Sunday, 2 July 2017

The STEP Physical Literacy programme: have we been here before?


One day in 2003, I turned on BBC Radio 4 and found myself listening to an interview on the Today Programme with Wynford Dore, the founder of an educational programme that claimed to produce dramatic improvements in children's reading and attentional skills. The impetus for the programme was a press release of a study published in the journal Dyslexia, reporting results from a trial of the programme with primary school-children.  The interview seemed more like an advertisement than a serious analysis, but the consequent publicity led many parents to sign up for the programme, both in the UK and in other countries, notably Australia.

The programme involved children doing two 10-minute sessions per day of exercises designed to improve balance and eye-hand co-ordination. These were personalised to the child, so that the specific exercises would be determined by level of progress in particular skills. The logic behind the approach was that these exercises trained the cerebellum, a part of the brain concerned with automatizing skills. For instance, when you first play the piano or drive a car, it is slow and effortful, but after practice you can do it automatically without thinking about it. The idea was that cerebellar training would lead to a general cerebellar boost, helping other tasks, such as reading, to become more automatic.

Various experts who were on the editorial board of Dyslexia were unhappy with the quality of the research and asked for the paper to be retracted. When no action was taken, a number of them resigned. In 2007, I published a detailed critique of the study, which by that time had been complemented by a follow-up – which had prompted further editorial resignations.
Meanwhile, Wynford Dore, who had considerable business acumen, continued to promote the Dore Programme, writing a popular book describing its origins, and signing up celebrities to endorse it. Among these were rugby legends Kenny Logan and Scott Quinnell. In addition, Dore was in conversations with the Welsh Assembly about the possibility of rolling the programme out in Welsh schools. He had also persuaded Conservative MP Christopher Chope that the Dore programme was enormously effective but was being suppressed by government.
Various bloggers were interested in the amazing uptake of the Dore Programme, and in 2008, Ben Goldacre wrote a trenchant piece on his Bad Science blog, noting among other things that Kenny Logan was paid for some of his promotional work. The nail in the coffin of the Dore Programme was an Australian documentary in the Four Corners series, which included interviews with Dore, some of his customers, and scientists who had been involved both in the evaluation and the criticisms. The Dore business, which had been run as a franchise, collapsed, leaving many people out of pocket: parents who had paid up-front for a long-term intervention course, and staff at Dore centres, who found themselves out of a job.
The Dore programme did not die completely, however. Scott Quinnell continued to market a scaled-down version of the programme through his company Dynevor, but was taken to task by the Advertising Standards Authority for making unsubstantiated claims. Things then went rather quiet for a while.
This year, however, I have been contacted by concerned teachers who have told me about a new programme, STEP Physical Literacy, which is being promoted for use in schools, and which bears some striking similarities to Dore.  Here are some quotes from the STEP website:
  • Pupils undertake 2 ten minute exercise sessions at the start and end of each school day. The exercises focus on the core skills of balance, eye-tracking and coordination.
  • STEP is a series of personalised physical exercises that stimulate the cerebellum to function more efficiently.
  • The STEP focus is on the development of physical capabilities that should be automatic such as standing still, riding a bike or following words on a page.
In addition, STEP Physical Literacy is being heavily promoted by Kenny Logan, who features several times on the News section of the website.
As with Dore, STEP has been promoted to politicians, who argue it should be introduced into schools. In this case, the Christopher Chope role is fulfilled by Liz Smith MSP, who appears to be sincerely convinced that Scotland's literacy problems can be overcome by having children take two 10 minute sessions out of lessons to do physical exercises.
On Twitter, Ben Goldacre noted that the directors of Dynevor CIC, overlap substantially with directors of Step2Progress, who own STEP. The registered address is the same for the two companies.
When asked about Dore, those involved with STEP deny any links. After I tweeted about this, I was emailed by Lucinda Roberts Holmes, Managing Director of STEP, to reassure me that STEP is not a rebranding of Dore, and to suggest we meet so she could "talk through the various pilots and studies that have gone on both in the UK and the US as well as future research RCTs planned with Florida State University and the University of Edinburgh." I love evidence, but I find it best to sit down with data rather than have a conversation, so I replied explaining that and saying I'd be glad to take a look at any written reports. So far nothing has materialised. I should add that I have not been able to find any studies on STEP published in the peer-reviewed literature, and the account of the pilot study and case studies on the STEP website does not given me confidence that these would be publishable in a reputable journal.
In short, the evidence to date does not justify introducing this intervention into schools: there's no methodologically adequate study showing effectiveness, and it carries both financial costs and opportunity costs to children. It's a shame that the field of education is so far behind medicine in its attitude to evidence, and that we have politicians who will consider promoting educational interventions on the basis of persuasive marketing. I suggest Liz Smith talks to the Education Endowment Foundation, who will be able to put her in touch with experts who can offer an objective evaluation of STEP Physical Literacy.


