Socialist Worker

Ted Wragg 1938-2005: a comprehensive champion

by Jane Coles
Issue No. 1977

Ted Wragg

Ted Wragg

Everyone associated with education will have felt an enormous sense of loss last week on hearing of the untimely death of Ted Wragg, aged 67.

Professor of education at Exeter University and former teacher, he was probably best known to teachers as a regular Times Educational Supplement and Guardian columnist.

For over 20 years he poured scorn on successive governments’ anti-comprehensive agendas and championed the day-to-day work of teachers, schools and pupils.


Ironically, as a lifelong Labour supporter Wragg might have been regarded as a natural ally of Tony Blair and the New Labour government.

Yet his attacks on New Labour policy were every bit as fierce as those directed at the Thatcher and Major regimes.

His writing was often deceptively whimsical, full of surreal creations and semi-fictional characters, but behind the knockabout humour lay some of the sharpest political commentary to be found in the educational press.

He waged war against the mountains of unintelligible gobbledygook that is regularly dumped on schools by government bureaucrats.

His most trenchant criticism was reserved for Ofsted, the punishing system of school inspection which has served both Tory and New Labour masters so well in enforcing compliance amongst a beleaguered profession.

On coming to power Blair and David Blunkett embraced the Tories’ Ofsted and its boss, the hated Chris Woodhead.

Wragg was immediately at odds with the new government. Instead of being seduced by their rhetoric of inclusion and standards, he found himself an adversary rather than an adviser.

Ted Wragg was far from a revolutionary. He articulated a mainstream Old Labour view that all children deserve the opportunity to fulfil their true potential and that a good ­education in its broadest sense is the right of everyone, not just the privileged middle classes.

It’s an indication of how far New Labour has departed from this basic vision that the current white paper on education seeks to reverse the gains that comprehensive schooling has made over the last 40 years for working class children.

Blair’s obsession with big business and the illusory notion of “choice” was a target for Wragg’s increasingly bitter contempt. In a recent Guardian column he exposed Ruth Kelly’s white paper proposals to “set free” all state secondary schools by privatising them as ludicrous and unworkable.

Over the years, many an NUT union activist has found inspiration for campaigns in his biting journalistic assaults on issues such as SATs tests, the literacy and numeracy strategies, top-up fees and the creeping privatisation of schools and even exam boards.

Devotees of Rory Bremner’s television show will remember last year’s outrageously funny Two Johns routine which mocked Blair’s city academies initiative. In sketches like this it wasn’t difficult to detect the hand of Ted Wragg, who wrote material for Bremner.


Not only was Wragg a skilled satirist, he was by all accounts a dedicated and exceptional teacher. For 25 years he was the director of a renowned centre of teacher training and educational research at Exeter University.

He was a respected academic in his field and wrote more than 50 books about education.

He retained throughout his working life a passionate interest in how young people develop and learn, at a time when child-centred learning has been denounced as hopelessly outdated by the Blairites.

He never lost sight of the challenges and difficulties which ordinary teachers face daily and it was precisely this grasp on reality which made his educational writing so refreshing.

Unlike most politicians and policy advisers, Wragg was genuinely interested in discovering what works in the classroom.

He paid tribute to the hard work of teachers and trusted teachers to do their job. The current schools white paper epitomises everything that Wragg detested.

Perhaps the most fitting tribute to his memory would be a grassroots campaign on such a massive scale that New Labour’s “irreversible”’ reforms are stopped in their tracks.

Article information

Sat 19 Nov 2005, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1977
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