Professor Ted Wragg

Campaigning educationist and tease of government in merciless newspaper columns
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The Independent Online

To thousands of beleaguered teachers either struggling against spending cuts under the Conservatives or new initiatives under Labour, Ted Wragg's newspaper columns were the tonic that kept them going and brought a smile to their faces. Wragg, Emeritus Professor of Education at Exeter University but better known as one of the wittiest writers and broadcasters about education for the past two decades, was merciless in the way he parodied government policies - and government ministers.

One of his latest creations was also considered by many in the education world to be one of his finest. Lord Adonis, the former education-policy adviser to Tony Blair who became Schools Minister at the start of Labour's third term, became known as Tony Zoffis (as in Tony's office) - constantly delivering the line that had to be delivered by the hapless Ruth Kelly (as depicted by Wragg) on all education issues. She, for her part, was lampooned by him as the "Duchess of Drivel" or "Ruth Dalek".

Wragg, who died yesterday aged 67 after suffering a heart attack while running on Sunday, was a columnist for several national newspapers in his time - including The Independent and The Guardian. He first came to prominence in the Times Educational Supplement in the early 1980s - considered by many to be the teachers' "bible". He also worked extensively in television, where his most recent work was on Channel 4's The Unteachables in which a series of superteachers took on "a class from hell" in a bid to instil some learning into them. One of his lesser-known roles was as an adviser to Channel 4's Bremner Bird and Fortune and his hand could be detected in a recent wicked sketch in which Lord Adonis was depicted as a Kenneth Williams-type figure locked in a constant power battle with a Frances de la Tour-soundalike Ruth Kelly.

Ted Wragg was born in Sheffield in 1938, and attended Hunters Bar Primary School in the city and then King Edward VII Grammar School before taking a First in German (and a First in his CertEd) at Durham University. He then taught German in schools in Wakefield and Leicester before going in 1966 as a Lecturer in Education to Exeter University, where, apart from five years as Professor of Education at Nottingham, he spent the rest of his working life.

Asked on television (during The Unteachables) what were the worst things a teacher had ever said to him, he replied: "That it was working-class to play football in the playground - he was an idiot and a snob" and "That the wooden spoon I made in woodwork (hated it) bore absolutely no resemblance to any spoon in the history of wooden implements (true)".

There was a serious side, though, to Wragg, who could lay claim to be one of the foremost education thinkers of his generation. He was responsible for a commission of inquiry into education in Birmingham which was followed by the appointment of the charismatic Professor Tim Brighouse as its director of education and a dramatic rise in standards in the city's schools. He also became chairman of the organisation which staged the annual teaching awards - the profession's "Oscars" - devised as a way of honouring some of the hardest-working professionals in the land at a time when the profession's standing had dipped (largely as a result of attacks on their competence by various government ministers and the former Chief Inspector of Schools, Chris Woodhead).

Wragg sincerely believed that the awards - which were accepted by many of the individual teachers as evidence that the whole team at their school deserved to be recognised - helped to improve the esteem in which teachers were held. With influence wielded by Lord Puttnam, the Chariots of Fire film producer who became an education adviser to the Government in Labour's first and second terms, they secured a slot on national television (BBC2) so that a wider audience could see the kind of work these teachers were doing in schools.

Even as Professor of Education at Exeter (for 25 years until his retirement in 2003), Wragg insisted on doing some teaching every week so that he kept in touch with the way that the trainee teachers under his wing were feeling.

It is for his work on the national-newspaper stage, though, that he will be most remembered. Another of his inventions was the ultimate new Labour headteacher - suitably named Ivan Initiative - who ran the "Kafka Academy", a parody of what Wragg feared might happen in any one of the 200 new privately sponsored city academies being set up by the Prime Minister to replace struggling schools in the inner cities.

As with all the best satirists, his attempts to poke fun at those in power contained a serious message. He was a fierce critic of the Government's decision (largely down, he felt, to Tony Zoffis) to reject the recommendation of the inquiry into 14-to-19 education by Sir Mike Tomlinson, the former chief schools inspector, that the current A-level and GCSE examination system should be replaced with an overarching diploma covering both academic and vocational qualifications. He maintained it had led to an embarrassing vacuum because of the determination of the aforesaid minister to "keep our 1950s system in place". He said that schools should start their own quiet revolution and devise their own diploma, arguing that the Government could hardly sack 200,000 teachers and bring in 200,000 others - "from which parallel universe, pray?"

Teachers' leaders were among the first to pay tribute to Ted Wragg. Steve Sinnott, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, described him as "a champion of teachers, a champion of children and a champion of the education service".

Richard Garner