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Q+A interview with Lord Winston & Sir Peter Gluckman

Press Release – TVNZ

Sunday 31st July, 2011 Q+A interview with Lord Winston & Sir Peter Gluckman. The interview has been transcribed below. The full length video interviews and panel discussions from this morning’s Q+A can be watched on at, …
Sunday 31st July, 2011

Q+A interview with Lord Winston & Sir Peter Gluckman.

The interview has been transcribed below. The full length video interviews and panel discussions from this morning’s Q+A can be watched on at,

Q+A, 9-10am Sundays on TV ONE. Repeats at 9.10pm Sundays, 10.10am and 2.10pm Mondays on TVNZ 7

Q+A is on Facebook,!/NZQandA and on Twitter,!/NZQandA


Robert, Lord Winston is professor of Science and Society at Imperial College. He’s a medical doctor, a former British MP and television presenter of programmes like Child of Our Time and The Human Body. You will have seen him. And professor Sir Peter Gluckman is the Prime Minister’s science advisor who’s recently reported on how to improve the outcomes of young people as they move from childhood into adulthood in this country. Good morning to both of you, and welcome to Q+A.

ROBERT, LORD WINSTON – Early Childhood Specialist
Morning, Paul.

PAUL Let’s start with you, Sir Peter. How bad are our stats internationally?

SIR PETER GLUCKMAN – PM’s Chief Science Advisor
Well, in OECD figures, we don’t do well. We’ve known for a long time in this country that we’re not happy with the consequences of politicians from both political parties over many years. They’ve talked about a lot, and they’ve tried lots of magic bullet approaches.

PAUL Can I just talk about how we don’t do well? In 2005/2006, there were 13,900 substantiated cases of child abuse. In ’05, UNICEF said New Zealand ranked third worst out of 27 OECD countries in terms of children’s deaths from maltreatment. That’s bad.

PETER Yes, and we’ve got the highest rate of teenage suicide. Our children don’t do as well as we would hope them to do. Having said that, many of our children do very well. What we need to understand and think about is get away from dogma and rhetoric. Look at the knowledge base and decide that we need a more holistic and integrated approach to moving ahead based on the knowledge and getting away of persistent values debates, and get down to thinking about what we can do to be better.

PAUL There have been plenty of critics since the Green Paper was announced saying, ‘Oh, for God’s sake, let’s go. Get on with it. We know what to do. The research has been going on for years.’

PETER Do we? We don’t actually know which programmes really work in New Zealand. We don’t know which programmes don’t work in New Zealand. We probably persist with spending a lot of money on programmes that are not very effective, and we probably are not incorporating and learning from pilot programmes properly to do things that are effective. We tend to have a knee jerk reaction of doing something without actually seeing if we’re going to get from it what we want, which is healthier kids.

PAUL Lord Winston, how bad do you think these New Zealand stats are? I mean, how do they compare to, say, British stats or European?

ROBERT I just need to disabuse you. I’m not a former MP. I’ve never been a politician.

PAUL I didn’t think you had.

ROBERT And I don’t intend to be, actually. But as a member of the House of Lords, of course, we do look at legislation…

PAUL You did wait a very long time to tell me that. You saw two rehearsals. But anyway, I beg your pardon.

ROBERT OK. Um, how bad are the New Zealand stats? Well, I think they certainly could be improved. Um, we had pretty bad stats in the United Kingdom. The UNICEF figures show that we did almost as badly as the United States and a great deal worse than Scandinavia and most European countries and some countries which were poorer. The biggest problem in Britain, I think, was child poverty. I know that you were a bit snarly about Tony Blair, but one of the really good initiatives of the Blair Government was actually the focus on young children, and we set up the Sure Start programme after having had a Minister for Children in 2003, and that’s been maintained by the Tory Government.

PAUL And has that been a success, do you think?

ROBERT Initially it probably wasn’t, and, in fact, what the Blair Government put in place was probably not adequate metrics, but they did start to look at the impact of the programme, using scientists to do that. And I think New Zealand might want to do the same sort of thing…

PAUL That’s your mantra, isn’t it – evaluation.

ROBERT Well, you know, evaluation turned out to be very effective. It turned out our programme was effective. I think it’s a different problem from yours, Peter, because, of course, whilst we were very concerned about teenage pregnancy, we went for poverty in the very early years, and these Sure Start centres were set up in the worst-affected cities initially.

PAUL Yes, all right. You’ve talked about New Zealand in the past. You’ve said something about our priorities being wrong – that we tend to laud our All Blacks and our America’s Cup and our Bledisloe Cup, and we…

ROBERT I think it’s very unwise for foreigners like myself to be too critical of the All Blacks.

