White knight wants results

24th March 2006 at 00:00
Douglas Blane catches up with Sir Tom Hunter, following his first public spat with the Scottish Executive.

Last week, the Hunter Foundation, set up by entrepreneur Sir Tom Hunter to dispense a substantial portion of his wealth to worthwhile causes, withdrew funding for a school leadership initiative. He cited a difference of opinion with the Scottish Executive over the "speed and scope of leadership development required".

Speculation that this might indicate a rift in the previously productive relationship between the philanthropist and the Executive was rejected by the former, whose spokesman told The TESS that his commitment to Scottish education was every bit as strong.

Sir Tom commented: "Do I get frustrated by slow progress? Every single day.

Does that mean I want to make educational policy in Scotland? Definitely not. I'm not an educationist.

"The Hunter Foundation is an enabler. We make the best educational research from around the world available to Scottish education. It's then up to education professionals to decide whether they want to use it."

Initiatives the Hunter Foundation continues to support include Schools of Ambition, leadership and teacher education programmes, and in-school projects aimed at raising pupils' achievement and expectations. Last year, it announced funding for a Great Scots exhibition in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.

Sir Tom's own idea of a great Scot is Andrew Carnegie, the industrialist who gave millions to education and said that any man who dies without using his surplus wealth to help others "dies disgraced". But Carnegie was a ruthless character. Is this a quality Sir Tom shares?

"It depends what you mean," he says. "We don't believe in charity because that builds dependency, which is one of this country's biggest problems.

Instead, we invest. But that means we expect a return for our investment.

If we don't see that return, we withdraw the funding. Is that hard? I wouldn't say so. I'd say it was sensible."

Business investment in education has its critics, however. Business wants employees with basic skills who get a job done, they say, while education is about lifelong learners who won't always slot into routine, unrewarding forms of employment.

"As a businessman, I would say that any education system that ignores the needs of business does so at its peril," Sir Tom comments. "That is its ultimate customer. So business is entitled to say what it needs from an education system, which should tailor itself to some extent to meet those needs.

"As a philanthropist, I take a wider view. Education is the foundation of a nation's future. I am interested in Scotland, where the big challenge - as it is in England and America - is the feeling that you are entitled to be looked after.

"When I was at school, the careers officer had it easy. Go down the mines, he'd say, and you'll have a job for life. Well, there are no jobs for life.

It's only education that can get us away from that feeling of entitlement.

"Now that doesn't mean you don't look after people. But, in order for those who are genuinely needy to be taken care of, those who can contribute must contribute. It's a simple equation."

While philanthropy and business are quite distinct, some of the methods that work in one arena can also be very effective in the other, he adds.

"One thing we know about is getting things done: you lay out a picture of what you would like to happen, then identify what is stopping you. Then you knock the barriers away. That is what I mean about being enablers - we can help remove the barriers to what education experts, the Scottish Executive and local authorities want to happen."

Another criticism of enterprise in education is that entrepreneurs are born not made. So the argument runs pouring money into schools is pointless.

"It's true that people like Richard Branson or David Beckham are naturals,"

Sir Tom says, "but every young person can improve with coaching, encouragement and practice. Research shows that if a child, regardless of where they start from, gets a good teacher, they will improve.

"I remember one enterprise event where the kids designed a pizza, with the winner being made and sold in the shops. First off, it was nothing like school so the kids didn't realise they were learning English, arithmetic, creativity, problem-solving. It was a fantastic learning experience for them.

"Also, that kind of activity gives confidence to kids who don't start with much. My sister, who was a primary teacher for 30 years, tells me that, when kids find something they can do within a group, it makes them feel good about themselves; it raises their confidence. The ones who start out loath to speak and unable to make eye contact end up presenting their bit to the class. That is fantastic. It's wrapped around an enterprise activity, sure, but it's much more powerful than that."

Investment in improving the life chances of youngsters who seem destined for low achievement should bring benefits to the economy. But is there a more personal motivation? Does Sir Tom perhaps identify with the needs of these young people? He laughs and shakes his head.

"I was always full of nonsense as a boy, never short of confidence. It's only when I am asked about my motives that I think about them. I haven't answered the question fully to myself yet. It's about my background, I'm sure, the values my dad instilled in me. It's about inequality and the injustice of that, and a firm belief in creating self-confidence and a can-do attitude in young people.

"Growing up in New Cumnock, I had a great upbringing. But I could see lots of others who didn't. People ask if I'm for real; they think maybe I'm religious or some kind of megalomaniac, and they ask me what the catch is.

"There is no catch."


Sir Tom is a man of few words - about himself. His entry in Who's Who in Scotland has just over three lines about Thomas Blane Hunter BA - "entrepreneur; chief executive Sports Division, 1984-98; b 6.5.61, Irvine; educ Cumnock Academy, University of Strathclyde".

* Did you always want to be rich? "It's why I wanted to run my own business. I saw being rich as having a red Porsche 911. But the best thing about money isn't the material rewards; it's the freedom it gives you."

* Do you still think of yourself as a small businessman? "I don't have much time for self-reflection. I'm more task-orientated, focused on getting things done."

* Do you ever feel out of your depth? "If people are talking about something I don't know about, which happens more and more now because of the variety of things we do, I just sit quietly and educate myself."

* What would you still like to learn? "I'm learning every day. That's what business is about. You need that thirst for finding out how things work and why."

* Favourite subject at school? "School was something that happened before you got on with real life. I do remember one or two teachers with very different styles but one thing in common: you wanted to work for them."

* What upsets you? "People who have abilities and don't use them."

* Ideal evening? "At home with the family and a few friends."

* Do you ever feel like retiring? "Never. I'm not working towards a day when I can do something I enjoy. I'm doing what I enjoy every day."

* Who would you like to be if you weren't Sir Tom Hunter? "I'd like to have been Nelson Mandela when he was released from Robben Island, with that amazing journey in front of him and all that he achieved, everything he enabled for his country."

* How would you like to be remembered? "It's a bit early for that. I guess as somebody who made a lot of money . . . and then made a difference."

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