8th July 2017: Postscript. A response from STEP
I have had a request from Lucinda Roberts-Holmes, Managing Director of Step2Progress, to remove this blogpost on the grounds that it contains defamatory and inaccurate information. I asked for more information on specific aspects of the post that were problematic and obtained a very long response, which I reproduce in full below. Readers are invited to form their own interpretation of the facts, based on the response from STEP (in italics) and my comments on the points raised.

Preamble: To be clear your blog in its current form includes a number of statements which are factually incorrect. In particular, the suggestion that STEP is simply a reincarnation of the Dore programme is not true as I have already explained to you (see my email of 29 June). The fact that you chose to ignore that assurance and instead publish the blog is very concerning to us. The suggestion, also, that I had chosen not to reply to your email ("so far nothing has materialised") is, I am afraid, disingenuous particularly in circumstances where you did not even set a deadline in your email and you waited only 72 hours to post your blog. Had you, of course, waited to receive a response to your email, we would have explained the correct position to you. Similarly, had you carried out an objective comparison of the two programmes you would have noted the many differences between STEP and Dore and, more significantly, identified the fact that STEP makes absolutely none of the assertions about cures for Dyslexia and other learning difficulties or any other of the hypotheses that Wynford Dore concocted. They are not the same programme evidenced not least by the fact that STEP states its programme is not a SEN learning intervention.

Comment: a) I did not state in the blog that STEP is 'simply a reincarnation of the Dore Programme'. I said it bears some striking similarities to Dore.

b) I did not ignore Lucinda's reassurance that STEP is not a rebranding of Dore. On the contrary, I stated in the blogpost that I had received that reassurance from her.

c) I did not suggest that Lucinda had chosen not to reply to my email: I simply observed that I had not so far received a response. As my blogpost points out, I had made it clear in my initial email that I did not want her to 'explain the correct position' to me. I had specifically requested written reports documenting the evidence for effectiveness of STEP.

1. Despite what Ben Goldacre may believe, Kenny Logan (KL) was not paid by the Dore programme for "promotional work". He was, in fact, a paying customer of the programme who went from being unable to read at the start of the programme to being literate by the end of it. KL was happy to share his experience publicly and was very clear with Dore that he would not be paid to do this. Whilst it is true that in 2006, he was contracted and paid by Wynford Dore for his professional input into a sports programme that he was seeking to develop that is an entirely different matter. The suggestion that KL was only promoting the Dore programme for his own financial benefit is clearly defamatory of him (and indeed of us).

I asked Ben Goldacre about this. The claim about Logan's payment for promotional work was made in a Comment is Free article in the Guardian. Ben told me it all went through a legal review at the Guardian to ensure everything was robust, and no complaints were received from Kenny Logan at the time. If the claim is untrue, then Kenny Logan needs to take this up with the Guardian. It's unclear to me why Kenny Logan promoting Dore would be defamatory of STEP, given that STEP claims to have no association with Dore.

2. The fact that KL previously promoted the Dore programme also does not support the allegation that the STEP programme is the same as the Dore programme. They are very different programmes and we are a very different organisation to Dore. Incorrectly stating that KL was paid for the promotion of Dore and trying to draw an inference that therefore he is paid to promote STEP (which he is not) is also misleading.

Comment: I made no claims that Kenny Logan is paid to promote STEP. He is a shareholder in STEP2Progress, which is a different matter.

