).

Oxybenzone acts like estrogen in the body, alters sperm production in animals and is associated with endometriosis in women. OMC has produced reproductive system and thyroid alterations in animal studies using doses similar to those used in sunscreens. Other studies have raised similar concerns about many of the other chemicals commonly used in sunscreens. Worse than that these substances appear to accumulate in humans (and the environment).

At the moment however, Australian regulators are happy to impose limits on the amounts that can be used rather than ban them outright. This is because they are not satisfied that sufficient quantities are absorbed through the skin to do damage. Frankly that is not terribly reassuring. These assessments typically do not assess the risk from inhaling aerosol or spray sunscreens or from ingesting them (for example by swimming in a pool or beach with people covered in sunscreen).

Similar concerns have been raised about the DNA disrupting potential of nano particles of zinc and titanium. Once again studies have shown them not to be absorbed at significant levels. But that proviso goes out the window when they are sprayed in the air or washed off in the pool.

The chemicals used in most sunscreens are not inert or harmless and many of them are banned in more cautious countries.  But here their use is being championed mercilessly by an industry wearing a health halo. Leading the charge is the Cancer Council of Australia, an organization which itself makes almost $3m a year from selling sunscreens full of these chemicals. We are told to wear these sunscreens all the time and many of us do. Rather than adjust our lifestyle to the reality of dangerous radiation (as our parents did), we prefer to do exactly as we please and slather ourselves with these chemicals.

The evidence is worrying enough for me not to want to expose my kids to those substances on purpose. So we try to avoid being in the sun at all during the middle of the day and if we are, we’ll be wearing a hat and shirt as well as a sunscreen containing the only the ingredient that everybody agrees is safe, Zinc Oxide.

That immediately rules out anything sold by the Cancer Council and all the cheap sunscreens. But Invisible Zinc and many of the herbal gerbil brands are fine. Doing this still doesn’t save us from drinking the stuff everybody else is wearing at the beach and the pool but it’s the best I can do.

Tablets: Weapons of mass distraction in the classroom

By | Education | No Comments

They cost a fortune and cause havoc at home and yet more and more Australian schools are insisting that younger and younger children be equipped with personal computing devices at school. And even though children (and many educators) love them, there is growing evidence that, far from helping our kids, these devices are likely to be the source of serious harm.

As many of us get our kids ready for school this year, we’ll discover a new and very expensive addition to the booklist. Many Australian schools are requiring that children come equipped with their own personal gaming device, sorry, their own personal computer, for use at school.

It’s a story being repeated in the countries whose education systems are failing even faster than ours (the US and the UK in particular). Like Australia, those countries, guarantee the right to a free education.

Schools can’t technically require a parent to purchase the expensive devices. But, like Australia, the peer pressure on students and parents alike means that almost everybody has one.

Now, however, some parents are pushing back because they say the devices are a distraction in the classroom and almost impossible to police at school and at home.

The push to require younger and younger children to use computers is driven by the simplistic argument that they will be ‘left behind’ if they don’t. Since computer use will inevitably be required in whatever career they choose, the earlier they start the better, or so the story goes.

The same argument could be made for driving a car, but oddly very few schools are integrating driving lessons into their preschool programs.

The reason is obvious, people will get hurt and the potential benefits are massively outweighed by the risks. There is nothing to suggest the equation is any different for personal computing devices in the classroom. And even putting aside the patent absurdity of teaching students to use tech that will be obsolete by next Tuesday (let alone when they graduate), schools have so far been blinded by the flash of the new.

Increasingly parents are demanding to see evidence that schoolroom devices deliver educational results. And while there is evidence of benefit for repetitive learning when a computer is shared by a small group there is a surprising dearth of evidence for personal devices in class. Worse, evidence of direct harm is accumulating rapidly.

Because of the enormous cost of doing it properly, controlled trials are pretty rare in education. But scientists from the MIT Department of Economics have recently published exactly that. They randomly divided the entire first year of a US college introductory economics course into 3 groups. One group had unrestricted access to tablets in class. The second group could use them but they had to be flat on the desk. And the third group had no access at all.

The results were significant. The students who had no in-class access to devices consistently outperformed all other students by almost two per cent.

And while that doesn’t sound mind blowing, falling behind two per cent in just one semester can accumulate to quite an academic disaster if it’s multiplied by the 24 semesters of education most Australian kids get through.

Interestingly the results for each of the groups who had access were the same. It didn’t matter whether the students had open slather access or strictly controlled access, their performance was impaired.

