`We need to say enough is enough'

27th June 2014 at 01:00
Fred Jarvis on a life in the NUT - and the battles still to be won

For veteran campaigner, unionist and educationalist Fred Jarvis, 2014 is turning out to be quite a year.

In April, he reached the astonishing if dubious milestone of attending his 60th consecutive NUT union conference. In September, Mr Jarvis - who served as president of the National Union of Students in the 1950s before spending 14 years as general secretary of the NUT - will celebrate his 90th birthday. And last week his memoirs were published, in which he reflects on his life in education.

Not that the book is devoted entirely to union gossip and schools policy. You Never Know Your Luck features plenty of extra-curricular activities, from Mr Jarvis' passion for West Ham United, where he remains a season ticket holder, to photographs of his 1954 trip behind the Iron Curtain to visit a Moscow in the grip of the Cold War.

His memoirs also contain a remarkable exclusive: a previously unpublished Dylan Thomas poem, which the Welsh writer penned for the mother of Mr Jarvis' late wife, Anne, more than 60 years ago. "It's a sweet little thing," Mr Jarvis says.

But the truly extraordinary thing is that even as he approaches his tenth decade, Mr Jarvis is still working tirelessly for the same political causes that have dominated his life, simultaneously taking on the hard Left within the union movement and the Conservative Party in mainstream politics. These preoccupations remain more or less a full-time job for a pensioner with more energy and commitment than many activists a quarter his age.

The veteran of the Normandy beaches first came to public prominence in the 1950s, campaigning against the Stalinsympathising Communists who were dominating the NUS. And he is still fighting similar battles today, largely in the NUT, where he has no truck with "ultra Left" members of the union's executive.

Mr Jarvis, a lifelong member of the Labour Party, appeared on BBC Two's Newsnight a couple of months ago to castigate the "Trots", enraging some prominent NUT members who regard him as a kind of traitor.

"These guys don't represent anything of political significance in the life of the country as a whole," he tells TES. "But they assume an importance within the NUT, largely because members are too concerned with the pressures of their everyday work to get involved in the union.

"The pressures on teachers are growing stronger and stronger; we need to see the members deciding `enough is enough - now we're going to get involved'. It's far better to do that than have strikes that alienate hard-working parents."

These internecine scraps don't distract him, however, from his other chief preoccupation: opposing the radical reform agenda being forced through by the UK government. Having crossed swords with a procession of education secretaries over the years - "They've been a mixed bag," he says - Mr Jarvis' assessment of current post-holder Michael Gove is withering.

"Gove's been the worst," he says. "Not the most stupid by any means, but the most dangerous secretary of state we've had. Telling the kids who are taking their GCSEs the exam's not worth the paper it's written on - how irresponsible can you get?"

Although he describes the fragmentation of the school system caused by the rise of academies and free schools as "one hell of a mess", he does, however, support at least one policy introduced on Mr Gove's watch. "The pupil premium is a development to be welcomed, but it's not going to solve the problem," says Mr Jarvis, who grew up in working-class East London before attending the University of Oxford. "Underachievement is linked with the cycle of deprivation. I regard that as the biggest problem we've got in the system."

But while his mind may be as active as ever, Mr Jarvis' health is not what it was. "What slows me down is the bloody backache and my eyesight." He pauses, before grinning. "I still go to the football, unfortunately. I can't see who's got the ball, but it doesn't really matter that much as far as West Ham are concerned. I go because of the atmosphere."

And Mr Jarvis has no plans to slow down any time soon. "I get around. I've got the bus pass, so I'll keep going." He laughs. "And now I've got this bloody book done I'll get back to reading more."

Fred Jarvis CV

1924 Born in East London

1940 Evacuated to Newquay, Cornwall, after the Blitz starts in London. Goes on to join the army, serving in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany

1952-54 After attending Liverpool and Oxford universities, Jarvis is elected president of the National Union of Students

1954 Marries Anne and joins the NUT as assistant secretary for press relations

1975-89 Serves as NUT general secretary

1987 Becomes president of the Trades Union Congress

2014 Attends NUT annual conference for the 60th consecutive year. Publishes his memoirs, You Never Know Your Luck

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