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Q + A Episode 12 2011 - Sir Peter Gluckman

Q + A Episode 12 2011
Sir Peter Gluckman
Interviewed by PAUL HOLMES
PAUL So, w hat do we do about the kids? Once again this week, we've had confirmation that our adolescents are doing it tough. Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister's chief science advisor, has released his much-anticipated report on our young people and our adolescents and revealed that 20% of them during adolescence will make a mistake that will affect their lives. Sir Peter wants our politicians to kick the ideology nonsense and to get serious about what the science tells us about what works. He says... You might say he’s laid down the gauntlet to the government, and I spoke to him before he flew out on a fact-finding mission to Israel , one of the world's science success stories, and started by asking what the reaction to his report has been like.

SIR PETER GLUCKMAN – PM’s Chief Science Advisor
I think in general, people who’ve read the report or scanned the report – it is a long report, after all...

PAUL 307 pages, Sir Peter, yeah.

SIR PETER ...welcome the approach we’re taking, which is to not try and direct policy, but to state what the evidence base suggests does work and doesn’t work, and leave it for the other dimensions of political and social values to be added to what the evidence base shows. It’s a new approach, it’s a novel approach, but I think it is the best way to tackle and get at these very complex, hard problems.

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PAUL Well, what are some of these problems? I note that the report is about reducing adolescent morbidity. What do you mean by morbidity in this context?

SIR PETER What we’re talking about is the fact that many young people transition from being a child to an adult without harm, but about 20% of our young people transition and they are left with echoes of that transition in ways that harm their life. They either don’t complete school or they have a road accident or they get a depressive illness or they become unemployable or whatever, or they get a criminal record. These all shouldn’t happen or we don’t want them to happen, and I think the issue is that this society has a very high rate of adolescent morbidity for reasons which we allude to in the report, but I wouldn’t pretend that we have fully understood. I think it’s clear that New Zealanders as a whole have relatively low levels of self-control, and I think that does play into the way in which we treat our young people and how young people themselves grow up.

PAUL This is very interesting. You’ve got a couple of chapters, actually – one talks about self-control and how one of the ideal things would be for children to enter adolescence with self-control so that they, you know, manage themselves better at times of risk, and also developing resilience...


PAUL that they can survive and make right choices during moments or times of risk in adolescence. These are two of the most important things that we’ve got to do, you believe.

SIR PETER I think the evidence shows quite clearly that children who have resilience have greater levels of self-control – which in turn largely develop early in life, in the first few years after birth – are children which have a greater chance of passaging through what is an inevitable risk-taking period of adolescence with less likelihood of harm, and therefore a large focus of the report is to say take a life-course approach – don’t focus just on adolescence per se, but recognise that your passage through that period is largely determined by how you’re prepared for it, and that’s why we focus so much on early childhood.

PAUL So how do you teach kids resilience? How do you make them resilient? How do you teach kids self-control? Do you have to be a hard-arse father kind of thing...

SIR PETER No, you don’t.

PAUL ...when they’re 2 years old?

SIR PETER No, you don’t. What you need to do is focus on the issues of how children develop their social skills with other children, how they have empathy for other children, how they understand what their boundaries are, how they understand how to complete a task, how they understand how to put their emotions in context. And that requires a partnership between the parents, the whanau, the family, the community and the state, by virtue of good-quality early childhood education, which does need to be targeted to high-risk families to make sure that the kind of early childhood education those children get has special attributes to it.

PAUL And of course that early childhood intervention is one of the recurring themes of the whole report, and we’ll come back to it, because I know it’s deeply important to you. But there's an extraordinary moment in the report when you say it is impossible for people our age – that is to say middle-aged people, the parents, the policymakers – quote, “to understand the context in which young people now live”. And you talk about cheaper cars, 24-hour ATM machines – “Hell, let’s get more drink. It’s 3am, we can go to the ATM machine” – cellphones, Facebook and so forth. And this makes it harder for parents to impose boundaries, because you don’t know where the slippery sods are at, yeah?

SIR PETER The boundaries are... I don’t think that’s the way to look at it, Paul. I think the point is you need self-control and understanding where you belong in society. These are things that emerge early in life, and from that, then children themselves will have the capacity and the families will feel better equipped to interact with the adolescent to recognise those boundaries, discuss them. One of the whole dilemmas of this situation we’re in – the world has changed so dramatically, society has changed so much, technology has changed so much, the way young people talk to each other has changed – goes with your thumbs now.

PAUL Yes, and it’s silent.

SIR PETER And this removes the... or changes the way which people live within society and how people grow up in society, and one of the biggest changes we’re seeing is the age of puberty itself has fallen...

PAUL Yes, dramatically.

