Obituary: Keith Pearson, respected former headmaster of George Heriot’s School

Keith Pearson, teacher and headmaster. Born: 5 August 1941. Died: 2 February in Edinburgh, aged 78.

Keith Pearson has died at the age of 78

Keith Pearson, who has died aged 78 following a long illness, was a schoolteacher through and through, and a very successful and ­well-respected head.

Following a year studying in Madrid, he won an Open ­Exhibition to St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, where he studied French and Spanish. Following teacher training, he started his career at ­Rossall School in Lancashire in 1964, becoming head of modern ­languages in 1968.

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Having married Dorothy Atkinson in 1965, he came to Scotland as head of modern ­languages at George Watson’s College in 1972.

He was a kindly but exacting teacher, who expected his pupils to try hard, with a ­particular emphasis on their spoken French and Spanish.

His intelligence and attention to detail naturally saw him progress to deputy head at Watson’s, where he worked happily with his fellow deputy May Nicol, under the leadership of Roger Young, who saw that his talented deputies were perfectly capable of running the ship on a day to day basis without too much interference from on high. So Keith learnt about the horrors of the timetable, the need for consistent and fair discipline and the ways to encourage the ­hard-working and talented staff he led.

In 1983, probably to the ­horror of his charges at Watson’s, he became headmaster of George Heriot’s School, where he remained until his retirement in 1997.

Keith had two interviews, and said that shaving off his beard between them seemed to seal the deal for his headship. This 14-year tenure saw seismic change at Heriot’s as Keith strove to raise academic standards and focus harder on pastoral care.

The introduction of girls had been agreed before he arrived, but Keith pushed hard to ensure that they received equal status, insisting on a widening of the curriculum, appropriate pastoral care and proper facilities to welcome the new arrivals, no easy task in a school which had known only boys for the preceding 300 or so years.

Headmastership requires some key skills – diplomacy, decisiveness, calm and passion. Keith had all of these, leavened by a complete lack of pomposity, this latter perhaps his most outstanding characteristic – Keith was a humble man who never sought the limelight.

He was always prepared to take responsibility and to defend his staff if things went badly. He loved Heriot’s, and defended it to the hilt, eschewing the gossip and favouritism which can characterise ­staffrooms.

This ‘holding fast to what is right’ meant he could make difficult decisions and stick to them. He knew that a ­successful head can never be 100 per cent popular with staff or pupils or parents, he knew that it’s a job which isn’t, at its heart, about being ‘liked’ and through this gained a tremendous level of respect.

He was also enormously hard-working. Many will remember Keith reappearing following a major operation after two days of the four weeks for which he was ­supposed to recuperate. ­Dorothy was not pleased!

That said, many did like as well as admire this complex, human individual, particularly those staff who worked most closely with him – Hugh Maclennan and latterly ­Stewart Barnes, his two capable, loyal and insightful deputy heads, Liz Firoozi, the school secretary and Stewart Adams, whose appointment as head of the Junior School was one of the most significant steps Keith took in creating the ‘new’ Heriot’s, which continues to prosper today.

Keith was, in essence, a ­serious man, deeply intelligent, but he was a kind and funny man too – he hated upsetting people, but didn’t shirk if he had to.

Keith, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, will be missed by many people. He was a working class scholarship boy whose feet remained planted firmly on the ground. He worked hard and never let himself relax professionally from whatever task lay in front.

He praised others, and never patronised his colleagues or his students. A great number of people whose lives he touched have reason to remember him with great affection and respect.

He is survived by Dorothy, and by his two daughters, Lisa and Sally and their children. Keith’s only concession to pride was when he was ­talking about them.

Cameron Wyllie


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