Border hills were a learning curve

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A best-selling writer and child-development expert has recalled how spending three years at a rural primary school in the Borders, latterly as head teacher, informed and inspired her career and philosophy.

Sue Palmer lived in Walkerburn and taught at the 80-pupil Caddonfoot primary school, near Clovenfords, from 1981 to 1984.

“They were wonderful days which left a deep impression on me as a young teacher and on all my subsequent work,” recalled Sue, whose seminal book, entitled Toxic Childhood, about how to deal with the adverse impact of contemporary society on the physical and emotional wellbeing of young people, has just been revised and republished.

“It’s become a cliché in modern times to ruefully say that children must be allowed to be children, but that does not make it any less true,” said Edinburgh-based Sue who was listed by the Evening Standard as among the 20 most influential people in British education.

In Toxic Childhood, which was in Amazon’s best-seller chart for two years after it was first published in 2006, she argues that the way many children are now brought up is preventing them developing good cognitive, speech and motor skills.

In particular she is concerned about the availability and the cynical marketing of apps targeted at youngsters for devices such as iPads.

She told The Southern this week: “Back in 2006, research indicated that children spent more than five hours a day involved in sedentary screen gazing, and the new edition of the book acknowledges that things have got worse.”

She commented: “It is hard to contemplate, but there are now 5,000 apps aimed at children and 1,000, masquerading as learning tools, specifically for use by new-borns.

“If babies and toddlers are to grow up bright, balanced and ready to face the challenges of the 21st century, they still need what small human beings have always needed – time, song, talk and stories from loving adults in their lives, and the chance to play and explore their own real world in real space and real time.”

Sue added: “When I was teaching at Caddonfoot, in the halcyon days before health and safety regulations and excessive testing in the classroom, I saw that potential flourishing.

“A particular happy memory was taking a group of boys and girls out into the hills, without filling in reams of assessment forms, where we pretended to be a Neolothic tribe founding a new settlement. You have never seen happier, more engaged children.”

After leaving Caddonfoot, which closed in 2012, Sue did a masters degree in literacy and numeracy.

Now a freelance consultant, she has written more than 250 academic and research works, and lectured at colleges and universities across the world.

She is also a regular contributor to the Times Education Supplement.

That publication described Toxic Childhood as a super child-rearing manual founded in science, bolstered by much reading, a lot of interviews and a long career in education.

The new revised edition of Toxic Childhood, published by Orion, is now available from good bookshops.