3. Dynevor was never "Scott Quinnell's Company". Dynevor was primarily owned by Tim Griffiths and was the organisation that purchased the intellectual property rights in Dore after it went bankrupt. Tim Griffiths had no prior connection to Wynford Dore or the Dore programme but did have an interest in the link between exercise and ability to learn. As many thousands of people had been left in a difficult position when Dore collapsed into administration having purchased a programme they could not continue the directors at Dynevor agreed to commit the funding necessary to allow those who wanted to continue the programme the opportunity to do so. Scott Quinnell had a shareholding of less than 1% in Dynevor. STEP has absolutely no association with Scott Quinnell.

Comment: The role of Scott Quinnell in Dynevor is not central to my description of Dore, but this account of his role seems disingenuous. According to Companies House, Quinnell was appointed as one of two Directors of Dynevor C.I.C in 2009, and his interest in the company in 2011 was 2.6% of the shareholding, at a time when Wynford Dore had a shareholding of 4.3%.

I have not claimed that Scott Quinnell has any relationship with STEP. My account of his dealings was to provide a brief history of the problems with Dore for readers unfamiliar with the background.

4. You refer to the claims Ben Goldacre has made on Twitter that the directors of Dynevor CIC "overlap substantially" with the directors of STEP. In fact, of the 8 Directors of Dynevor only 2 hold directorships at STEP. In any event that misses the point which is that none of the directors of STEP had any association with the Dore Programme prior to the purchase of intellectual property rights in 2009.

Comment: According to Companies House, the one 'active person with significant control' in Dynevor CIC is Timothy Griffiths, and the 'one active person with significant control' in STEP2Progress is Conor Davey. If I have understood this correctly, this is based on shareholdings. Timothy Griffiths is one of four Directors of STEP2Progress, and Conor Davey is the Chairman of Dynevor CIC. Dynevor CIC and STEP2Progress have the same postal address.

It wasn't quite clear if Lucinda was saying that Dynevor CIC is now disassociated from Dore, but if that is the case, it would be wise to update the company's LinkedIn Profile, which states that the company 'provides the Dore Programme to individual clients and schools around the UK and licences the rights to provide the Dore Programme in a number of overseas countries'.

5. It is not correct to state that STEP denies any links to the Dore programme. There is, of course, a link, as there is also to the work of Dr Frank Belgau and his studies into balametrics. There is also a link to other movement programmes such as Better Movers and Thinkers and Move to Learn. What we have said is that the STEP programme is not the Dore programme and we stand by this. You may seek to draw similarities between them as I could between apples and pears.

Comment: Nowhere in my blogpost did I state that STEP denies any links to the Dore programme.

Re Belgau: I have just done a search on Web of Science that returned no articles for either author = Belgau or topic = balametrics.

6. May I also ask how you can state that "the evidence to date does not justify introducing this intervention in to schools" when you have refused so far to meet with me or even seen the evidence or read the full Pilot Study? Have you asked any teachers or head teachers who have experience of delivering the STEP Programme whether they would recommend to their peers the use of the programme in their schools?

Comment: There is a fundamental misunderstanding here about how scientists evaluate evidence. If you want to find out whether an intervention is effective, the worst thing you can do is to talk to people who are convinced that it is. There are people who believe passionately in all sorts of things: the healing powers of crystals, the harms of vaccines, the benefits of homeopathy, or the evils of phonics instruction. They will, understandably, try to convince you that they are right, but they will not be objective. The way to get an accurate picture of what works is not by asking people what they think about it, but by doing well-controlled studies that compare the intervention with a control condition in terms of children's outcomes. It is for this reason that I have been asking for any hard evidence that STEP2Progress has from properly conducted studies or information about future-planned studies, which I am told are in the pipeline. I would love to read the full Pilot Study, but am having difficulty accessing it (see below).

7. You say in your blog "It is a shame that... We have politicians who will consider promoting educational interventions on the basis of persuasive marketing" Presumably this is a reference to Liz Smith MSP (LS) who you refer to separately in the blog? For your information, LS has read the full research report of the 2015/2016 Pilot Study as well as the other case studies. In light of that information, she has indicated the she is impressed with the STEP programme and that the Scottish Government should consider piloting it and looking more widely at the impact of physical literacy on academic attainment. At the point she expressed this view there had not been any marketing of the STEP programme in Scotland so I do not understand the evidence to support the statement you make in the blog.

