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Ready to reset the jewel in the crown;FE Focus;Interview;Robert Beattie

Neil Munro meets the first chair of the Scottish Further Education Funding Council

Robert Beattie is one of those people who acquire a bewildering array of positions, yet appear to carry all before them with energy and commitment.

This is even more remarkable in his case, for the first chairman of the new Scottish Further Education Funding Council suffers from multiple sclerosis. He reckons this makes him the only wheelchair-bound head of a quango in the UK.

It is a subject about which the 50-year-old Beattie speaks with engaging frankness, from the jokey asides to the telling observations. "I'm glad the Government has recognised my abilities not my disabilities," he says.

The Government has not always been so accommodating, despite the official rhetoric on equal opportunities. He recalls with astonishment his discovery that the old Scottish Office building in St Andrew's House had no wheelchair entry. That is now changing and, with one eye on his new responsibilities, jokes that it might be called the "Beattie access door".

Beattie's day job for the past 10 years has been as community investment co-ordinator with IBM, a deliberately chosen title changed from corporate affairs "to reflect the fact that we would like to give something to the community but would also expect something back - it is, as we say, an investment".

His general philosophy is in line with the current mantra of "joined-up thinking for a joined-up Scotland". He says: "Healthy businesses need healthy communities and vice-versa; and, while healthy education needs a healthy economy, a healthy economy relies on a healthy education."

Beattie's remarkably diverse range of activities reflects his philosophy - the Edinburgh (and shortly Scottish) Telematics Partnership designed to create "information-rich communities," a member of the expert panel on information and communication technology for the Scottish parliament (and chair of its sub-group on democratic participation), and chair of the Scottish Development Centre for Mental Health Services.

The last-named grew from his discovery he had MS. "When it was first diagnosed, I suffered badly from depression," he says. "Basically I was terrified of being crippled."

The result was a seven-week stint as a psychiatric patient in the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, and the beginnings of his interest in mental health issues.

Already a "graduate" of Ayr Technical College as was, Beattie drew closer to FE with his membership of the board of Stevenson College in Edinburgh and his appointment last year to chair the committee set up by the Scottish Office to look into post-16 education and training in special needs. That, and his own personal experience, should send a strong participative signal to disabled students, he feels.

This experience of cross-sectoral initiatives make him ideally qualified to lead the Scottish Further Education Funding Council (SFEFC), according to Michael Leech, principal of Stevenson College.

"Robert is an imaginative appointment," Leech says. "He is full of ideas, has the capacity to enthuse others and to communicate, and gets things off the ground. But he will not shirk the tough decisions, which will be essential because the establishment of the council has created a lot of expectancy in the sector."

Beattie will be paid pound;27,800 for a minimum commitment of two days a week. His first public engagement as SFEFC chairman will be at a national conference on lifelong learning next Tuesday, although he did introduce himself at an FE principals' forum at the end of last year.

He brings an almost evangelical fervour to all he does and FE is already in his embrace. "I view FE as a jewel in the crown of Scotland. I know it requires repolishing and resetting but it is a very, very important part of what our vision for Scotland should be, a country that delivers access, participation, innovation and collaboration."

He was also convinced to take on the job, however, because he believes the Government shares that commitment, demonstrated by the extra pound;214 million for FE from the comprehensive spending review. "The council will be responsible for pound;400 million expenditure on FE at the end of the next three years," he says, "which is a major slice of Scottish Office spending."

But Beattie has a wider vision for the council than simply as dispenser of Government shekels. He believes the council must campaign for FE to raise its profile, help to disseminate best practice, strive to improve the parity of esteem between education and training and encourage colleges to be innovative without fearing failure.

He also has a long-standing interest in the voluntary sector, which led to an MBE in 1993 for services to employee volunteering. It is an area in which he wants FE to become involved, pointing out that the voluntary sector is worth pound;2 billion and employs 51,000 staff.

But the big issues facing Beattie are more immediate. The colleges are going through a "painful transition" as they move to a new funding formula, he acknowledges.

He hopes the council will be able to come up with funding arrangements "which not only accurately reflect the actual needs of the sector but which also take a view of its long-term investment needs.

"The colleges must tell the council what they think these needs are. It's got to be a dialogue because the council will not always have the right answers. We will get it wrong sometimes and we would expect to hear from the colleges when we do."

The SFEFC officially came into existence on New Year's Day. It will spend the next six months "shadowing" the Scottish Office FE Funding Unit, so the first grant settlement for which the council will bear direct responsibility will be that for 2000-2001.

Beattie's four-year tenure will be judged as much on funding decisions as anything else, not least because it has been a crucial factor in the industrial relations problems that have plagued the FE sector since incorporation. Although he hopes the reversal of underfunding will ease the strains, he believes it is up to individual colleges to manage their own industrial relations.

He is in a better position than most to value the contribution of unions since he was made redundant from the Midland Bank group in the 1970s. After leaving Carrick Academy, his parents assured him it was a "secure" job. But, despite that experience, his attitude now is that "you don't need unions if you have good management".

The first task of the SFEFC, however, has already been allocated - a review of the management of FE colleges ordered by the Education Minister last month. "I welcome that as a vehicle for discussing something substantive with the colleges from day one," Beattie says.

One of the other issues which may confront the SFEFC is post-16 special needs following the report from the Scottish Office committee - chaired by Beattie. "I call it being mugged: 'You've made the recommendations, now do something about it."' The Beattie CV will, by then, have come full circle.

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