Add that evidence of academic harm to the accumulating pile of health (especially psychological) impacts (such as increased aggression, e-bullying, ADHD and psychosis) and there are very real concerns about letting these devices into classrooms. It is one of the reasons that one of the world’s best education systems, Finland, bans personal devices in the classroom and it could be part of why many Asian school systems with relatively low computer use are pulling away from us academically.

As Dr Nicholas Kardaras (author of Glow Kids) put it, ‘If screens are indeed digital drugs, then schools have become drug dealers.’ Schools shouldn’t be encouraging in-school (and at-home) use of devices designed purposefully to encourage procrastination. And they certainly shouldn’t be doing it on the say-so of the local iPad dealer.

We do not need our schools to become part of the problem. We do not need our schools to be dealers in digital distraction. And most of all we do not need to throw up more barriers to equitable access to education.

But we do need our schools to demand proof of significant benefit before they become the unpaid salesforce of multinational computer companies. And most of all, we need them to hit the pause button while they figure it out.

First published by The Courier Mail

Chocolate Nesquik Earns 4 Health Star rating

By | Big Fat Lies, Sugar | 2 Comments

Sydney, Australia (24 January 2016): Nestlé Australia announced today that its popular Nesquik Chocolate drink has earned a four star health rating.

This will be one of the first times that a product which consists almost entirely of sugar has earned such a high rating. “We don’t know why we didn’t think of this before,” said Mr Bill Wonka, Regional Director, Nestle Australia. “But once we took a close look at the Health Star criteria, we knew that Nesquik could become a key part of our promise to deliver superior nutrition to Australian families.”

“All we had to do was calculate the rating after adding Nesquik to skim milk, just like we did with Milo. Nesquik has almost twice as much sugar as Milo so we were a bit worried, but the rating doesn’t seem to be affected too much by the product being nothing but cane sugar and cocoa. From today, consumers have a healthier chocolate milk option that means they don’t sacrifice on taste. It’s a win for everyone.” he said.

“We are now looking closely at the rest of our confectionery lines and a number of beloved brands are currently undergoing renovations to meet the Health Star’s strict nutrient criteria. Keep an eye out for a five star chocolate with added fibre and vegetable oil later in the year.”

“We are proud that Nestle now has another a four star health rating in a confectionery line. Nestle Australia should be congratulated on their commitment to an extensive reformulation programme that provides Australian families with more healthier choices at snack time,” said a spokesperson for the Australian Federal Department of Health.

“The new Health Star system has been successfully challenging food companies to produce healthier foods. Now, we are challenging more confectionery makers to match the commitment of Nestle Australia.”

Reaction from the public has been mixed. Joyce Barnaby from Canberra was pleased that Nesquik was now healthy “I was sick of feeling guilty every time I knocked back a choccy milk,” she said, “Now it has exactly the same number of stars as a glass of milk without any sugar, I know it must be doing me good.”

Health professionals also welcomed the news. “A 10 year old can now run off a 4 Star glass of Nesquik in around 60 minutes,” said dietitian Ms Pixie Golightly, “With the old junk food Nequik, it would have taken almost an hour,”

But on social media the mood has been less positive. “Not fun for the kids at all any more,” wailed Dimity Smythe-Jones on Nestle’s Facebook page. “my kids won’t touch health food – as soon as they see that healthy food rating they’ll avoid it – what chance do I have of getting them to drink the new healthy Nesquik?” she wrote.

Note: This is satire – nothing about this piece is true except that if Nestle were to apply for a health star rating for Nesquik it would get 4 stars when served with reduced fat milk (as suggested on the label)

Are dietitians selling us out?

By | Big Fat Lies, Conflicts of Interest, Sugar | 10 Comments

Dietitians are rolling out their ritualistic warnings about ‘fad diets’ so it must be January. Prepare to be warned about the dangers of avoiding gluten, quitting sugar or going Paleo. Instead you will be told to give the new (heavy on whole grains) microbiome diet a go or perhaps become a Vegan.

According to dietitians, crazy ‘fads’ like quitting sugar are dangerous because they ask us to ‘cut out whole food groups.’ Only a dietitian high on sugar would describe sugar as a ‘food group’, but I guess the argument could apply to the stricter forms of paleo which ask devotees to ditch dairy, legumes and grains.

If food group deletion is the reason for official opposition to paleo, gluten free and quitting sugar why are they quite happy to give a free pass to vegetarianism and its more extreme cousin, veganism? Both of these diets do actually cut out food groups and both require careful management in order to avoid significant nutrient deficiencies. But they are never attacked by Dietitians.