PAUL But it’s obvious we don’t look after the human wellbeing of our very young people.

ROBERT Well, that is not to say you don’t have the aspirations. The Green Paper clearly shows there are aspirations very clearly, and your government’s trying to do something about it, and I think that’s something to be lauded and praised.

PETER I think we need a national conversation. I think, to be honest, Paul, the whole point of the Green Paper is to say everybody from every political party wants the kids to do better. We know that. What we need to do is look through and understand what are the hard issues that we need to get a national consensus on which goes beyond party political cycles to actually look at the issues. What are the trade-offs the country’s prepared to make for our kids to do better? What are the actual consequences of labelling families or individual children at particular risk? It’s not all one way. There are issues once you start to label families.

PAUL Tell us, both of you, as scientists, about the importance of that first couple of years of a child’s life. Perhaps the first five years of a child’s life.

ROBERT Peter, of course, has all sorts of very good scientific data, but actually the human brain is developing at its most rapid at the time of birth and immediately afterwards. And once you have those experiences affecting the brain, unless you get those experiences right, you never really manage to change the development. And I think this is one of the problems, and Peter will talk about many of the aspects of the environment on growth, which affect every aspect of our humanity.

PAUL Well, I mean, you’ve spoken about the importance of nutrition. Basically, if a child has got good nutrition, a child has a much better chance for the rest of their life. And we read this week, Peter, 40,000 kids are going to school without breakfast in New Zealand; 87,000 are going to school without lunch.

PETER Well, I mean, it’s all part of a context of a child’s life from the moment it’s conceived in utero. We know that, for instance, what mother eats, the stresses she exhibits, all influence the way that child will grow after birth. These are fundamental issues which society as a whole has to grapple with. There’s not a single, magic bullet solution. If we just take something like early childhood education, which we’ve talked about before in relationship to adolescence. There are multiple purposes for early childhood education. Is it there for the convenience of the parents? Is it there so the kiddie does better in formal learning at school? Is it better to improve social and emotional control? The evidence suggests that high quality, very expensive early childhood education for children at particular risk does enormous things to improve their emotional and social development in ways that means they are more likely to be productive members and integrated members of society.

PAUL We’re talking how old?

PETER We’re talking about investment in the first three years of life having consequences out 20, 30 years later. But it’s very expensive. Is the society prepared to trade off some other aspect of what we spend money on to put very high quality services into families most at risk?

ROBERT I think that’s a very important point, because certainly in the UK when the new government came in, the Tory Government, they cut back on the Sure Start programme. And I think that was a big mistake, because what we did with our programme was to start in pregnancy, which I thought was a very enlightened approach – something which I know Peter would approve of. Um, and we started trying to improve parenting skills, uh, particularly in inner cities where there was evidence that was needed, and I think that did make a difference to how children grew. And certainly although the initial social-science research was not particularly favourable – as you’d expect, actually, because it takes years to get this data – J Belsky and his colleagues studying this ended up with a report which was extremely positive. And I think it’s a pity, actually, that we didn’t continue that investment, because in the long term, I think our society has probably benefitted hugely from that approach

PAUL We are talking, aren’t we, targeting. If you want to throw everything at that very first couple of years, are we talking children who have less need getting a little bit less attention from government services?

PETER Well, that’s the conversation that the country has to have. We’ve got a strong egalitarian approach where everybody gets treated the same. Treating everybody the same means that the most vulnerable, however you define it, actually effectively get less. And this is why a green paper may be what this country needs – a proper national conversation rather than it becoming a political football.

ROBERT I was just going to add that, of course, treating the most vulnerable actually affects the less vulnerable as well in the long term. And that’s important. So, if you focused a programme like this, it would be a little less costly and, I think, well worth considering because it will have an effect right across society.

PAUL Sir Peter, the Green Paper made a few suggestions and suggested mandatory reporting of child abuse or suspected child neglect of abuse between professionals. Is that a good thing?

PETER Well, I think the Green Paper raises lots of options for the community to consider. It doesn’t make recommendations per se. That’s the whole point of a green paper. I think the issue of mandatory reporting of child abuse is complex. Certainly we do want professionals to know of concerns other professionals have about potential for child abuse, and that means they need to be able to communicate their concerns without fear. But sometimes mandatory reporting also makes it harder then to access the child. And so these are not black and white issues.

PAUL And so the child may not come and have a little word if he thinks Mummy or Daddy is going to get into trouble.

PETER Well, the next agency may not be able to give them the door.

