'You waited until I was nearly 50 to tell me that, actually, I was a total prat at school. You simply knew what to say and, equally important, when to say it'

9th December 2005 at 00:00
Dear Ted

Ted Wragg's untimely death last month robbed teachers of a great ally, a witty and articulate spokesman and a staunch defender of the profession.

Here we print the second of two letters to him from people whose lives he affected

Dear Ted,

One last thank you. I note that one TES feature has lasted nearly as long as your incomparable column: My Best Teacher. The theme is familiar: celebrities of varying merit and success are invited to look back on their schooldays and pay tribute to a teacher who had a profound effect on their life.

I wrote my own contribution, which appeared in 1993. Not because I'm a celebrity, or even interesting. I wrote because I had a famous teacher.

You. And I now freely confess that in more conversations than I care to remember I have indulged myself in name-dropping. "Ted Wragg was one of my teachers when I was at school 40 years ago." And the reality remains that you were my best teacher. When I met up with you again at a Secondary Heads Association conference, I hadn't seen you for 25 years or more. I reminded you then, and will do so for one last time, of how you changed my life.

On paper you were merely my German teacher for two years in the sixth form at Queen Elizabeth grammar school, Wakefield. Your first teaching job.

Nobody will be surprised to read that you were a brilliant teacher in your own right. Even Woodentop would have been forced to give you grade 1s.

Quirky, inventive, passionate and scholarly but, above all, and obvious from the start, blisteringly funny. You didn't fit in at Queen Elizabeth, but then neither did I. Great school in its own way. Rugby aficionados loved it. But you liked football and I liked rugby league, both anathema to the then dinosaurs at Queen Elizabeth.

None of that would have marked me out in any way. But then I wrote an essay about Billy Graham (in German for heaven's sake!) and later bombarded you with evangelistic tracts in naive response to your interest. Without embarrassment, and with infinite patience, you delved further and spotted my total alienation. For I was a Plymouth Brethren boy. Education was valued only if it reinforced belief; otherwise it was treated with suspicion. So no higher education for me. Until you got involved. I have a lump in my throat now as I recall how you sat down with us (me and Dad, that is, as mums didn't count for much then in Brethren circles) and gently changed our minds. Mind you, I didn't think I was that good. I subsequently found out that you didn't think so either. You waited until I was nearly 50 to tell me that, actually, I was a total prat at school. You simply knew what to say and, equally important, when to say it. Just like that unforgettable moment in The Unteachables, now folklore, when the best-loved educationist in the land announced to the nation that he could cheerfully throttle the little monsters.

Every talk on education I've ever done has a bit of you in it. I have, I confess, shamelessly nicked your anecdotes. I am a standing joke in my own staffroom because of it. We made plans together, because once we'd renewed acquaintance after so many years, you involved me in several projects.

Through you I served on the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and with you, in the summer, I had the joy of judging the TES Make The Link awards. We also had a deal that we would get some Inset and a speech day from you in 2006. You can't do it now.

I retire soon from a career I have loved, and which, without your prescience at Queen Elizabeth, I wouldn't have had. I confess to an unhealthy anxiety about what might be said in my leaving speeches, but as ever you have done me one last favour. Your TES column on September 16 is a glorious send-up of Blair's obsession with his legacy. In it you say: "The ultimate nightmare is to receive weedy praise... 'he was always good with the paperwork'I or the sort of terse but dismissive epitaph that Kenneth Clarke received... 'He came, he went'. Worst of all is to be given the 'marmalade jar' treatment, offered the instruction given on the lid... 'turn slowly and push off'." Vintage stuff. They can say what they like now. I'll be ready for them. Thanks, Ted.

Dennis Richards is head of St Aidan's C of E high school, Harrogate.

Memorial services for Ted will be held at Exeter cathedral on February 4, 2006 at 11am, and in London at a later date

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