Vegetarian diets do not contain meat, poultry or fish. Vegan diets go a little further and also exclude dairy products and eggs. Both diets have been part of British and US culture since the mid-19th century so we’ve had a bit of time to study them in the wild.

Those studies tell us that (compared to omnivores) vegetarian diets provide higher amounts of carbohydrates, omega-6 polyunsaturated fats, fibre, vitamin C, vitamin E and magnesium but lower amounts of protein, saturated fat, omega-3 fats, vitamins A, D and B12 and Zinc. Vegans are usually particularly low in B12 and also Calcium, a deficiency they are likely to share with hard-core paleo enthusiasts because both avoid dairy.

We use vitamin B12 to create our DNA, red blood cells and the myelin insulation around our nerves. Not having enough of it can result in fatigue, weakness, psychiatric problems and anaemia. B12 deficiency in children and the elderly is even more worrying. Studies have consistently shown that children and older people lacking B12 suffer significant cognitive defects such as memory and reasoning.

The lack of long chain omega-3 fats, the abundance of omega-6 fats and deficiencies in the fat soluble vitamins A and D are also serious cause for concern particularly in pregnancy.

This does not mean that vegetarian or vegan diets should not be followed, just that they need to be carefully managed, particularly in pregnant women, children or the elderly. But that is what you might expect from a diet that actually does delete ‘whole food groups.’

So where then are the January warnings to avoid those ‘fad diets’? Why are the dietitians’ scare tactics focused only on diets which might stop people eating grains and legumes? It’s a real conundrum.

Coincidentally, the body that regulates dietitians in Australia is sponsored by Arnott’s, Nestle and the Australian Breakfast Cereal Manufacturers Forum. And while that last one sounds like an almost official body, it’s really just a long-winded way of saying the Breakfast Club. No not that one, this one is responsible for supplying all those sugary boxes of grain we are supposed to consume as part of a ‘balanced breakfast.’ The gang’s all there. Kellogg’s (coincidentally founded because of a vegetarian religion), Freedom, Nestle (again) and Sanitarium (coincidentally founded, and run by, the same vegetarian religion).

But surely that can’t be the answer? Surely dietitians wouldn’t sacrifice their professional integrity just to grasp a few stray dollars from the Breakfast Cereal manufacturers? No, there must be some other reason which is not fathomable to us uninformed masses. Because if that were the case, it would mean dietitians are really just the undercover arm of Nestle (etc)’s marketing departments. And that would spell big legal (not to mention moral) trouble.

If dietitians have really been selling us out to flog processed food, then collectively they would owe this country the hundreds of billions a year spent treating the chronic disease disaster those foods have inflicted. But even more importantly they owe us something that can’t be repaid, our health.

This is not a game. Australians are no longer prepared to accept dietetic advice which is curiously aligned with the interests of the processed food industry rather than what the science tells us. Now would be a good time for the dietitians of Australia to lead, follow or get out of the way. A good start would be to stop telling us that quitting sugar is a ‘fad’ that should be abandoned. And they can hope like crazy that when the lawsuits start, everyone has forgotten their role in the catastrophe which is Australia’s health in the 21st century. I, for one, won’t.

 

Also published in the Huffington Post

To have world-beating students we need world-beating teachers

By | Education | One Comment

Australia’s exam results are in and they are not pretty. Our education system continues to slide backwards while the rest of the world races forward. Worse than that, the gap between the rich and the poor stubbornly persists and grows. And that is the real tragedy because it tells us that we are actively destroying the one thing that could save our economy when the coal runs out – intelligence.

In Australia it is an undeniable fact of education statistics that socioeconomic status predicts academic performance. On average, the children of low-income parents do not perform as well academically as the children of high-income parents.

Earlier this year the Grattan Institute analysed the 2015 NAPLAN results and put some hard numbers around that assertion. They found that high scoring Year 3 students from the lowest income quintile are almost 2 years behind their peers (with identical starting scores) from families in the highest income quintile by Year 9.  They all started out as potentially great Australian thinkers, but just six years later, that potential had been severely inhibited in the kids without money.

Too many academic writers are willing to put that down to better breeding (whatever that may be), but the reality is that it’s a symptom of an ineffectual (and dysfunctional) education system.

Another way of saying this is that in Australia, your home life has more impact on your learning than what goes on at school. In many cases, school has become an interruption to learning rather than a cause of it.

Genetically, IQ is not influenced by a person’s socioeconomic status but it’s a testament to the failure of our education system that here, academic performance is. Here, the size of the numbers in your parents’ bank account determines your academic success not the size of the numbers on your IQ test.

