It’s a pleasure to speak with you as one of a remarkable 68 SNP MSPs, and as the reappointed Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning.
During this conference I’ve been struck as to how far we’ve come as a movement; how close we now are to independence, and of the friends who helped get us here, but sadly are not with us to enjoy it.
Let me mention one in particular - in Argyll and Bute we recently lost the Oban North and Lorn Councillor Donald MacDonald - a highly effective local representative, a good friend, and a lovely, gentle, Gael. His wife Dot and his daughter Kirsty are also strong local members and our hearts go out to them.
But he, I am sure, knew if we are to meet the ambitions that we must carry on.
So now we are fighting with vigour a local by-election with a first class new candidate, Louise Glen Lee
She was at Conference on Friday – and I walked round with her. It was her first time at conference – and I got to see it through her eyes. She must have though t it IS always like this and WAS always like this
Well…that’s not quite true - my first conference was in Rothesay in 1983, and we didn't fill the Pavilion. And having joined the party in 1974 it had taken me 9 years to build up the stamina to go to conference.
Since then there was conferences in Dunoon, Dundee, Glasgow, Perth and Aviemore. And before – the party visited Ayr, Oban, Aberdeen and Grangemouth.
In 1950's the party could hold conference in a hotel ballroom ... which of course would now be too big for the Lib Dems!
Fellow delegates, it’s not always like this – our conferences like our party has grown and grown and grown.
Why? - Because we always believed, and lived the belief.
Nae Limits to our Ambition.
Nae Limits to our vision.
Nae Limits to the opportunities we seek and want to provide.
We are close to our goal – but we’re not there yet.
There is a Gaelic proverb that says, “It is at the end of the day that the fisherman tells of his fishing”. We are not yet at the end of our day - we have to keep growing, keep imagining, and keep achieving.
Only by doing that will we create a free nation in the world once again.
Fellow Delegates, that goal of independence is tantalisingly close. And I am confident it is this generation that will achieve it.
But, why do we do it? For the 6,000.
Well, each year a remarkable thing happens in our country. Each year we welcome around 6000 new Scots into the world. 6,000 children who are born without prejudice in their hearts, and whose futures are unwritten.
Our role, as a party, as a government and as a people, is to give each and every one of them support - so that regardless of their family’s background, race or status - they have the opportunities to fulfil their potential.
This is as true of their early years as it is to their school years and beyond.
During the last term we asked former Labour Health Minister Professor Susan Deacon to produce a report on the Early Years. In that report Professor Deacon recognised that “Most children in Scotland get a good start in life and most parents do a pretty good job. But all of us could do more and do better”. I agree.
That is why your SNP government is committed to supporting the early years and to investing in preventative spending. That’s why over the lifetime of this parliament we will deliver an Early Years Change Fund of £50 million to support a range of projects, including a new generation of children and family centres across Scotland.
That is this week I can announce the first allocation from the fund – we are creating the Communities and Families Fund that, over the next three years, will invest £4.5 million to support local projects that benefit the early years.
Fellow nationalists that type of imaginative project is typical of the responses we are trying to make in difficult times. But they are hard to make. The savage budget cuts being passed on from Westminster means we have to focus our resources ever more closely and carefully. Within these pressures we are ensuring our investment in the world leading innovation that is Curriculum for Excellence is maintained.
Curriculum for Excellence prioritises teaching, encourages deep learning, and creates flexibility and rewards ambition. That is what we need to ensure that an education system delivers - ours now does.
The truth is that Scotland has hundreds of thousands of excellent pupils, being taught by tens of thousands of excellent teachers, teaching in thousands of excellent schools.
We’ve made real progress on teacher employment and for more than a year Scotland has had the highest level of teacher employment in the UK.
And as the demographics of our nation shifts we’ll work to ensure that we have the teaching numbers we need to deliver a quality education for young Scots.
The quality of teaching is paramount in securing good education. But the quality of places in which children learn is also important. But that is not just about new buildings, though sometimes those are still required. It is also about learning within one’s own community, supported and surrounded by the people amongst whom we live.
In my own area, in Argyll, I can think of many places where rural life is sustained by the existence of a school and where the school is sustained by the place itself. That is a vital two-way relationship.
Before the election it was clear to me that the uncertainty that was hanging over some rural schools around the country was damaging those communities, and not just in Argyll and Bute.
In June, to allow breathing space so that the future shape and continuing importance of rural education could be considered, I announced a 12-month moratorium on rural school closures.
Working with Cosla we have established the Commission on Rural Education to examine both how the delivery of rural education can maximise the attainment and life chances of young people in rural areas, and the link between rural education and rural communities.
That may mean finding different ways of doing things. And it may mean finding new ways to invest in school premises - and indeed new definitions of what those premises should be.
Of course the importance of the quality of the fabric of our schools is not just an issue in rural areas.
Between 1999 and 2007 the previous administration completed 328 school building projects. We said we’d match them brick for brick. Well we’ve done a little better than that. During our first term in office 330 school building projects were complete – that represents 12.5% of all schools in Scotland.
In our first term we halved the number of pupils in poor condition schools, and we’ll do it again. We owe it to Scotland.
And as the First Minister announced yesterday, thanks to the commercial expertise of the Scottish Futures Trust, we will deliver an additional 30 new schools.
