Sue Palmer was born in Manchester in 1948. On the opposite side of the road, another birth was in progress: the first computer was being built in Manchester University. Sue and computers have grown up together, and are now inseparable.
Being born in 1948 meant Sue was exactly the right age to take full advantage of free cod liver oil and orange juice, a grammar school education, the 1960s, student grants, the Summer of Love, women’s liberation and the Isle of Wight Rock Festival. After dropping out of University, she worked in boutiques for a couple of years, then trained as a primary teacher at Moray House College, Edinburgh, where she was president of the Students Union in 1974.
She taught in Edinburgh for several years, then became headteacher of a small country school on the banks of the River Tweed in the Scottish borders, sharing 70 or so delightful children with two colleagues. This was as idyllic as it sounds and had fate not intervened she would probably still be there. However, it did and by the mid-80s Sue was back in Manchester studying for a Masters degree in linguistics and literacy. She then moved to Cornwall where her daughter was born in 1986.
Working from home while her daughter was small, Sue wrote many books, TV programmes and software packages for children and teachers on various aspects of literacy – especially grammar – and edited a reading and language scheme, The Longman Book Project. But she missed working with children and colleagues, so as soon as mummying duties and honour allowed, she set up a Language Live Roadshow and began travelling around the country doing shows for children about spelling and punctuation, and talks about grammar for teachers.
Over the last decade this career as a travelling player developed into a busy freelance existence as a speaker on aspects of literacy, writer of text books and teaching materials, and independent consultant on educational matters (to the DfES, National Literacy Trust, Basic Skills Agency, numerous educational publishers and the BBC). Her best-known work revolves around the ‘skeleton’ frameworks for cross-curricular writing, originally devised for the National Literacy Strategy and now in use in ten thousand schools around the UK. Sue also writes frequently for the educational press, especially the TES and Child Education, in which she has a regular column.
But – twinned as she is with the computer – her travels and contacts with teachers made her increasingly aware of the impact of technology on children. In 2002, Sue became convinced that social and cultural changes underpinned by technological progess were affecting many children’s potential to learn, especially to learn the skills of literacy. This led, in 2003, to a collaboration with early years specialist Ros Bayley on the best-selling book Foundations of Literacy.
After this, her research expanded to cover other aspects of child development, culminating in 2006 in the publication of Toxic Childhood: how modern life is damaging our children…and what we can do about it. She has presented her findings at several major events in the UK (including the Education Show and Edinburgh Book Festival) as well as in the USA, S.E. Asia and Europe. Her essential message is that, while the tumultuous changes of the last half-century have been great for adults (born in the late 40s, Sue counts herself one of a blessed generation), their side effects have become progressively damaging for children. It’s now a matter of urgency that we recognise these side effects and take action to ‘detoxify childhood’.