We could save everybody a lot of anguish if we simply handed out final results based on an income test rather than an academic test. The result is not likely to be materially different to those we get now. And that would be true no matter which school system you chose.

The job of a good education system is to, well, deliver good education – to everybody. A good education system should be blind to any disadvantage. It should ensure that students perform to their full potential regardless of their home environment, where they live or their parents’ jobs. In the countries that are putting us to shame, that is exactly what their education system achieves.

In the latest round of OECD tests (PISA), 9 of the 14 countries that beat us in science (for example) had systems in which economic disadvantage is barely a factor. A poor student in Macao or Hong Kong was three times as likely to perform well as that same student in Australia.

Australian taxpayers fund education because countries that educate their children do better than those that don’t. And yet we are happy to pay for a system that is so broken that it consigns most of our children to the learning rubbish heap. That is a tragedy for them but it is a disaster for Australia. We can’t afford to waste potential like that. It is the educational equivalent of shutting three out of every four of our businesses and farms. If for no other reason than naked self-interest, Australia needs desperately to fix its highly inequitable education system.

We won’t do that with charity. We already spend more on education than most of the countries who are flogging us.  We won’t do it by making it harder to become a teacher. And we certainly won’t do it by giving every school a new library or a better cricket pitch.

We will do it by copying the one thing that all the high performing countries do. We will ensure every teacher in every school is better today than they were yesterday. We will do that using proven systems of mentoring and peer review. We will no longer throw teaching graduates into classrooms and give them 4 days a year of lip-service ‘professional development.’ We will monitor their every move and help them ensure the next move is a better one.

The systems that outperform us by a country mile are systems designed to make sure the teachers keep learning too. For people with a passion for teaching, this would be heaven on a stick. A true professional would eat this up. Someone who just wanted a secure job with good holidays and shorter-than-average hours would be less inclined to apply. It’s a system designed to attract only professional educators and make them even better at their job as they go.

Do that and we will truly have the foundation for a school system, and kids, that can beat the world.

 

Also published in The Courier Mail and the Huffington Post

How a Soft Drink Tax (and not science) will change nutritionists’ views on sugar.

By | Conflicts of Interest, Sugar | 2 Comments

For a decade, the guardians of public health have fought tooth and nail against the science on sugar and the harm it causes.  But now that the government might pay more for their allegiance than the food industry, they are all ears.

This week, the Grattan Institute produced yet another proposal for a soft drink tax.  It’s an idea that just won’t go away, no matter how much the politicians want it to.

Convincing people not to smoke results in a measurable health outcome. Smoking is a primary cause of lung cancer and heart disease.  And rates of both diseases have plummeted since the introduction of tobacco taxes.  But this is in the context of tax being part of a package of measures aimed at making smoking slightly less socially desirable than persistent public flatulence.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for sugar.  Taxing one source of sugar will certainly reduce consumption from that source but detailed studies have been so far unable to detect a significant health benefit from reducing the consumption of those drinks alone.  This is likely to be because people simply find a cheaper, or just different, source.  The bloke avoiding the slightly more expensive Coke is probably still chowing down on sugar loaded cereal for breakfast, chugging an iced coffee for lunch and having sugar loaded BBQ sauce all over his sausage in bread.

Until you need to sneak into a dank corner of the car-park to snarf your cream-bun for fear of being hounded by the Heart Foundation, we are not comparing apples with apples.  But tax dollars might just achieve what science has failed to do for at least a decade.

This week’s Grattan report suggested $520 million a year could be raised from an Australian soft drink tax.  The authors didn’t put much thought into what that might be spent on, other than to vaguely waft in the direction of ‘health initiatives’ or some such.  But that was enough to get the attention of some of those who have been the most resistant to the idea that sugar is bad.

The food industry sponsored, Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA) for example has steadfastly opposed the notion that sugar is a problem.  After Sweet Poison was released it published a press release entitled “Sweet truths: Eating sugar may not make you fat.”  And it has not wavered from that position over the 8 years since.  Similarly Nutrition Australia, to this day maintains “there is no consensus that [sugar] is the sole, or even major cause” of obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

The Heart Foundation has so comprehensively opposed the notion that sugar is harmful, that it sent out a cardiologist to consume significant radio time arguing against me on that point.  And it has been willing to raise the better part of $3 million a year from certifying that sugar loaded food is a heart healthy choice. It says this is because “there is no scientific consensus that sugar … causes heart disease.”

Diabetes organisations have also been happy to tell sufferers of Type II diabetes that sugar does not cause their disease.  Meanwhile the Australian Medical Association (AMA) has done its best to not have a position on sugar at all.  And it has certainly never openly condemned it.

