Friend and fighter

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

Much of Ted's life was spent lampooning what he saw as the lunacies of Labour and Conservative governments alike. Yet since his death, politicians have queued up to praise him, writes Bob Doe.

This may strike Ted's many devoted readers as odd, especially if they only knew him through the pages of The TES. There was a lot more to Ted, however, than being education's favourite comic writer, teachers' champion and leading academic.

Ted was also a tireless campaigner. Behind the scenes, he advised every Labour education spokesman and secretary of state from Shirley Williams in the 1970s to Estelle Morris some 30 years later - whether they wanted his advice or not. He even sent tips to Sir Keith Joseph (aka Sir Monty Python), Margaret Thatcher's education minister until 1986, on how to be nicer to teachers after meeting him in a TV studio. To no avail, it must be said.

Sunday evenings were often spent on the phone to his network of political and journalistic contacts. His left-leaning sympathies were hardly a secret, but Ted was not a party man; he valued his independence. He counted John Prescott - ironically a favourite target for other satirists - as a close personal friend. Snobbish points easily scored off a former merchant seaman were not for Ted, who recognised and shared Prescott's lowly background and commitment to the less privileged.

Ted discussed Ruth Kelly's White Paper with Prescott shortly before his death. And when it came before Cabinet, the Deputy Prime Minister voiced some very Wragg-like objections to the proposed trust schools, the potential admissions free-for-all and weakening of local authorities.

Prescott seems to have stood alone in Cabinet, but his stance has encouraged wider opposition. Clearly, it was not only teachers whose convictions Ted could bolster.

Ted knew David Blunkett well. Both were working-class lads from Sheffield.

But when Blunkett became education secretary in May 1997, Ted was not included on any of his "task forces". Blunkett wanted him, but Ted's name was always rejected by the Prime Minister's office. They were rather more keen to listen to Chris Woodhead, whom Tony Blair made a point of keeping on as chief inspector.

Whether Ted ever actually knew he had been blackballed by Number 10 is not clear, though he well understood the influence Woodhead wielded behind the scenes at the time. If he did, he displayed no bitterness.

Ted later savaged "Tony Zoffis" in The TES, but not until Labour had been in office for three years - long after Woodhead had gone. And even as he did, he admitted, in a rare politically partisan comment, "I have agonised while writing this piece, since I would be mortified if Hague (the then Tory leader) and his loony right-wing pals got back."

Ted talked to Blunkett regularly. And when Lord Puttnam, encouraged by Blunkett, set up the National Teaching Awards, it was to teacher-friendly Ted that he turned for a professional figurehead. Ted agreed, in spite of some reservations, and his role as chair of the judges and, latterly, trustee undoubtedly boosted the awards.

Under the thumb of Number 10, Blunkett seemed to rely more on Ted's support than his advice. With chief inspector Woodhead, Blunkett was soon confronting the profession, "naming and shaming" schools and accusing them of using poverty as an excuse for bad teaching. Ted, who knew at first hand about poverty and its impact on learning, was outraged and remained so to his death.

Despite having been born in a street later condemned as a slum, Ted wrote in his last book of the "searing experience" of visiting poor families and seeing some of the conditions in which children were expected to live and learn. "I still become enraged when pious people pronounce that poverty does not matter in education, usually from a vantage point located a very safe distance away from it," he wrote.

When Blunkett's political career took its downward turns and he was forced to resign (twice), Ted continued privately to offer comfort to the former education and home secretary and fellow Sheffield Wednesday supporter. Ted was also one of the last people Estelle Morris spoke to before she resigned as education secretary in October 2002. The searing satirist and assiduous campaigner also knew how to be a discreet and loyal friend.

Excluding Ted was a serious tactical error by Number 10. It not only deprived the Government of his credibility and expertise, but it also left him free to pursue his pungent criticisms of policies he disapproved of: the market approach to education, privatisation, top-down prescriptions such as the literacy hour, and measures which he saw as disadvantaging the already deprived such as university fees. Ted was uncomfortable when he served on the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and found himself unable to criticise openly the commercialisation of exam boards.

His exclusion also left him free to pursue his obsessive battle against Woodhead in ways he would have had to curb if they had found themselves on the same team. Ted knew Woodhead - by reputation at least - from the chief inspector's days as an education officer in Devon. And what he regarded as the HMCI's relentless teacher-bashing represented everything to which Ted was opposed.

It was not that he was against inspection or accountability; Ted was a former grammar school teacher and had a rigorous professional approach. He was bemused when a TES reporter recently described him as "progressive". He had done enough observation at every level to know about weaknesses in the classroom. And as a working-class boy lifted out of poverty by education, he knew the importance of giving every child a chance.

But he thought publicly humiliating teachers in search of easy headlines was not the way to get them to improve. The teacher in him knew praise and encouragement were far more effective. Nor was he in favour of reducing teachers to technicians who simply taught what they were told, as Woodhead advocated.

Ted won friends and influence among politicians. He understood their role in making things better for children, but he never became one of them. He valued his freedom to say what he thought. And he could never accept that the problems of teaching and learning would be solved from Whitehall.

Bob Doe was editor of The TES from 2001 until May 2005

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