30 additional schools that will lift children out of unsuitable classrooms and give them the best places to learn. And 30 new schools free of the punishing debt levels created by Labour and the Liberals with their wasteful, profiteering PFI projects.
And, in our schools the fresh thinking continues. For example, I am very pleased that my colleague Alasdair Allan is now taking forward the development of Scottish Studies.
It’s important that, to move forward, we need to know who we are and how we came here.
The people of Scotland agree, which is why in a recent survey the creation of Scottish Studies garnered 90% support. Ken MacIntosh – I know who he is, even if Ed Miliband doesn’t - became hysterical and asserted that teaching our young people about Scottish culture was tantamount to brainwashing.
I’m not sure my own view on his ‘outburst’ is fit for broadcast, so instead I’ll use the words of A.L. Kennedy, who put it better than I could have hoped to when last month she wrote:
“What makes the possibility of a real cultural awakening scary for many Scots politicians is that the arts are expressive, liberating and unpredictable. Encourage cultural literacy in a nation bent on rediscovering itself after centuries of being silenced and you could end up with an electorate that's confident, outspoken and energetic. Heaven forfend.”
I want to see such an electorate - I want a country that is confident, outspoken and energetic. And of course our national success is predicated by the success of our colleges and universities. Now some changes in those areas are essential. New things are needed, including greater accountability and greater transparency.
I make no bones about it, the funding settlement for colleges, for example, is tough.
But I know that our colleges are dynamic and they have signalled that they are looking to work with us, in partnership, to take forward our proposed programme of positive reforms in post-16 education, so that it puts learners at its centre.
Our school leavers must have opportunities. Currently 85% of school leavers go on to positive destinations such as further education, training or employment. This is good, but it’s not good enough. That is why we have created the Opportunities for All scheme that guarantees a suitable place in learning or training for all 16-19 year olds so that 100% of our school leavers go on to positive destinations.
What a contrast that is to the situation south of the border. There EMA which helps young people stay in education has been abolished. And the Tory / Lib Dem Government is creating massive instability in the English Higher Education system. It adds insult to injury to realise that they are doing so with a policy commissioned by the last Labour Government.
That policy has resulted in the slashing of teaching grants to English Universities by a staggering 40%.
Bizarrely, the Scottish Tories would have you believe that this is excellent news and is the direction we should follow. But conference, we choose another path.
Before the election our leader spoke for all of us when he said that the rock would melt with the sun before we would charge Scottish students to go to our Universities.
Prof Anton Muscatelli, the Principal of Glasgow University put it well recently when he said “In the area of teaching, it is notable that the Scottish Government seeks to put learners at the centre of the Higher Education system….whilst in England the route which has been chosen is one of marketisation, which may reduce student choice”.
So we reject the Tory way - the way that would undermine our universities and would penalise our students.
Of course we reject the Liberal Democrat way, of promising one thing and doing another.
And we reject the Labour way of not knowing what to do, but having created the mess in the first place.
Instead we have chosen the Scottish way - a way much more in step with the rest of the world than Scotland opposition would have you believe.
It is, fellow delegates no accident that we have no fewer than 5 of the world’s top 200 universities – more world-class universities per head of population than any other nation on the planet.
Education and excellence are hard wired into our DNA - we are and have been for centuries a learning nation.
We can always do better of course and on issues such as access and governance and student support we must do better.
But our success as a learning nation is built on one simple belief.
A belief that is at the heart not just of this party's view of Scotland but of Scotland's view of itself.
Education is not for sale. Education must always be based on ability to learn, not ability to pay.
Education, Convener, transforms lives. It also transforms society. It enriches us all. It is a communal good provided by and given back to that Commonweal about which the First Minister spoke yesterday.
Your Government - this SNP Government - will always further the interest of Scotland all who love here by supporting, investing in and continually improving education, at every level, despite the difficulties.
For in the last four years we have made much progress, conference, but there is no room for complacency when it comes to giving removing barriers to success for our young people and our nation.
Convener, Scotland’s young people don’t need anyone’s permission to be ambitious. For them too there must be Nae Limits.
What they need is our support to help them achieve to the fullest of their potential.
To help them become successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors to our society.
Those are of courses the four capacities that lie at the heart of Curriculum for Excellence.
And in a sense our job is to ensure that our whole country - young and old - consists of successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors.
As a party that is what we seek for Scotland.
And we as our party must play our part.
We are, and must go on being successful learners at the business of government, taking our nation forward together.
We need to be confident in our ability to answer the questions about our collective future.
We must always be responsible global citizens.
And our whole progress has been based on, and will be based on, the effective contribution we make to our country, our communities and to everyone who lives here.
Successful, confident, responsible, effective.
That is what an independent nation must be. Our job is to create the route to that nation.
To make the idea of it live in the minds and hearts of our fellow citizens . To offer the political means of gaining it. And to govern wisely while we are on the way to it.
That is what we have tried to do for the last 80 years.
That is what we have the opportunity to do now.
That is the job we must finish.
Convener, we are the fortunate generation of nationalists - there are now Nae Limits to what we can achieve.
Michael Russell's address to the SNP Conference
Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning speaks to the SNP Conference