But, my goodness what a difference a bit of green makes to one’s outlook.   The first to fall was the Heart Foundation, calling for a sugar tax like the one announced in the UK in May.  Then last week (after it became clear exactly how much money was in the pot), they all rushed in.  Within days of Grattan’s report being released the AMA, the DAA and Nutrition Australia all put out press releases demanding a sugar tax.  Some of them even while continuing to host pro-sugar content on their websites.  Their greed reflex outpaced even the fastest website editor.

Suddenly each of these peak health bodies are singing from a different song sheet. The prospect of loads of tax dosh trying to find a home for ‘health initiatives’ has converted them to sugar haters in a heartbeat.

A soft drink tax won’t directly reduce the amount of sugar we consume.  But the siren call of cold hard cash will apparently do what I and many like me have failed to do for a decade.  It will remove the single greatest obstacle to real progress, the nutrition rent-seekers.

No doubt much to the despair of the processed food industry, the loyalty which had been so painstakingly built over decades with speaking fees, sponsorships, endorsements and carefully crafted non-science will all likely be blown away by government tax money looking for a home.

These tax-payer funded organisations have been perfectly happy to ignore the science for a decade.  They have been happy to dictate health policy that lets ever increasing numbers of us suffer.  And they have been happy to do it because of ego or profit or consensus or stubbornness or all of the above.

I suspect nothing has changed about nutrition industry views on sugar but their collective campaigning (no matter how much it is motivated by greed), will undoubtedly have the effect of telling us all something we desperately need to hear – there is a very real problem with sugar.  And if that’s the way we get there, then so be it.

How to fix our plummeting Maths and Science results

By | Education | 2 Comments

The results of the latest international benchmark tests are now in.  Once again the picture is not a pretty one for Australia.  Once again there will be much hand-wringing.  And once again nothing will change.

Every four years since 1995, Australia has participated in an international benchmarking test in science and maths (TIMSS).  Last year, 6,057 Australian Year 4 students and 10,338 year 8 students took part in the latest round.   Australia’s performance on all tests was mediocre (at best) and showed no significant improvement since 1995.  Meanwhile many other countries have significantly improved.

The scores are divided into 5 bands.  Just 5% of our year 4 students managed to perform at the highest level (let’s call that an A) in maths.  But 50% of Singapore students (for example) perform at that level.  By year 8, 7% of Australian kids get an A, but 54% of Singapore do.

The story is no more palatable in science.  Just 8% of our year 4s would get an A in science while 37% would in Singapore.  Just 7% of our year 8s get an A, compared to 42% of Singapore’s year 8s.

Overall, Australia has dropped 5 places in Year 8 results since 2011 and 10 places in year 4 maths results (our year 4 science was already terrible in 2011).

Of course, these results have been politicised within seconds of release.  The Labor Party says they show we need to spend more on schools and the Government says we need to fix up teaching.  Both statements are right as far as they go.  Unfortunately, based on previous performance, putting out a press release is as far as either party will go.

We can fix Australian education.  But to do it, two important vested interests, the rent-seeking private education providers and the teaching unions, need to leave the field of battle.  And it would be good if they took their political patrons with them.

Australian taxpayers give $12 billion a year to private education providers.  That amount is growing very rapidly and is a big contributor to the rapid rises in costs of Australian education.  It does not go towards better classrooms or teachers for the children who need it most, rather large chunks of it are spent on marketing to secure the next round of bums-on-seats based funding from the taxpayer.

The other incessant driver of cost increases is smaller class sizes driven by teaching unions.  Once again billions are spent and not a cent of it goes towards improving teaching or facilities. Meanwhile, the countries flogging us in TIMSS have been leaving class sizes at levels last seen in Australia in the 1960s and using the money that saves to focus on what goes on in those classes.

In those countries there’s a constant and pervasive culture of teacher-performance mentoring – not monitoring, mentoring. Teachers are treated like the professionals they are. They’re not abandoned in their classrooms to sink or swim, they’re constantly watched, receive constant feedback from acknowledged experts in teaching and must repeatedly demonstrate their capabilities. The career path keeps the people with the expertise at the coalface helping to bring others along. Good teachers are not promoted out of the classroom, they’re given progressively greater influence over the effectiveness of other teachers. Good teachers are used to breed more good teachers.

Systems like this have been in place in Finland since the mid-1990s, and are being progressively implemented in China, Hong Kong, Korea and Singapore. They’re now starting to bear fruit as all of these countries race ahead of Australia.

