Friend and fighter

3rd February 2006 at 00:00
Two editors of The TES remember a columnist of wit and passion

Ted Wragg wrote brilliantly for The TES for a quarter of a century. He had a huge affection for the paper, its readers and the children they taught. Readers loved Ted because he made them laugh during a period when they were under constant fire from politicians, much of the media and endless government wheezes, writes Judith Judd.

Ted's satire sprang from a deep conviction about what mattered in education, and his beliefs never wavered. He believed passionately that teachers were at their best when they were left to innovate and create. He had no time for the prescriptiveness of the Conservatives' national curriculum and even less for Labour's decision to lay down detailed instructions about how reading and maths should be taught. Much of his ridicule was directed at political quick-fixes.

His beliefs stemmed from his own research in the 1970s which showed that it was the quality of individual teachers which counted not any particular teaching style. As traditionalists fought progressives, he suggested that both methods could be made to work in the hands of a creative professional.

He knew what worked from first-hand experience because, unlike most education professors, he continued to teach in schools throughout his career.

His crusade against Ofsted, league tables and too much testing was based on the same distrust of regulation and his belief that the way to improve teaching was not by punishments but through rewards.

But critics who argued that he was soft on teachers at the expense of children were wrong. He simply saw that if children were to get a good deal, teachers had to have one too. He was a stickler for high standards and traditional in some of his methods. "I'm a spelling tests and mental arithmetic man," he used to say. He supported inspections but opposed what he called Ofsted's "robotic style" which could reduce excellent teachers to tears. He even invented education targets when he chaired a commission on Birmingham's schools, but they were very different from government ones.

Schools were to set their own and they were to include the arts and school outings alongside literacy and numeracy.

As governments devised policies that would appeal to parents in the name of parent power and parental choice, he reminded us that education is about children and in particular about those at the bottom of the social heap. He was passionately opposed to testing children at seven and, more recently, to the tick boxes used in the foundation stage for three to five-year-olds, because he hated the idea of giving young children a label that might stick with them for life.

What sort of legacy would he have hoped to leave education? Well, teachers who want to pay tribute might start by doing what is best for their pupils regardless of those government initiatives that he ridiculed. They should press ahead with their own bright ideas for raising standards and they should also believe firmly in themselves and the pupils they teach.

Judith Judd is editor of The TES. This article was first published in The TES on November 18, 2005

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