Authoritative not Authoritarian

His Scottish Presbyterian view was not hierarchical

Sir Eric Anderson KT 1936-2020

Sir Eric Anderson was Head Master of Eton 1980-1994, then Provost, and teacher of three prime ministers. Guy Walters recalls a stern and awe-inspiring figure while Graham Stewart asked colleagues, friends and former pupils, including Tony Blair, for their memories of a hugely influential educator


He came from a generation and a tradition where he could have been authoritarian. Instead he was authoritative. That’s a big difference. Eric believed in the old Eton housemasterly view that you should trust boys. They will sometimes let you down, of course. But if you don’t trust them then they will probably do you down.

He was keen on education as an inter-generational conversation between boys and beaks. Eton is a large school and the Head can never get to know all the pupils. But he certainly got to see those who had misbehaved. Eric believed that through conversation boys would begin to self-regulate and understand where they had gone wrong. Often boys would find themselves in trouble and thought that nobody had taken the opportunity really to ask their opinion or get them to think about things. Eric gave them a sense that they were not just a number in a very big school but that the man at the top was approachable and listening. That often turned them around and they were very loyal.

He had a close eye on the money. I was lecturing in classics at the Australian National University when I got a telegram from him asking if I would fill a gap that had opened up at Eton. He asked me to phone him. I phoned him and we were chatting away when I said, “Mr Anderson, I should mention to you that I have reversed the charges.” He replied, “Dr Spurr, right OK, we’ll continue our conversation when you get here,” and put the phone down.

His Scottish Presbyterian view was not hierarchical. He made Eton into a place where there was tolerance and the school didn’t consider itself apart from society.

One initiative that he entrusted me with was to set up a summer course for those pupils from Brent and Harlesden who had just finished their GCSEs and were thinking of going straight into the workplace rather than on to sixth form. It was funded by Eton and the then government’s City Challenge programme so that these students could come free for ten days. Often it was the first time that they had been away from home. It was lampooned in the press as “the toffs meet the Bash Street kids” but it was typical of Eric’s courage and desire to ensure that Eton was not in a bubble but should play its part in creating a fairer society. His original commitment to outreach has continued and has since given rise to other important initiatives at Eton and inspired plenty of independent/state school partnerships elsewhere.

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