Saturday 13 September: up betimes to celebrate not one birthday but two. To Southampton first for Michael Armstrong’s 80th. Then on to London for Fred Jarvis’s 90th.
Over many decades these two exceptional educators have trodden very different paths to the same elusive destination: an education that is in the best sense comprehensive. Comprehensive in the access it offers all children, regardless of birth, income or circumstance, to learning that engages, inspires and empowers; comprehensive in its quest for human betterment, equity and social justice. Both of them have also been good friends to the Cambridge Primary Review. Michael contributed to its final report. Fred repeatedly excoriated ministers for playing fast and loose with its evidence.
Their birthday parties offered glimpses of the richness of their hinterlands. Michael, steeped in literature and music, chose to mark the occasion with a concert at which his son gave barnstorming accounts of two of the most taxing pieces in the piano repertoire. Fred’s guests were surrounded by his photographs of some of the many political leaders he has worked with and against, his sobering images of postwar Europe and Russia, views of himself in full flow at National Union of Teachers (NUT) conferences, and of course his trademark close-ups of floral perfection.
Michael has always stayed close to the classroom. He taught in Leicestershire and London before serving for 19 years as head of Harwell Primary School in Oxfordshire. In 1980 he published Closely Observed Children, the first of two books which chronicle children’s outer behaviours and inner lives and demonstrate their immense capacities for learning and imagining. Compulsory reading for those – and sadly there still are some – who hold to the view that chronological age imposes arbitrary limits on those capacities, this book is also a fine example of ethnographic research. A quarter of a century later came the sequel, Children Writing Stories (2006) in which Michael couples examples of children’s writing with his own persuasive accounts of the imaginative power and narrative skill that the stories reveal. Intense and illuminating, the book impelled former Children’s Laureate Michael Morpurgo to exclaim, ‘Unlock the chains, let the light in, and this is the kind of writing that will flow.’ He was referring of course to the children, but the accolade applies equally to the writing that flows from Michael’s acute and revelatory intelligence.
This is the world Michael has revealed in both his highly-regarded summer schools in Vermont and his articles and editorial work for Forum, that fine and still flourishing campaigning journal founded in 1958 by Brian Simon, Robin Pedley and Jack Walton. And educational campaigning is the link between Michael and Fred Jarvis, whose autobiography appeared a few weeks ago with the sub-title Reflections of a cockney campaigner for education.
Fred’s career has been nothing short of remarkable: from London’s East End and wartime evacuation to Wallasey, to the D-day landings, Liverpool and Oxford universities and a lifelong dedication to politics, education and West Ham. His was a career sandwiched by union presidencies – the National Union of Students and the Trades Union Congress – and amply and courageously filled with his work for the NUT, of which he was General Secretary from 1975-89, a role which put him on a collision course with more than one secretary of state.
That would have been enough for most of us. But it didn’t stop there and hasn’t stopped since. Since his ‘retirement’ Fred has fought the educational fight with undimmed vigour, meanwhile assembling numerous photographic exhibitions and commuting between London and his beloved Provence. He has set up and for many years chaired what is now the New Visions for Education Group, an organisation of over 100 members which champions an inclusive and well-founded public education service providing a high quality education for all, with the advancement of children’s rights and a properly-functioning democracy as both precondition and consequence. While NVG is politically unaffiliated, its aims have inevitably set it against government attempts to weaken education as a public service through marketisation, the impoverished educational vision that has characterised recent political interventions in curriculum and assessment, and the contempt for evidence that education ministers habitually display.
Throughout, while some of us despaired at these tendencies, Fred maintained his belief in the importance of political engagement and his optimism that good sense would prevail, though his autobiography names one or two recent Secretaries of State who were beyond redemption.
Both Fred Jarvis and Michael Armstrong combine in their distinctive ways principled commitment, lively intelligence, deep understanding, unshakeable integrity and a keen awareness of history and its lessons, all basic qualifications for educational leadership. Signalling the gulf sartorially, Fred’s lustrous silk ties and immaculate suits are a league apart from the grey suits and greyer minds of those educational leaders whose checklist – it can hardly be called a vision – starts and stops with whatever DfE mandates and Ofsted inspects, who jump on whichever policy bandwagon offers the best prospects for patronage, promotion and preferment, and who preach the importance of enlarging the child’s experience while doing nothing to enlarge their own.
Happy birthday, Fred. Happy birthday Michael. We need you more than ever.