Ted's work must go on

Libby Purves

Goodbye, Ted. I still can't believe it: it reminds me of when Brian Redhead, my old Today colleague, died. It took weeks to realise fully that never again would he start a verbal fight, rubbish an ill-conceived plan or confidently kick away the props of a wonky argument. Never again would he amuse or madden us. Ted Wragg, like Brian, will not be quickly forgotten - note that his recent articles for this page are now collected in a book called Education, Education, Education - but from day to day we shall have to do without his fierce, humane, absurdist take on educational matters.

The personal sadness of his friends and family is already joined by professional regret. Colleagues, editors and rivals are dismayed by the realisation that Ted is not around to give the new under-threes curriculum a good seeing-to. He would have given us a good laugh in the process. Even those who disagreed with him (hell, we all did some of the time) must regret that. Only his pet bugbear "Tony Zoffis" might feel a treacherous frisson of relief. Nobody will mock it as he could have done.

So here's a challenge for the world of academe. Somebody must step forward and be as brave, as opinionated, as funny and as human as the late Professor Wragg. It is a tall order. There are, of course, plenty of thinkers who feel as he did that the commercial, mechanistic business model of education needs challenging: a curriculum is not "delivered" like milk on the doorstep, school parents are not "customers" in the same sense as if they were buying sofas, and management-school jargon is not a very useful tool when you are dealing with living, developing, awkward, asymmetric children. Teaching is organic, human, even a bit spiritual: Ted knew that better than anyone.

But even those in the profession who share many of his views may find it hard to do what he did: on the air, on the page, and on the platform. For one thing, in the generally well-bred and restrained world of educational punditry Ted was never afraid to rock the boat, take the mickey, or use words like "ludicrous" and "deranged".

Now, it is one thing for an outsider, a lay hack like myself, to spring on a keyboard and pour merry scorn on public policy and institutions. We've nothing much to lose. For a university professor, long-time head of a department, to do so is much riskier and more difficult. I know this, because from time to time distinguished academics sidle up to me and egg me on to state a case they favour, because they reckon I might do it fortissimo con brio and with jokes. They, on the other hand, have vice-chancellors and the like peering over their shoulders, or secret long-term ambitions for a quango: so they feel that all they can personally do is to write a polite, pained paper or submit a magisterially well-argued piece to The TES or THES.

Ted Wragg would never have needed to prod a columnist into action. He'd be in there, jacket off, verbal fists flailing, never counting the cost but happy to go head-to-head with any education secretary or chief inspector in the house, and damn the consequences.

He was grounded in reality: real children (who he sometimes wanted to take behind a tree and beat up), real teachers at the chalkface. He objected strongly and vociferously to people who lost their grip on reality in the forests of policy-making. He mocked.

And he was funny. It's curiously hard to be funny inside your own profession: again, much easier for those of us catcalling from the sidelines. But Ted Wragg managed it, sometimes with lunatically florid overstatement, sometimes with a barmy fantastical reductio ad absurdum of the latest wheeze from Downing Street. Whereas some educationists read so many earnest papers that they start to talk in jargon themselves, he took in the jargon, whirled it around in his stubborn clever head, and spat it out as parody. He had a good ear.

And now we need another Ted, and not just the one. This is not just for the sake of stroppy journalism, nor because every educational initiative is rubbish. But a lot of them may well be, and we need an awkward squad to challenge them, noisily, not just as hacks but from a position of eminent professional strength. We need someone to cheer up teachers, too. It is not a role which gets you asked to a lot of cocktail parties at Downing Street, but it's one worth playing.

Education, Education, Education: The Best Bits of Ted Wragg, a collection of Ted's columns from 1998 to 2005 is published by Falmer Press, price Pounds 12.99

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Libby Purves

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