An appreciation by Maxwell Macleod

SIR Eric Anderson, who has died aged 83, was arguably the most influential school teacher in Britain of his era.

In the course of an astonishing career he was pivotal in the education of Prince Charles, Boris Johnson, Tony Blair, David Cameron, Rory Stewart and Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury. He was a tutor, also, to the Princess of Wales after her marriage to Charles.

A proud Scot who never abandoned his accent, modest manners or slightly Calvinistic approach to life, Eric Anderson was brought up in a solidly middle-class home in Edinburgh. He attended George Watson’s College before achieving a first at St Andrews in English Literature, which lead to a scholarship to Oxford to study Sir Walter Scott.

Although he was expected to take over the family kilt-making business of Kinloch Anderson he decided on a career in education and by the age of 23 was already teaching at Fettes, in Edinburgh, before moving, aged 25, to Gordonstoun, for two years.

There, it is possible that he was influenced by the philosophy of the school’s founder, Kurt Hahn, who advocated that every child had excellence in him or her, if it could only be nurtured. This was certainly the core of his own educational philosophy and he struggled hard to raise funds for the able, if less fortunate, to attend the prestigious schools where he taught. He was known to be suspicious of some of the edicts of Mrs Thatcher.

At Gordonstoun he was a key figure in the education of a young, nervous Prince Charles, and the similarities between the two modest and artistically aware young men became particularly apparent when Sir Eric gave him the role of Macbeth in the school play.

In the interests of transparency it is probably appropriate that I confess that this writer, aged 13, was also given a more junior part in the play, from which he was fired for not attending a rehearsal, though not before he had witnessed the genius with which Anderson brought out the excellence in Charles, who seemed to grow in confidence every day. Let me not imply any further association with either of them, and I certainly hold no grudge for my rightful dismissal.

By 34 Anderson was headmaster of Abingdon school and, when still under the age of 40, was head at Eton, though the Privy Council had to intervene to allow an adherent of the Church of Scotland to hold a post that the law dictated could only be held by an Anglican.

He served 14 years as head at Eton and nine years as Provost. In a tribute posted on Eton’s website Andrew Gailey Vice-Provost said: “Sir Eric’s colleagues came to appreciate his approachability and humanity-not least his readiness to laugh rather than explode over the latest absurdity of beaks and boys… He was one of our greatest servants and under him we enjoyed a golden age”.

After Eton he was rector of Lincoln College, Oxford (1994-200) and chairman of the National Heritage Lottery Fund (1998-2001). He was created a Knight of the Thistle in 2002 and was Provost of Eton between 2000 and 2009.

The stories about incidents in the education of three of our future Prime Ministers are legion.

It is said that at Fettes he used to find Tony Blair’s long hair so irritating that he once threw him into a car and drove him to a local hairdresser for a short back and sides.

At Eton, he is said to have interviewed David Cameron who had been caught with a group who had been smoking cannabis. When he had listened to Cameron’s blustering excuses had responded; “Yes indeed Cameron, but who exactly rolled the joint?”.

He also witnessed Boris Johnson perform in a play in which he had failed to learn his lines and had pasted prompt cheat-lines on various pieces of stage furniture, leading him to rush randomly around, misreading his crib notes and ruining the performance.

It would be easy for those who do not believe in private education to dismiss the achievements of Sir Eric Anderson, and to consider his close association with so many of our leaders as being a rather abhorrent reflection on the closed shop of elitism within Britain’s establishment. They may have a point.

But what is for certain is that the man himself was no snob, or cynical social climber. He dedicated much of his life to bringing about constructive change in the many students who came under his care.

He struggled hard to make a difference, often arguing that to make any change you first have to have the power to make it and that the last thing a country needed was for its excellent pupils to be denied education, no matter what their background.

My own, limited, experience, sitting in the wings of the Gordonstoun rehearsals of Macbeth, was to witness a modest man whose great gift was in making those around him want to share his passionate enthusiasm for life and learning . You just wanted to share his joy.

Sir Eric Anderson is survived by his wife Poppy, his son David (Lord Anderson of Ipswich), and a teacher daughter, Kate, who is married to the arts editor of the BBC, Will Gompertz.

Looking back on it, the truth is I very much regret missing that Macbeth rehearsal, not so much because it denied me the opportunity to perform before the Queen or to rub shoulders with her son, but because I let him down. Maybe that was his gift; it was certainly his gift to me.

Maxwell MacLeod