Australia’s version of all this is very ordinary by comparison. In 2013, the OECD conducted a detailed survey of all OECD teachers. The Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) revealed that while Australia certainly has teaching and mentoring programs, most new Australian teachers reported that they received little or no constructive feedback from the programs, it was rarely based on classroom observation and, as a result, it was disconnected from student learning. Most teacher professional development consisted of attendance at one-off courses and wasn’t part of any longer term collaborative research program.

Any incentive to improve is severely lacking. Ninety per cent of Australian teachers said they’d receive no recognition (and they’re not talking about pay) if they improved the quality of their teaching or were more innovative in the classroom. Nearly half of all teachers felt that appraisal of their work was merely a box-ticking administrative exercise and had little, if any, impact on what they actually do every day.

This mentoring and professionalism stuff is all well and good, but all this time away from class, researching and watching others, would cost a packet. The students don’t disappear. There still has to be someone in the classroom, but with their teacher off ‘gallivanting’, more teachers need to be employed to cover the classes. The interesting thing is that each of the high-performing school systems actually costs less than the Australian education system and considerably less than the OECD average. And it’s not because the teachers are poorly paid. When all the economic adjustments and fiddles are made to ensure we’re comparing apples with apples, teachers in some of these systems earn more than Australian teachers and have careers that allow them to earn even more if they’re effective.

The high-performing countries aren’t extracting the cost of teacher mentoring from teachers’ salaries, they’re getting the money by keeping class sizes high. The average Shanghai teacher is working with a class of 40 children, whereas the average Australian teacher has only a little over half that many rascals (23) to deal with.

The combined effect of privatising our schools and caving in to union demands on class sizes is to make the entire system much more expensive while not meaningfully improving anything about the delivery of education.  Both things can be fixed.  But both things require more political will than either side has shown until now.

If we want to keep reading headlines about how far behind Australia’s education system is falling behind, then the path is clear.  Keep doing what we’ve done up until now.  But if we’d rather not pick of the paper in 2020 and read we are now dead last on TIMSS 2019, then now would be a good time to do something about it.

Vita Gummies – the ‘healthy’ sweet con

By | Sugar | No Comments

Nature’s Way Vita Gummies embed vitamins in delicious sugar filled gummies. Shouting about the vitamin benefits of a food while blithely ignoring the other 99.99% of the product is not a new tactic in the processed food industry. Take Heart Foundation approved, 4 Health Star, Milo (27% sugar) for example. But sweets laced with vitamins are not an improvement on either sweets or vitamins.

I guess you could (almost – at a very big stretch) justify that kind of marketing if there was any evidence (whatsoever) that the average Australian needed any more of those Vitamins or minerals. Vitamin supplements have only been part of our food supply since just before the second world war. Prior to that our Grandparents and their grandparents managed to struggle through life without any supplementation at all.

The need for vitamins only arose because two hideous diseases reached epidemic proportions in the early part of the 20th century. In south-east Asia beriberi was rampant because (it turned out) Europeans had started using steam driven mills to turn brown rice into white rice (and in the process stripping out Vitamin B1). And at almost the same time in the southern United States pellagra was inflicting mass agony because Europeans had decided that treating raw corn with lime (a process the Indians had used for millennia to activate the Vitamin B3) was a waste of time and money.

South East Asians derived almost all their nutrition from rice at the time and poor farmers in the southern United States derived almost all of their food from corn. Messing with those two fundamental food sources resulted in mass deficiencies which led to disease. The only other two significant deficiencies which have (in modern times) resulted in widespread disease are scurvy (if you happen to be locked in a boat without access to anything but dry biscuits and rum for six months) and rickets (if you use too much sunblock).

The reality is that the overwhelming majority of people living in Australia today have no more risk of being functionally deficient in any vitamin than I do of becoming the Queen (of England that is). Our bodies are extraordinarily efficient at extracting exactly what we need (and no more) from our food (mostly from meat) and excreting the excess. If you are inclined to the I’ll-top-em-up-just-in-case persuasion, the research suggests you are just flushing your money away.

One of the most thorough (but by no means, not the only) recent studies was the Physicians Health Trial. In that study, 14,641 US doctors were followed for 10 years while they took either Vitamin E or Vitamin C supplements, the two vitamins which are heavily promoted as having anti-oxidant (and therefore heart disease related) benefits.

Half of the doctors were actually taking placebos instead, but neither they nor the folks assessing the results knew which was which. The double blind (no-one knew who was taking what), randomized nature of the trial (together with its large size and long duration) means that it is very high quality evidence.

