Good afternoon, Conference.
It’s always a pleasure to be back in my native Aberdeen.
I am proud to stand before you today as Scotland’s Education Secretary.
As a former teacher, the chance to serve our country in this role is the most extraordinary privilege of my life.
But, Conference, I am doubly privileged to serve as Education Secretary in this SNP Government – a bold, inclusive and progressive government led by a First Minister with the values we all share.
Equality. Opportunity. Community.
Community is what binds us all together in the Scottish National Party.
We have all watched in recent days as our First Minister bravely described his own family’s suffering;
Watched as he articulated the pain and suffering of Scottish families in Israel and Gaza.
Watched as he leads with dignity and compassion.
First Minister, we stand with you and your family at this time of unimaginable personal torment.
Our Community, our Party, is with you.
Friends, no one can pretend that 2023 has been an easy year for the SNP.
And we have to own that.
But the history of our party and our movement is one that sustains.
You need only look at support for independence to know that.
During the Independence Referendum we built support by providing hope for the future – hope for the next generation.
That’s what we will do again – because Conference our people have never needed Independence more.
Conference, those values – Equality. Opportunity. Community
They define our Party and run through the heart of our ambitions for Scotland.
They are also central to Scotland’s Education system.
Friends, Education is the best route there is to giving everyone a fair start in life.
That starts with our youngest children and a childcare system that works for Scotland’s families.
Thanks to investment from this SNP Government, all 3 and 4 year olds, and eligible two years olds, have access to 1140 hours of funded childcare every year.
But we want to go further – which is why we’ve set out plans to expand childcare–empowering more parents, particularly Mums, to get back to work.
Conference, we are also taking action to tackle Westminster’s cost of living crisis.
In our schools, we’re expanding free school meals to P6 and P7 pupils receiving the Scottish Child Payment – in the next step towards universal provision across our primary schools.
That’s the most generous offer of any nation in the UK, saving families £400 per child per year.
We’ve cut the cost of the school day by removing core curriculum charges and we’re increasing the school clothing grant in line with inflation.
These are the actions of a Government relentlessly focussed on the priorities of the people of Scotland – tackling poverty, boosting opportunity and supporting our people through tough economic times.
But delegates, we do so with one hand tied behind our back.
For every positive, progressive policy we implement in Holyrood, there’s another regressive, right-wing Westminster policy holding Scotland back.
We see the evidence of that in Scotland’s schools every day.
While we invest in the Scottish Child Payment, Westminster ploughs on with brutal cuts to welfare, plunging more children into poverty.
While we invest £1billion in the Scottish Attainment Challenge, the UK Government doubles down on austerity and slashes budgets across the board.
Austerity has consequences – and more and more those consequences are being felt by Scotland’s children.
The SNP in Government will always do everything we can to help our people within the confines of Devolution.
But let’s be clear – the union is a brake on our ambition.
It’s weighing Scotland down and pulling the hopes and aspirations of the next generation with it.
Brexit Britain doesn’t inspire hope.
And that isn’t going to change if Labour form the next UK Government.
In fact, Labour have made it clear that nothing will change if they form the next UK Government.
The same Labour Party who stood shoulder to shoulder with the Tories and promised that a ‘No’ vote was a vote to Remain in the EU.
The same Labour Party who think the ‘Rape Clause’ can be made ‘fair’.
The same Labour Party whose Shadow Scottish Secretary who thinks Alistair Jack is a positive role model.
Keir Starmer offers continued Austerity, Welfare Cuts and a u-turn on turn on tuition fees.
Not just shedding glitter, Starmer sheds principles on a daily basis, as the Labour Party lurches to the right in a bid to become electable in England again.
Now is not the time for a pale imitation of the Tories.
Now is the time for strong, progressive leadership.
A Scotland which is confident about where she is going, a Scotland which can inspire the next generation to believe that they can do better than the lot Westminster have bequeathed them.
Conference, excellent learning and teaching must be the foundation of all that we do in Scottish education.
I’m sure you can all remember a teacher who made a difference in your life; who inspired and encouraged you to lift your ambitions.