ROBERT It’s a very complex issue with the social services. I mean, it’s not been easy in Britain. The famous case was the Victoria Climbie case where this child died, and that really stimulated a lot of government discussion. But, actually, one of the problems, of course, is that a whole range of different social services impact on childcare in the community, and sometimes the communication isn’t as good as it should be. And that’s still happening in Britain, although I think it’s improved. But it’s not a simple solution.

PAUL No, but are we going to have to get savage and start breaking down the door? Say, ‘Sorry, we’re in charge now’?

PETER We’re going to have to make sure that there’s better connectivity between the agencies. I think one of the things I’ve seen and learnt since I’ve had this role is the need to get better communication across agencies and understand that what’s happening in one agency for the benefit of children or any other part of the community…

PAUL And that’s another thing canvassed by the Green Paper is the sharing of information between the official agencies. Now, aren’t we going to get into trouble with the famous Privacy Act at this point?

PETER Well, things have to change. I mean, we’re not doing well. The country has to make some trade-offs and have a proper discussion of which values rate the most to make this a better society to live in.

PAUL We are in crisis, aren’t we? When you look at New Zealand’s population – 4.5 million – whatever it is now – four of five million – 4000 parents were done in the courts for child abuse last year. Frightful, isn’t it?

ROBERT Well, it’s worrying, but, I mean, whether that constitutes a crisis, I think is difficult to say. One shouldn’t exaggerate the problems because at the other end, of course, the quality of the way of life in New Zealand in many ways is absolutely admirable. And I think one has to see this in an overall perspective. But certainly a great deal of improvement could be achieved.

PETER We could achieve a lot. I mean, I think the evidence would suggest those societies which are more cohesive in general tend to have children who do better. But what’s coming out of North American research is that even when we compare two disadvantaged neighbourhoods of people the same minority ethnicity, in one neighbourhood the children can do remarkably well; the other neighbourhood they can do remarkably poorly. Lots of little things add together to make a healthy neighbourhood. Even if there may be little money around, there are lots of things that can happen in terms of community support and integration and provision of intensive services that can make a big difference. Even in poor communities, you can have remarkable children, remarkable families.

PAUL What about this – I think it would probably be the perception of many of our viewers, probably the perception of most of the Pakeha, the white community in New Zealand, that child neglect, child bashing, child abuse is essentially an ethnic problem – meaning Maori people. Is there anything in the research anywhere in the world that indicated a propensity for any particular ethnic group to be more likely to be abusive or neglectful?

PETER No. I think the biology of parent-child interactions is universal – namely parents and children usually want to have a positive… Parents want to have a positive outcome for their children.

PAUL So what are we looking at here? Is it poverty? Is it solo mums under stress?

PETER We have a community which is disaggregated, doesn’t have a coherent set of rules of behaviour. We have lots of different things that come together, and we’ve had a society which has not been prepared to discuss difficult problems in a mature way. I think it will be a sign of a mature society if we can get beyond rhetoric and dogma and use the opportunity created by the Green Paper. Have a mature conversation about where this society should go, what are its priorities, and what are the trade-offs it should make.

PAUL Give us a single first step that might actually make a difference. Single first step. What would you do?

ROBERT Well, I think one of the things we did do which showed to be a factor was to have these child centres, particularly in poor areas. I think you mentioned poverty. I think poverty…

PAUL What happens there?

ROBERT Well, what happens is that people get much more support for how they look after their children. Their children are encouraged. Even just to play with them in a more constructive way.

PAUL We had that once. It was called Plunket, wasn’t it?

ROBERT Well, there was also an American model called Head Start. Head Start was the American model, which, in fact to some extent, the British model was modelled on. But I think the British programme went a bit further in many ways than Head Start. And certainly what we did have, I think, was an evaluation which certainly showed that this was being increasingly useful. I think the problem we’ve had in Britain has been the failure to continue to focus the funds. And, I mean, you can’t and I don’t think you should be spending the funds on a vast blanket basis, because that will not work. Targeting is going to be important.

PETER I agree with Paul. I mean, I think the Adolescent Taskforce which I reported to the Prime Minister concluded again that high quality investment in the kind of programmes like the Head Start programme or the Sure Start programme which involve both parents and children in both centre- and home-based education from the earliest years for the most vulnerable and being prepared to invest a lot in those families is the most effective… will get traction. And if you’re prepared to wait 10 to 15 years to see the real outcomes which will be in terms of better social and emotional control as you grow up, then the outcome will be really valuable.

PAUL Sir Peter Gluckman, always a pleasure. And Robert, Lord Winston, wonderful to see you in the country again.

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