School-age drinkers with adult problems

A prominent Scottish professor will denounce the use of education cash to fund "mumbo jumbo" in a public lecture tomorrow.

Professor Sergio Della Sala, Professor of Human Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh, will use part of a prize-winning public lecture to voice his concern that Scottish schools are paying thousands of pounds to train teachers in controversial techniques such as "brain gym" and "neuro-physiological psychology". The professor - the first winner of a prize for science communication, named in honour of Tam Dalyell, which will be awarded by the former MP tomorrow - is angry public money is being paid to those he called "pranksters". Prof Sala says he is "outraged"

by the Brain-Gym system, which has been used widely used in Scottish primary schools for several years. “Teachers are subjecting children to a series of bizarre exercises,” says Prof Della Sala. “They tell children that if you hold your right nostril and breathe through your left you will oxygenate the right brain. “No you won’t: oxygen doesn’t go to your brain, it goes to your lungs. My point is that either you believe in biology or you don’t – and if you don’t, you shouldn’t be teaching.”

Prof Della Sala is little more impressed by the work of the Institute of Neuro-Physiological Psychology. Like Brain-Gym providers, INPP Scotland is listed by Learning Teaching Scotland as a provider of continuing professional development (CPD), and its website quotes a price of £1000 to train a teacher. Edinburgh Council confirmed it spent £6000 on training teachers in Brain Gym last year, but several councils say it is up to individual schools to spend their CPD budgets.

However, Prof Della Sala is sceptical about the Edinburgh figures. “I don’t think this is a real figure because schools are paying for it out of their CPD budgets and teachers and parents are also paying out of their own pockets,” he says. “We are complaining we don’t have enough computers in schools and spending money on this.” As in medicine, educational interventions should be backed by evidence and trials, he says. “In the medical profession we are submerged by fringe ideas that are irrelevant to our health. The only thing that matters is where is the evidence? If people are claiming this, where is the evidence in peer-reviewed journals?” The INPP claims to treat dyslexia, ADHD and other learning difficulties, as well dyspraxia, which affects co-ordination and balance. Exercises are claimed to help remove “primitive reflexes”.

Professor Della Sala adds: “A primitive reflex is a very serious thing – people with cerebral palsy have it. Did they win a Nobel Prize for this? Because someone who could treat a primitive reflex would be in line for one.” Like many Scottish parents, Nichola Coombe spent several thousand of pounds on help from the INPP for her son Nathan’s dyspraxia. The programme involved intensive exercises each night for 45 minutes.

“I did feel it made a difference to his balance and his co-ordination,” she said. “And the improvement has persisted. I have to say I didn’t see much improvement academically.

INPP provider Ian McGowan said: “The primitive reflex can be linked to learning and behavioural difficulties. Our exercises help to put it to sleep. There is a lot of evidence over the past 30 years that we have been able to help people.”

Professor Della Sala says: “This mother helped her child. It is good to exercise. Turn off the TV and exercise with your child, it is bonding, it is fun, it will improve their balance.”

The professor adds that he is “greatly sceptical” about the science behind it. “Why not report proper studies and proper trials?” he asks.

An LTS spokeswoman said: “We hold a register of CPD providers who agree to a set of principles and provide two references which are checked and updated every three years.

“CPD budgets and course selection are matters for local authorities and individuals. Complaints regarding provision are raised at local authority level in the first instance.”

All of the Brain-Gym providers contacted by The Herald declined to comment.

The Herald
December 9, 2008