Garth George: Cross-party accord needed for kids

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Reports containing suggestions as to what should be done to alleviate the dreadful plight of tens of thousands of our children are all over the media, from providing free food at more schools to reintroducing what was known as the family benefit.

But one such report, released last weekend, has received only cursory mention in the press, yet it addresses the problems of child deprivation from quite a different angle and seems to me to be right on the money.

The report, which runs to more than 22,000 words, is by Infometrics NZ for the Every Child Counts organisation, formed in 2004 and led by Barnardos, Plunket, Unicef, Save the Children and Te Kahui Mana Ririki.

It suggests that it is what is done for disadvantaged children before they are 6 years old - particularly in their first 1000 days of life - that will be the most effective in reducing the effects of poverty, poor parenting, psychological and physical damage which usually dog them for the rest of their lives.

The fundamental conclusion in the report is that the first years of a child's life are critical for optimal development and that investment should be focused there.

"Not only are children at their most vulnerable to the damaging consequences of deprivation," says the report, "but the first three years are the period of unprecedented social, cognitive and physical growth."

It says that conclusion agrees with the findings and recommendations of a recent report by the Prime Minister's science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, on reducing social and psychological ill health later, particularly during adolescence.

Interestingly, the report makes it clear it is not a call for immediate increases in public spending on children, but rather "a call for a fundamental look at what's happening for children, the communities they live in, the supports they receive from government and how New Zealanders work together to grow healthy children".

Among the most pertinent points in the report is one that suggests that the formation of a cross-party accord in Parliament on children's issues - not subject to short-term electoral cycles and adversarial politics - is essential if long-term solutions to chronic shortcomings in that area are to be overcome.

This would allow governments to invest early in children's lives; to design interventions that encourage positive development throughout their lives; to regularly collect high-quality information on children's well-being; and to continuously experiment with policies and programmes for children, rigorously evaluating them to see whether they work or not, giving more money for those that do and dumping those that don't.

The report reiterates what we already know, that New Zealand, at 28th out of 30, is one of the most poorly performing countries in the OECD in terms of outcomes for children.

This country also has one of the lowest rates of public investment in children in the OECD (less than half the average public spend per child under the age of 6); and the investment we do make is one of the least effective.

The report points out that our population is ageing, so it is essential that children grow into fully productive contributors to society as mature individuals capable of positive social relationships, being good parents, and well-educated and trained participants in the labour market.

And it notes that parental income is positively associated with a wide range of important child outcomes, including intellectual ability, emotional issues, mental and physical health, behavioural issues, teenage pregnancy, educational attainment, future economic status and criminal behaviour.

It is only to be hoped that the powers that be take notice of this report, for it transcends the plethora of Band-Aid solutions, which come far too late in a child's life, and gets right down to the nitty-gritty.

garth.george@hotmail.com

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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