Rescue specialist

He had a particular skill with those who had fallen foul of the system

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


I first met Eric when he was Head Master. At that time Martin Charteris was an engaging and convivial Provost and Eric was clearly completely on top of the job. There was a terrific sense of confidence. Eton had experienced a bumpy time in the 1960s and order had been restored by Eric’s predecessor, Michael McCrum, who was a great scholar and a rather wonderful man, but an austere figure. Somebody said of him that he was the only man who could form a procession of one.

McCrum’s putting Eton back on an even keel by focusing on academic standards was unpopular with some Old Etonians who in those days had wide influence over admissions. Eric continued the academic excellence but took the common room and the college with him.

There was something quite profound within him that instilled trust. He was Oakshottian. He grasped the importance of the continuity of institutions, whilst understanding their need to change. Like his hero, Sir Walter Scott, he was a passionate unionist for the same reasons. He had a particular skill with those who had fallen foul of the system. He was incredibly good at making sure they were rescued, which is the gift of a great schoolmaster. I think all great teachers have this ability — they know the easy ones can be taught, it’s the ones on the fringe that require careful handling. If you can turn them from going the wrong way then they can often be by far the most interesting.

As with the boys so with the teachers. He knew that a good teacher was like gold dust: if you found one, it was one of the jobs of the Head to help him through any rough patch. He was supportive and understanding where that was required.

He took some persuading to come back as Provost since he felt, quite rightly, that the Provost should not interfere in the academic side. But it did work, not least because his wife Poppy and he made such a powerful team. They provided Eton with warm hearts.

They had to change the statutes to allow him to become Provost because as a Scottish Presbyterian he was not a member of the Church of England. In a quiet way, he was a profoundly Christian man. Having a Provost who lives there and is part of the wider life of the community is central. As Provost, he provided that vital guarantee that we weren’t going to become just an exam factory without a soul or a purpose outside the curriculum.

As Provost, he put in place modern fundraising campaigning with a director of development and a fundraising committee. The object was to begin the process of restoring Henry VI’s vision. The increasing number of boys on full bursaries continues. He started that.

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