SIR PETER Dramatically, because of better childhood and maternal nutrition. The age of acceptance of a young person in this society has risen, perhaps because society is more complex, perhaps because we require more of young people to be more mature in society and perhaps because of the way in which the environment out there has changed – it’s changed the way the brain matures.

PAUL Well, that’s right. One of the things you say is that adolescence has become so much longer than it was.

SIR PETER The result of all of that is...

PAUL So we could be starting our adolescence now at about the age of 10 or 12.


PAUL Younger. And not finishing it till 25, 26. Is that...?

SIR PETER Well, probably. I mean, brain-imaging studies now show that brain development is not complete till well into the third decade of life, so whereas adolescence was once a period of two to four years, adolescence in those terms is now between 10 and 15 years in length. Big change for society, big change for young people. Very challenging for young people, very challenging for society.

PAUL Another thing that the report must be praised for is that it insists we forget the dogma and use programmes that work, that have been tested, that have been proven. What works? What are some of the schemes that work? What don’t work? Examples.

SIR PETER The most impressive examples are in very vulnerable families in North America where it’s been shown very expensive, intensive investment in both family visiting and centre-based programmes for young people has an enormous effect for the whole of their life. It can reduce the crime rate, their arrest rate, their incarceration rate later in life...

PAUL This is getting in early?

SIR PETER Getting in between 3 and 5 years of age. Changing their income earnings, their likelihood of successful relationships, their school-completion rate – phenomenal effects from intensive programmes for very vulnerable families. That works. On the other hand, we know that certain forms of life-skill education in late teenage years don’t work. For example...

PAUL Boot camps?

SIR PETER Well, boot camps I’ll come to in a moment. But much of drug and alcohol education does not work effectively. In terms of boot camps, here’s a classic example: there are reports in the literature of boot camps that work and boot camps that don’t work. We do not know what are the success factors that make for those to work. We need, therefore, to evaluate the programme that’s developed in New Zealand to be sure that it does work or to find those factors that could make it work.

PAUL Let’s talk about early childhood education. This is obviously one of the focuses – getting in really early, as you say. And yet what we find under this government is – the government that asked you to do this report – early childhood education per child is down, fees are up. Is that wise?

SIR PETER Well, that’s a policy decision to do with income. What I’m interested in is the policy decisions about what we want out of early childhood education.

PAUL Well, do we still take it seriously enough, Sir Peter? Because Anne Tolley herself is of the view that Grandma can help by popping around to the early childhood education centre. She doesn’t really need to be qualified.

SIR PETER Well, it again depends what the purpose of early childhood education is. For non-vulnerable children, they’re going to do pretty well with lots of environments. For vulnerable children, we need very intensive programmes, and that’s part of the thrust of yesterday’s release by the Early Childhood Education Taskforce.

PAUL And I think it was also the subject of that report that fees for early childhood education are going to rise. Is it the Chief Science Advisor’s view that this is a good thing?

SIR PETER That’s a political decision, not a science decision. Sorry, Paul.

PAUL What does the evidence tell you?

SIR PETER The evidence...

PAUL What's this whole report about?

SIR PETER No, the evidence says that if you look at the point of view of adolescent morbidity, you can reduce it, particularly by targeting the early phase of life. The evidence also suggests that most children will progress well through adolescence, but the most vulnerable children who have this cluster of deficiency... of situations in early life, they’re the ones who particularly benefit from the point of view of early childhood. So the issue that we do talk about in the report, which you’re trying to get me to talk about, is this difficult challenge for any country of universalism versus targeting. When do you provide a universal benefit and when do you provide targeting for particularly vulnerable parts of the population? That’s a political decision...

PAUL No, all I’m asking you is...

SIR PETER ...on the balance.

PAUL I understand that, but I’m asking you – you’ve written this massive... You and your colleagues have written this massive, massive report into a serious problem we have in this country, affecting perhaps 20% or more of our young people. And over here we have the politics of it, and I wonder if your report’s just going to be another one that’s going to be ignored. You’ve got talk about it being more expensive to get early childhood education. The government’s refused your recommendation, I think it was, to raise the excise tax on alcohol. They won’t do it. So what hope does that give you that any of this is going to be listened to?

SIR PETER Well, I’ve got hope for the simple reason that these are complex issues. They properly have values-laden elements to it on top of what the evidence base has, but at least we can have a sensible conversation going ahead. If the evidence base is laid out in an unbiased, value-free way, then it’s appropriate that policymakers take into account public opinion, ideology, fiscal considerations and ethics and so forth, in trying to go from where we are now to where everybody wants to go – everybody wants our children to do better.

PAUL Ain’t that a fact? Sir Peter Gluckman, the government’s chief science advisor. Much to debate there.

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