The teachers' champion

3rd February 2006 at 00:00
He had contacts in the highest places, but Ted Wragg always stayed closest to the people who mattered most to him: teachers, children and his own family. Wendy Berliner remembers teaching's great advocate

Ted Wragg was a lifelong champion of teachers and the children and young people they taught. Best known in The TES for his acerbic and witty back-page columns, which spanned a quarter of a century, he was a barbed gadfly on the body politic when it frequently came up with policies which he felt worked against the best interests of education.

His contacts were at the highest levels and yet he stayed outside the Westminster club, preferring friendships with politicians he respected to adoption by one party or another. He knew and advised David Blunkett and Estelle Morris and regularly discussed schools with John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister. He last visited the TES office on the Friday before he died. He was en route for lunch with another ex-education secretary, Shirley Williams, to talk about the latest White Paper.

So when he talked about blood on the carpet in Whitehall over whatever the latest education controversy was, you knew it wasn't a hunch. He was plugged in wherever it mattered but he remained independent to the last.

His trenchant criticisms of Sats, league tables, and Chris Woodhead-style school inspections - often delivered in the most withering and funny language - endeared him to thousands of teachers and parents. In the tributes that have poured in since his death, former pupils and students have remembered lessons with him as the best they ever had, and teachers have talked about staying the course of their profession because of his inspiration.

Professor Wragg was the teacher's friend, and his huge energy, which took him into so many schools and, as a speaker, to so many conferences, made him feel more like one of the family than a distant academic. Recently he appeared as one of the experts in Channel 4's The Unteachables, which had mixed success in getting a group of seriously disaffected teenagers back on the straight and narrow. The idea for the series came from him.

His reaction to the children was typical of how he connected with ordinary teachers. On screen he said: "I like all the kids and love them, but I could cheerfully take them behind a tree and ruin my career by smacking the hell out of them." Teachers knew he understood the frustrations many of them face daily.

He wrote more than 40 books and hundreds of articles. His books have been translated into Chinese, Arabic, Portuguese and Polish, among other languages. He was a world-class academic. He was ubiquitous in the best possible way.

He was born into a working-class family in Sheffield in 1938, and his parents strongly believed in the value of education. From King Edward VII Grammar School he went on to read German at Durham University, where he got a first, followed by a first in his PGCE. Later came a master's at Leicester University and a doctorate at Exeter. His first teaching job was in 1960 at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Wakefield, where he taught modern languages. Four years later he moved to Wyggeston Boys' School, Leicester, as head of German. Paul Fletcher, from Bury St Edmunds, who was taught by him at the time, says: "He didn't stay long because a man of his talents didn't hang around in the classroom. He was an inspiring teacher and I am lucky our paths crossed, because I went on to study German at university. His teaching style was effortless, his classroom control flawless, his humour still memorable."

In 1966 he became a lecturer in education at Exeter University, moving on in 1973 to Nottingham University where, at 34, he became the youngest ever professor of education. Two years later he was chairman of the school of education but by 1978 he was back in Exeter, where he was to remain for the rest of his working life.

He retired, if that could ever be a word associated with Ted Wragg, two years ago but continued to teach regularly (and without pay - just for the love of it) to packed lectures at Exeter as an emeritus professor.

His research illuminated critical trends, particularly around assessment, teaching skills and performance-related pay. The Teacher Education Project, which he directed from the late 1970s, remains one of the largest studies of teaching styles ever conducted in this country; he was passionate about spreading good practice.

Professor Wragg had faith in the teaching profession. He taught regularly in schools throughout his life. He knew what he was talking about. He believed most teachers knew what they were doing and that the constant stream of initiatives from successive governments - he hated the Thatcher years most of all - undermined them. He memorably talked about the education of a child being like a tree, which suffered if it kept being dug up and its roots inspected before being replanted in a different place.

His critics tended to come from the right and claimed he was a woolly-minded progressive. Chris Woodhead, when chief inspector, described Professor Wragg as one of a group of academics who were "the real heart of darkness" in education. Ted referred to him as Woodentop. He called Kenneth Baker, who introduced the national curriculum, Mr Bun the Baker, and once described the former higher education minister Margaret Hodge as "as useful as a sledgehammer in a transplant operation".

He kept up his naming and sometimes shaming of politicians. Recently he had taken to calling Ruth Kelly the Duchess of Dudsville (or Drivel) and Lord Adonis as Tony Zoffis (as in "Tony Zoffis says"). He wrote sketches for the impressionist Rory Bremner.

Little wonder he never became Sir Ted. He spurned the establishment. He once said to a headhunter who offered him a job as head of a quango that he wouldn't touch it with a bargepole. But most politicians realised what he had to offer, as Ruth Kelly admitted when she said: "His views could never be ignored."

Professor Wragg was not the unreformed leftie of his enemies' caricature.

He was a staunch defender of academic rigour, thought Shakespeare should be taught to children of all ages and was a strong defender of spelling, grammar and literacy. Ken Boston, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, said he had never come across anyone with such a rich understanding of classrooms and children.

He was chairman of the judges of the national Teaching Awards and at various times president of the British Education Research Association, adviser to the parliamentary select committee on education, chairman of the Education Broadcasting Council, and a member of the board of the QCA.

The QCA did not escape Professor Wragg's sharp tongue, however. After it issued what Professor Wragg thought were "ludicrous" new reporting requirements he pointed out that the teacher of an average class of 30 would now be expected to make 3,500 assessments on his or her pupils every term. He recalled that on a visit to a Munich school, the head had given him a slim pamphlet which set out the Bavarian school curriculum. "Have you brought yours?" the head inquired. "I stifled my mirth. The dozens of papers, booklets and folders that contain our national curriculum occupy three shelves."

He encouraged us here at The TES in our campaigns, notably Children Helping Children, for which British schools raised pound;225,000 to help schools re-open in Afghanistan. He was a judge and one of the inspirations behind the TES Make the Link awards to encourage schools to make links with others across the world. He was always outward-looking.

In his spare time he enjoyed music and playing in a skiffle band. He was a keen follower of football, and coached and trained as a professional referee. He jogged virtually every day. It was during one of his jogs that he suffered the cardiac arrest which was to kill him.

Professor Wragg was the most devoted family man and caring friend. His 94-year-old mother, Maria, survives him. So does his wife, Judith, to whom he was married for 45 years, his three children Josie, Caroline and Chris, and three grandchildren.

Wendy Berliner is deputy editor of The TES. This obituary first appeared in The TES on November 18, 2005

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