As only the second paediatrician to be appointed as BMA president, Sir Al Aynsley-Green explains to Tammy Lovell why he is passionate about improving the health and well-being of children and how his experience as children's commissioner will be important in his new role
Incoming BMA president Sir Al Aynsley-Green has faced some difficult questions in his time, but the toughest came from a group of children.
The former children's commissioner says that in order to secure his role he was put through his paces by a panel of uncompromising young people.
He says: ‘Being appointed to it was the most difficult experience of my life.
'As well as completing an exam written and marked by children, I had two 45-minute interrogations by very seriously hard-nosed and well-prepared 11- to 18-year-olds, including youngsters in wheelchairs.
‘They went straight for my throat as only young people can. They wanted to know who I was and what I had done in my life that showed I cared about children.
‘I found myself having to tell them about me and I started to share with them aspects of my life I'd been quite hesitant to expose previously.'
Sir Al's own background made him only too qualified to relate to the plight of young people, having been brought up in a small mining community in Northumberland.
His dad left school when he was 14 to work underground in the pit and was determined to move his family to the south of England to improve their life chances.
After moving to Surrey at the age of nine, Sir Al was bullied for his ‘funny accent' and just months after moving, his father died unexpectedly, leaving his mother in a difficult financial position.
He says: ‘I can talk to kids. I can go into circle time with children who are grieving, having lost a parent, and say: “Hang on guys, I've got the T-shirt. I know what you're going through.”'
This traumatic experience made him determined to become a doctor. ‘With a child-like view, I wanted to stop other boys' and girls' mummies and daddies from dying. That's what motivated me as a 10-year-old,' he says.
Ironically, the one specialty he resolved never to go into was paediatrics, because he thought he could not take the emotion of dealing with sick and dying children.
However, after completing a PhD on the mechanism of insulin secretion and becoming a lecturer in internal medicine at Oxford University, he underwent what he describes as ‘a St Paul-like conversion' when he became fascinated by the importance of hormones in childhood.
After training in paediatric endocrinology in Zurich, he was appointed professor of child health at Newcastle University, following Sir James Calvert Spence, a pioneer in the field of social paediatrics.
Sir Al was then invited to go to Great Ormond Street Hospital in London as the senior professor and director of clinical research and development, and worked there for 10 years.
His life changed ‘beyond recognition' in 2000 when, in the wake of the Bristol Royal Infirmary inquiry, he was asked by the then health secretary Alan Milburn to chair a taskforce looking at children's health.
He says: ‘I found myself wafted into Government, seeing for myself how Government worked, and I noticed the near invisibility of children in the Department of Health, so during that five years I led the production of the National Service Framework for Children, Young People and Maternity Services, the first ever comprehensive standards for all aspects of child health.'
Following the scandal caused by the murder of eight-year-old Victoria Climbié, Parliament created the new post of children's commissioner under the Children Act 2004.
It was a role that would be independent and have statutory responsibility to speak for the needs of the 11 million children of England.
Sir Al says: ‘As children's commissioner, I got out of my office on to the street corners, talking to youngsters in blizzards, wearing my baseball cap and hoody, going into refugee centres and prisons to hear the experiences of children and young people under the radar screen. And what I found was shocking.'
However, he was unprepared for the barrage of negativity he received from the press.
He says: ‘I was quickly identified in quite a large section of the media to be public enemy number one.
'They didn't like what I was saying about children having rights.
‘They didn't like what I was saying about stopping and searching young black teenagers and they subjected me to a vicious series of profiles, trying to >undermine my authority. That tested my resilience and that of my wife to our limit.'
During that difficult time, the support of his wife, a nurse he met 50 years ago while both were students at Guy's Hospital, was crucial.
Sir Al says: ‘I owe everything to the love and support she has given me through these very difficult times.
'She has supported me loyally through all the difficult jobs I've done. She's been fantastic. It's the most precious pearl beyond price having a loving, supportive, loyal partner.'
The pair have two daughters who have followed in his footsteps in working with children — one is a family nurse practitioner and one a primary school teacher. They also have six grandchildren aged between seven and 18 years old.
Standing up for children
Sir Al's other comfort during difficult times is the inspiration of his role model Thomas Coram, the philanthropist who established the Foundling Hospital for abandoned babies in Bloomsbury in 1741.
He says: ‘He was the first social entrepreneur for children at a time when attitudes were hard.
'There's something in our psyche which prefers not to see what's going on and I think it's important for some of us to stand up like Coram and expose these issues.'
Sir Al expresses anger and despair about the UK having some of the worst outcomes for children in the developed world.
One of the things he cares about is making sure that reports that are produced have full impact.
He particularly wants to raise the profile of the BMA Growing Up in the UK report, which was published in an updated version in 2013.
Time for change
As only the second paediatrician to become BMA president (the first being Professor Hamid Ali Khan in 1966), Sir Al hopes his appointment heralds a time of change for the BMA.
He says: ‘I'm delighted on behalf of children that the BMA has had the good sense to produce Growing Up in the UK and is now appointing a paediatrician, a benchmark which shows people outside that it recognises the importance of children.'
Caring passionately about improving the lives of young people, he is motivated by ‘personal background, social justice and anger about the social inequalities in our society and what we in privileged bubbles should be doing for those who can't speak for themselves'.
He concludes: ‘We need to see young people as important and put children and families at the heart of the BMA.
'But, much more importantly, what does the BMA stand for? What's the importance of what we do for us as professionals and for all our patients?
'Why are we doctors? What gets us out of bed in the morning? How can we build on our achievements to date to do even better?'
Now, just as he was once interrogated by children, it is his turn to pose these tough questions on behalf of all doctors and their patients, young and old.
More about the Growing up in the UK report.