Comment: In this regard Liz Smith has the advantage. Although Lucinda has now sent me three emails since my blogpost appeared, in none of them did she send me the reports I had initially requested. In my latest email I asked to see the 'full research report' that Liz Smith had access to. I got this reply from Lucinda:

Dear Dorothy,

Thank you for your email. With the greatest respect, I think the first step should be for you to correct or remove your blog and apologise for the inaccuracies I have outlined below. Alongside that I repeat my offer to come and talk you through the STEP programme and the studies that have been carried out so far. As I say, we are not the same programme as the Dore programme and it is wrong to allege otherwise.

Kind regards
Lucinda


Nevertheless, with her penultimate email, Lucinda attached a helpful Excel spreadsheet documenting differences between Dore and STEP, as follows:

Difference 1. The Dore Programme was a paper book of 100 exercises followed sequentially. Dore's assertions that they were personalised were untrue. STEP software contains over 350 exercises delivered through an adaptive learning software platform that is individualised to the child based on previous performance. The Programme also contains 10 minutes of 1-1 time with each pupil twice per day (nurture) and involves pupils overcoming a series of physical challenges (resilience) in a non class-competitive environment (success cycle) which displays their commitment levels (engagement) and is overseen by committed members of staff who also work with them in the classroom (mentoring and translational trust building).

Comment: The question of interest is where do these exercises come from? How were they developed? Usually for an adaptive learning process, one needs to do prior research to establish difficulty levels of items for children of different ages. I raised this issue with the original Dore programme: there is no published evidence of the kind of foundational work you'd normally expect for an educational programme. Readers will no doubt be intereted to hear that STEP has more exercises than Dore and delivers these in a specific, personalised sequence, but what is missing is a clear rationale explaining how and why specific exercises were developed. It would also be of interest to know how many of Dore's original 100 exercises are incorporated in STEP.

Difference 2. Dore was an exercise programme completed by adults and children at home supervised by untrained parents. STEP is delivered in schools and overseen by teaching staff trained through industry leader Professor Geraint Jones' teacher training programme. This also includes training on how to assess pupil performance.

Comment. If the intervention is effective, then standardized administration by teachers is a good thing. If it is not effective, then teachers should not be spending time and money being trained. Everything hinges on evidence for effectiveness (see below).

Difference 3. Dore asserted that the programme was a cure for dyslexia and and other learning difficulties. It further claimed to know the cause of these learning difficulties. STEP makes absolutely no assertions about Dyslexia, ADHD or other learning difficulties and absolutely no assertions about the medical cause for these.

Comment. I am sure that there are many people who will be glad to have the clarification that STEP is not designed to treat children with specific learning difficulties or dyslexia, as there appears to be some misunderstanding of this. This may in part be the consequence of Kenny Logan's involvement in promoting STEP. Consider, for instance, this piece in the Daily Mail, which first describes how Kenny's dyslexia was remediated by the Dore programme, and then moves to talk of his worries over his son Reuben, who was having difficulties in school:

"The answer was already staring him in the face, however, and within months, Kenny decided to try putting Reuben through a similar 'brain-training' technique to the one that transformed his own life just 14 years ago. Reuben, it transpired, had mild dyspraxia - a condition affecting mental and physical co-ordination - and the outcome for him has been so successful that Kenny is currently trying to persuade education chiefs to implement the technique in the country's worst-performing state schools, to raise attainment levels."

Another reason for confusion may be because the STEP home page lists the British Dyslexia Association as a partner and has features in the News section of its website on Dyslexia Awareness Month , on unidentified dyslexia, and a case study describing use of STEP with dyslexic children in Mississippi.

The transcript of the debate in the Scottish Parliament (scroll down to the section on Motion debated: That the Parliament is impressed by the STEP physical literacy programme) shows that many of the Scottish MPs who took part in the debate with Liz Smith were under the impression that STEP was a treatment for specific learning disabilities such as dyslexia and ADHD, as evident from these quotes:

Daniel Johnson: 'It is vital that we understand that there is a direct link between physical understanding, learning, knowledge and ability and educational ability. Overall - and specifically - there would be key benefits for people who have conditions such as ADHD and dyslexia... There is a growing body of evidence about the link between spatial awareness and physical ability and dyslexia. Likewise, the improvements on focus and concentration that exercises such as those that are outlined in the STEP programme can have for people with ADHD are clear. Improvements in those areas are linked not only to training the mind to concentrate, but to the impacts on brain chemistry.'