The point of the trial was to figure out whether the supplements had any effect at all on heart disease and stroke outcomes among the participants. And what they found would have been very disappointing for the supplement industry indeed. There was exactly no difference between the heart disease outcomes for any of the groups.

The Vitamin E folks had just as many heart attacks as the Vitamin C folks. And they had just as many as the folks taking nothing. The resounding conclusion from the study is that if any of the participants had been paying for their vitamins, they would have been well and truly wasting their money (for ten long years). While we certainly need Vitamin E and Vitamin C, it seems shoving more of it in our mouths changes absolutely nothing (except the bank balance of the folks selling the supplement).

Similar high quality trials on Vitamin D, Calcium and Vitamin B supplements have arrived at exactly the same conclusion – don’t waste your money. And this is why (in the US at least) supplements must carry this warning:

“these statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”

Vita-Gummies (at 23c a throw) are about 8 times the price of garden variety gummi bears (which are aren’t laced with precursors to expensive urine) but they do contain just as much life sapping sugar (something which unfortunately ends up around our waist and not down the drain).

Selling sweets as health food (to children and their parents) when they are in reality a package of pure sugar is unbelievably perverse.

Unfortunately nobody is breaking any laws telling us that a sugar loaded sweet (with a vitamin chaser) is good for us. And so the marketers go to town. But where do we draw the line? Chocolate coated carrot shavings, sold as Vegies the Kids Will Love (no, Nestle that is not a suggestion)? This pathetic game must stop. It’s time for truth in labelling. Surely our children are worth that much.

Stop public cash for private schools

By | Education | 4 Comments

The education Minister thinks some private schools are over-funded.  He’s wrong.  They all are.

According to the latest figures we have available, Australian taxpayers spend $12 billion a year propping up the businesses we call private schools.  That is more than we spend on unemployment benefits and sickness allowance combined and it is about 12 times as much as we spend on the ABC and SBS.  And that’s just for recurrent expenses. We also generously hurl another billion in their direction so they can build capital facilities that taxpayers don’t own and are not permitted to use.  Since most of these businesses are also tax exempt those numbers are just the tip of our generosity.

The spin masters employed by these private businesses often run the line that they are doing taxpayers a favour by taking their money.  They point out that while it does cost taxpayers $9,327 per student per year to educate one of their clients, it would cost the government $13,783 to do it in a government-run school.  My goodness golly gosh they’re generous, they’re saving us $4,456 per student. Except they aren’t.  More than half ($2,386) of that ‘saving’ is notional because it is for depreciation of the school assets owned by the public schools.  The school doesn’t see a cent of it in its operating budget.  Not one teacher is paid with it.  Not one book is purchased with it.  But that notional expense is included in the calculation for the government-run school and not for the privately-run school.

Once you drop that accounting trickery out, the gap narrows considerably.  In 2014 it cost the taxpayer just 18% less to have the child educated ‘privately’ .  And that gap has been closing very quickly.  In 2009 it was 28%.  At that rate of progress it should cease to exist at all in the next 5 or 6 years.

Even though are getting relatively less and less government money, it is the government-run schools taking on the more challenging task educationally.  They teach 7 times as many students classified by the ABS as living ‘very remotely’ and 4 times as many students classed as being ‘remote.’ When it comes to children with special needs, once again it is those same schools doing the heavy lifting, educating 3.3 times as many children with a disability as their ‘private’ brethren.

And unlike government-run schools, privately-run schools are largely exempt from the provisions of Australia’s discrimination laws. They are permitted by law to pick and choose who they will and will not be bothered trying to educate.   In New South Wales for example they can refuse to teach (or employ) people on the basis of marital status, sex, disability, transgender or homosexuality.  Queensland is less discriminatory.  Here schools can only pick and choose on the basis of not liking someone’s religion.

But let’s not fall into the trap of arguing about the pennies and ignore the pounds.  The real question is why is the taxpayer contributing anything all?  The taxpayer provides a fully funded secular system open to all comers.  People can choose not to use the system, but if they choose to opt-out why does the taxpayer owe them anything?  If I choose not to take the bus to work, I don’t get to ask the government to buy me a car.  If I choose not to use a public swimming pool, I don’t get to ask the taxpayer to build me one.  If I choose to employ a security guard I don’t get to send the taxpayer a bill for the police time I am saving them.

Meanwhile our results in benchmark tests continue to slide.  Our rankings on international comparative tests have been dropping like a stone.  We now rank 14th (out of 32 OECD) countries behind Poland, Germany and Vietnam.  Worse, analysis of the numbers shows it is the private schools which are letting us down the most.