I want to ensure that all of our hard-working teachers are supported and empowered in our classrooms.
That is why, as part of the Education reform agenda, I can announce today that we will establish a new Centre of Teaching Excellence, making Scotland a world-leader in new approaches to learning and teaching.
Co-designed with our teachers and professional associations, the Centre of Teaching Excellence will put Scotland at the forefront of innovative research.
We will use the centre to work together with Local Authorities in our shared, national mission to close the attainment gap and deliver truly excellent learning and teaching to all of our children.
Because Conference, excellent teachers make the difference.
That is why I’m clear that education reform can’t just be about changing organisational structures or creating new bodies – it has to be focused on what happens in our classrooms.
And Conference, as we embark on the process of reforming and improving our education system, let’s not lose sight of the fact this SNP Government values the teaching profession.
That’s why we have more teachers per pupil than anywhere else in the UK.
That’s why we have the highest spending per pupil in the UK.
That’s why our teachers are the best paid in the UK.
Conference, we have a positive story to tell about improvements in schools since we took office.
It’s not one our opponents want to recognise, but it is one I see every single time I have the privilege to be in one of our schools.
The latest primary school attainment figures on literacy and numeracy showed the biggest ever reduction in the attainment gap in a single year.
We’ve also seen a record number of vocational and technical qualifications achieved this year.
The poverty-related attainment gap poverty remains narrower than it was pre-pandemic for National 5s, Highers and Advanced Highers.
And when we came to office, only61% of schools in Scotland were in good or satisfactory condition. That figure is now almost 91% thanks to SNP investment in our school estate.
So let us celebrate excellence where is exists in our education system – but also redouble our efforts to demand excellence and equity where it doesn’t yet.
Because for as long as we are subject to the whims of Westminster governments pushing children into poverty, a truly excellent education system is the best tool we have to empower people, create opportunity and make our society fairer.
Conference, as Education Secretary, I’m also privileged to have responsibility for our colleges and universities.
As a party, one of our proudest achievements is ensuring the right to a free university education – while the Tories charge extortionate fees south of the border, and Sir Keir Starmer makes clear he’ll continue to do the same.
So while the Tories and Labour saddle students with tens of thousands of pounds in tuition fee debt, let me make this guarantee today: never, under any circumstances, will tuition fees be imposed on Scottish students under an SNP Government.
It is this commitment to equity and excellence in education which is seeing record numbers of first-time students from our poorest communities starting university in Scotland.
That’s testament to the action taken by this government and our universities on Widening Access. But there is more to do.
We will never, ever apologise for ensuring that young people in Scotland have the same opportunities, regardless of where they grew up.
Delegates, I have been a member of this party since I was 22 years old. I’ve supported independence for even longer.
But my time as Education Secretary has only strengthened my resolve.
I am reminded every day of exactly why independence is so important, so necessary.
Independence is necessary for the schoolkids in Falkirk I met last week, who’ve started ‘Take What You Need’ trolleys for essential school items and toiletries, because so many of their classmates are struggling to afford the basics amidst Westminster’s cost of living crisis.
Independence is necessary for the young people benefitting from an LGBT inclusive education, and who’re scared by the extremist rhetoric coming from Westminster.
Independence is necessary for every child in Scotland whose parents are struggling to make ends meet and who are relying on foodbanks.
And conference, independence is necessary because it is the only way to ensure that this generation of young people is the last generation to be subjected to a right-wing, pro-austerity, pro-Brexit, anti-immigration, anti-equality Westminster government – whether they’re wearing a red or a blue rosette.
That will rely on each of us in this hall today uniting around those values of equality, opportunity and community we hold dear. It relies on all of us taking our positive vision for Scotland’s future to our people across the country.
We know that when our party unites behind that progressive vision for Scotland, there is nothing our opponents can do to stop us.
So it is that progressive vision that will run through everything I do as we ensure excellence is at the heart of our education system.
And it’s that progressive vision that I look forward to campaigning with you on, as we win our independence.