Elaine Smith: With regard to STEP, we have already heard that it is a programme of exercises performed twice a day for 10 minutes and focuses in particular on balance, eye tracking and co-ordination with the aim of making physical activity part of children's everyday learning. Improving physical literacy is particularly advantageous for children and young people who can find it difficult to concentrate, such as those with dyslexia and autism... STEP also has the backing of the British Dyslexia Association, which supported the findings of the pilot study.

Shirley-Anne Somerville: We are aware that the STEP programme has been promoted for children who have dyslexia.


Difference 4. Dore claimed that completing the exercises would repair a damaged or underdeveloped cerebellum. It is known that repetitive physical exercises stimulate the cerebellum but STEP makes no assertions of science that any physiological changes take place. STEP involves using repetitive physical exercises to embed actions and make them automatic.

Comment: It is good to see that some of the more florid claims of Dore are avoided by STEP, but the fact remains that the underlying theory is similar, namely that cerebellar training will improve skills beyond motor skills. The idea that training motor skills will produce effects that generalise to other aspects of development is is dubious because the cerebellum is a complex organ subserving a range of functions and controlled studies typically find that training effects are task-specific. I discussed these issues in relation to the Dore programme here.

Specific statements about the cerebellum on the STEP website are:

'After going on national television to tell his heart-breaking story about facing up to the frustrations of overcoming a childhood stumbling block bigger than Mount Everest, Kenny (Logan) is determined to highlight the positive effects of using cerebellum specific teaching and learning programmes in primary school settings.'

And on this page of the website we hear: 'In the last century, academics experimenting with balametrics, dance and movement, established that specifically stimulating the cerebellum through exercise improves skill automation. The STEP Programme is built upon this foundation.'


Difference 5. Dore was a "medical" treatment that required participants to regularly visit treatment centres for "medical" evaluations to determine whether their learning difficulty was being cured. STEP is a primary school physical literacy programme delivered by teaching assistants or other teaching staff. It is to date shown to be most impactful on the lower quartile of the classroom in terms of academic improvement.

This is a rather odd interpretation of the Dore programme, which perhaps is signalled by the use of quotes around 'medical'. I never had the impression it was medical ╨ it was not prescribed or administered by doctors. It is true that Dore did establish centres for assessment and this proved to be a major reason for its commercial failure: there were substantial costs in premises, staffing and equipment. But there was no necessity to run the intervention that way: some people at the time of the collapse suggested it would be feasible to offer the exercises over the internet at much lower cost.

The second point, re the greatest benefits for the lower quartile of the classroom, is on the one hand of potential interest, but on the other hand raises the concern that the benefits could be a classic case of the regression to the mean. This is one of many ways in which scores can improve on an outcome measure for spurious reasons - which is why you need proper randomised controlled trials. Improvements are largely uninterpretable without these because increases in scores can arise because of practice, maturation, regression to the mean or placebo effects.

Difference 6. Dore determined "progress" and "cure" via a series of physical assessments. STEP empirically measures the academic progress of pupils with baseline data and presents reports against actual physical skills developed inviting schools to draw their own conclusions in the context of their school setting.

Comment. Agree that Dore's method of measuring progress and cure was a major problem, because a child could improve on the measures of balance and eye-hand co-ordination and be deemed 'cured' even though their reading had not improved at all. But the account of STEP sounds too vague to evaluate - and the evidence on their website from the pilot study is so underspecified as to be uninterpretable. It is not clear what the measures were, and which children were involved in which measures. I would like to see the full report to have a clearer idea of the methods and results.

Difference 7. Dore claimed that the exercises were developed and delivered in a formulaic manner that was a trade secret. STEP focuses on determining whether a pupils core physical capabilities in balance, eye tracking and coordination. There is no secret formula or claims of one. The genesis of STEP is in balametrics as well as other movement programmes such as Better Movers and Thinkers https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27247688 and Move to Learn https://www.movetolearn.com.au/research/

Comment. In STEP, how are the scores on core physical capabilities standardized for age and sex? This refers back to my earlier comment about the development work needed to underpin an effective programme. The impression is that people in this field borrow ideas from previous programmes but there is no serious science behind this.