Usually when taxpayers subsidise something it is to gain a collective benefit.  We subsidise child care because the government wants parents to work.  We subsidise medical treatment because we want our population to be healthy and we subsidise local manufacturing because we want to keep those skills in Australia.  There is however no reasonable justification for the extraordinary public funding of private choices in Australian education.  It doesn’t save money, it doesn’t improve results, it divides our education system along class lines and it entrenches legally justified discrimination.

So, Minister, let’s not fret too much about who is on the ‘hit-list’ and who isn’t.  Let’s put them all on that list and get on with using that $12 billion a year to fix our education system.

Also published in The Courier Mail

Why you need to keep seed oils out of your dog’s food.

By | Vegetable Oils | 6 Comments

Human sperm quality has been in a nosedive over the last half century. Now a new study proves exactly the same thing has been happening to dogs. And the likely cause is seed oils in their feed (for humans and dogs).

Last week a very strong study was released that showed consistently plummeting sperm quality in a large controlled dog breeding program. Quality dropped by 2.5% a year from 1988 to 1998 and then 1.2% a year from 2002 through to 2014. The reason for the improvement was that between 1999 and 2001, dogs that were not producing viable sperm were removed from the breeding program. Something you can do with dogs but potential fathers are a bit persnickety about.

These results are very close to those we already have in humans, the other omnivore that shares the diet and the living space of dogs. Similar rates of human sperm quality decline are now being reported in all Western countries (although alarmingly at a decline of 3% a year, Australia is at the high end).

Humans don’t normally eat dog food (well, I don’t), but there is one ingredient both dogs and humans eat now that neither ate before the early 20th century.  And that’s seed oils.

Pick up your favourite packet of dog food and peer closely at the ingredients. Here’s a typical example (from Pedigree, one of the most popular dog foods on sale in Australia):

Cereals &/or cereal by-products, meat & meat by-products (poultry, beef &/or lamb), poultry palatant, beet pulp, salt, minerals, sunflower oil, vitamins, amino acid, antioxidants

The Cereal (husks and small cereal particles left over from milling as well as whole grains as filler) and Meat by-products (lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, livers, blood, bone, fatty tissue, stomachs and intestines) are in dog food precisely because they are hard to sell to humans.

The ‘Palatant’ is flavouring to make it taste like food (and so the owner thinks it smells like food). If it weren’t there a dog wouldn’t eat it.

And Beet pulp is the fibre left over after they extract sugar from sugar beet plants. It makes dog poop firmer and this apparently pleases those who do the scooping.

Aside from the vitamins and minerals, there is only one ingredient in this ‘food’ that also appears in human food. In this brand it is sunflower oil but it often just described as vegetable oil.

These oils are not made from vegetables at all. Rather they come from seeds (like Canola or Rapeseed, Soybean, Sunflower, Safflower, Rice Bran and Grape). The dead give-away is often that they will make claims about the food containing ‘essential fatty acids’.

Omega-6 fat is the dominant fat in the ‘vegetable oils’ used in every processed food and in most dog foods. And there is ample evidence in both human and animal trials that omega-6 fats degrade sperm quality.

These Omega-6 based seed oils are the fat of choice for the processed food and the pet food industries because they are a lot cheaper than fats from animals and exotic fruits like olives, avocados and coconuts. As a result, human consumption of Omega-6 fats has at least tripled in the last century.  We have no long term data on vegetable oil consumption by dogs. But it is not unreasonable to assume it is similar since, packaged dog food has only really been available since the end of the first World War and only the cheapest possible ingredients are used in most pet food.

While sperm quality is important to dog breeders (and humans who might want kids), I suspect it’s not of much concern to pet owners in general. Sperm quality is however an early warning for a much nastier set of diseases increasingly linked to consumption of these oils. Chief among these is cancer.

In humans we have high quality evidence that people fed these oils are twice as likely to suffer from cancer as people who are not. And there is strong evidence that as the amount of it in our food has accelerated, so too have the numbers of us affected by cancer.

Similarly, in dogs the rates of the most common cancers have tripled since the late sixties. Cancer is at terrifyingly high levels in most pets now, affecting 1 in 4 dogs. And those are just the ones we know about (because they are insured).

Dogs don’t get to choose not to eat seed oils. But their owners can. And surprisingly it is the extremely cheap brands that are often seed oil free. Woolworths Homebrand dry dog food, for example, uses ‘Animal Fat’ rather than seed oils. If you avoid dog foods which include seed oils you’ll give your best friend his best chance at avoiding cancer.

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