Iodine Global Network (IGN)

A simple solution to lift the performance of Australian school children

This article was originally published on 6 December 2016, in the Sydney Morning HeraldAchtung Link öffnet sich in einem neuen Fenster

by Cres Eastman
When will we ever learn? After the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Studies and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study results were released in 2012 there was widespread surprise and disbelief to discover that Australian children had performed poorly compared with many other countries.

This was most marked when measured against most of our neighbours within Asia. Blame was heaped upon our teachers, rundown schools, overcrowding in classrooms, lack of government funding and so on. The latest 2016 TIMSS report released last week shows Australian children sliding further down the league table.

Again, expressions of disappointment and outrage came from all sources with a humiliating headline in the Herald of "Australian students fare worse than Kazakhstan in maths and science". Education Minister Simon Birmingham, lamely waffled on about increasing school funding from 2018, and said he wanted evidence-based action to prevent the performance of Australian children sliding further down the ladder. But he offered no explanations or solutions.
Maddie, year 4, Ben, year 1 and Lewis, year 4, from Darlington Public School beta testing the computer maths games the year 4 students had developed to teach younger children. Photo: Louise Kennerley
Mathematician and media personality Adam Spencer correctly said this was "déjà vu" and put forward his solution, advocating for science teachers and science laboratories to be placed in every primary school in Australia, claiming that after rolling this out the problem would be solved within 20 years. While I'm sure that that would be helpful, likely at great cost, one could reasonably argue for similar intensive investments in the teaching of literacy in addition to science and numeracy.

We are overlooking some simple facts and principles. Could it be that our children are not competitive and it is not simply the result of a defective teaching system? If that is the case we can do something about it.

Beginning from the time of conception, we need to concentrate on the first 1000 days of life, the critical period for brain development and maturation. The World Health Organisation states quite categorically that environmental iodine deficiency, occurring during pregnancy, is the commonest global cause of impaired brain development resulting in loss of intelligence and other subtle brain disorders. In other words, iodine deficiency at this critical time will adversely affect the child, irrespective of the level of the inherited intelligence.

In the past two decades not one single study of iodine nutrition in pregnant women in Australia has shown adequate maternal iodine intake putting babies at risk of irreversible neurocognitive impairment. Aboriginal women in the Northern Territory are most at risk.

Those who dismiss iodine deficiency as a likely cause of reduced intelligence in Australian children call for evidence directly linking maternal iodine deficiency with subsequent poor school performance in the offspring. We now have that evidence.

Researchers from the Menzies Institute in Hobart found that the NAPLAN scores of nine-year-old children born to mildly iodine deficient mothers were around 10 per cent poorer than children born to mothers who had a sufficient iodine intake during pregnancy. Similar results have recently been published in the United Kingdom.

The reason the kids from Kazakhstan are performing better than ours may well be due to the fact that they have had universal iodisation of all edible salt in Kazakhstan for more than a decade and have supported this with a public health education campaign to optimise iodine intake. Slovenia, well above us in the TIMMS league table, has also done the same thing.

Of course it would be naive to believe iodine deficiency was the sole cause of poor scholastic performance in Australian children, but the evidence for it being a significant factor cannot be denied.

In Australia we now have mandatory iodine fortification of all salt going into bread, but this is insufficient to overcome the nutritional deficiency in pregnant women. We desperately need a public health education campaign to promote iodine supplementation before conception and during pregnancy. This won't cost millions of dollars and take 20 years to see a positive outcome.

For Minister Birmingham here is an answer to your request for an evidence- based initiative. Can we please get on with it?
Professor Cres Eastman is a Clinical Professor of Medicine, Sydney Medical School and Consultant Emeritus, Westmead Hospital. He is IGN's National Coordinator for Australia and former Board Director.