Difference 8. The Dore Programme cost over £2000 per person and was paid for individually. STEP costs £365 per year per child and is completed over 2 years. It is largely paid for through schools that have the discretion to ask parents to fund the programme if it is an additional intervention being offered. STEP also commits a significant number of places to schools free of charge. The fee includes year round school support

Comment. Good to have the differences in charging methods clarified.

Difference 9. Dore published research based around a single school with hypotheses relating to the cerebellum and dyslexia that could not be substantiated. It used dyslexic tendencies as a measure of improvement and selection. STEP as an organisation is wholly open to independent research and evaluation. Its initial pilot study was designed and led by the IAPS Education Committee and conducted by Innovation Bubble, led by Dr Simon Moore, University of Middlesex and Chartered Psychologist. It was held across 17 schools. Further pilot studies have taken place carried out by education districts in Mississippi and ESCCO as well as independent case studies. These have always been presented openly and in the context they were compiled. STEP believes it has sufficient evidence to warrant a large scale evaluation of the Programme.

Comment. In the context of intervention evaluation, quantity of research does not equate with quality. Here is Wikipedia's definition of a pilot study: 'A small scale preliminary study conducted in order to evaluate feasibility, time, cost, adverse events, and effect size (statistical variability) in an attempt to predict an appropriate sample size and improve upon the study design prior to performance of a full-scale research project.' I agree that a large-scale evaluation of the Programme is warranted. It's a bit odd to say the results have been presented openly while at the same time refusing to send me reports unless I take down my blogpost.

It is clear that the MSPs in the debate in the Scottish Parliament were all, without exception, convinced that we already had evidence for the effectiveness of STEP. If they based these impressions on the information on the STEP website (as suggested by Liz Smith's initial statement), then this is worrying, as this came from the pilot study, where the methods were not clearly described, and the description of the results is unclear and looks incomplete, or from uncontrolled case studies.

Here are some of the statements from MSPs:

Liz Smith: As members know, the programme has been used successfully in both England and the United States, and it has been empirically evidenced to reduce the attainment gap in primary school pupils. Pupils who have completed STEP have shown significant improvements academically, behaviourally, physically and socially. A United Kingdom pilot last year compared more than 100 below-attainment primary school pupils who were on the STEP programme to a group of pupils at the same attainment level who were not. The improved learning outcomes that the study showed are extremely impressive: 86 per cent of pupils on the programme moved to on or above target in reading, compared with 56 per cent of the non-STEP group; 70 per cent of STEP pupils met their target for maths, compared with 30 per cent of the non-STEP group; and 75 per cent and 62 per cent of STEP pupils were on or above target for English comprehension and spelling respectively, compared with 43 per cent and 30 per cent of the non-STEP group.
In Mississippi, in the USA, more than 1,000 pupils have completed the programme over the past three years, and it is no coincidence that that state has seen significant improvement in fourth grade - which is the equivalent of P6 - reading and maths, which has resulted in the state being awarded a commendation for educational innovation.

Brian Whittle: The STEP programme is tried and tested, with measured physical, emotional and academic outcomes, especially in the lower percentiles.

Daniel Johnson: Perhaps most impressive is the STEP programme's achievements on academic improvement╤it has led to improved English for 76 per cent of participants, and to improved maths, reading and spelling for 70 per cent of participants. The benefits that physical literacy can bring to academic attainment are clear.

Oliver Mundell: the STEP programme has been shown to work and is popular with both the teachers and the pupils who have benefited from it in England and the USA.


Conclusion This has been a very long postscript, but it seems important to be clear about what the objections to STEP are. I have not claimed that STEP is exactly the same as Dore. My sense of déjà vu arises because of the similarities, in the people involved, in the use of cerebellar exercises involving balance and eye-hand coordination delivered in short sessions, and in the successful promotion of the programme to politicians and schools in the absence of adequate peer-reviewed evidence. Given that the basic theory does not have strong scientific plausibility, this latter point that is the source of greatest concern. We can agree that we all want children to succeed in school and any method that can help them achieve this is to be welcomed. There is also, however, a need for better education of our politicians, so that they are equipped to evaluate evidence properly. They have a responsibility to ensure we do the best for our children, but this requires a critical mindset.