Education Secretary John Swinney’s speech to SNP Conference

Below is Deputy First Minister and Education Secretary John Swinney MSP’s speech to SNP Conference. Check against delivery.


When I came to my first Party Conference in 1980, there would have been precious few who would have rated the possibility very highly of there being a Scottish Parliament. Even fewer would have rated the possibility of there ever being an SNP Government.

Indeed in the first few months of our first Government in 2007, the usual sage commentators in Scotland – those cheerful prophets of doom – believed the SNP Government would last just a few months.

And here we find ourselves; 125,000 SNP members around the country, a huge Party Conference gathered together, midway through our third term in Government with 11 years in Office under our belt, our Party has demonstrated our determination to serve the people of Scotland with all that we have got.

In 2007, few would have predicted that we could achieve such profound impact for our country.

Scotland is today a fundamentally more self-confident country than when we took office in 2007 and we have helped to make that happen.

That is in no small part due to a simple truth:

We have demonstrated – beyond challenge – there is an alternative to the narrow, insular politics of Labour-Tory Westminster.

When we look across the UK, we see people disenfranchised.

When we look at Scotland, we see a land that rejected the UKIP agenda.

A land that voted to remain an outward looking member of the European family of nations.

That is no accident.

It is a result of your SNP government – showing day and daily – that the people’s priorities can translate into policies for a nation.

We did not pursue Labour and the Tories obsession with privatisation and PFI.

Instead we invested in schools and hospitals.

751 new or refurbished schools since 2007 with 86% of young people educated in good or satisfactory school buildings compared to 61% when we came to office.

78,000 affordable homes already delivered and on track to hit our target of 50,000 this Parliament.

And we invested in the NHS with record spending and record staffing.

We have shown there is another way, a better way. The SNP way.

And your SNP government is living proof that it works.

Not simply because after 11 years and mid-term between elections we remain 20 points ahead of our opponents – but don’t get me wrong that did make nice reading this weekend.

No, it is because we are demonstrating that people are better off with the SNP.


The old argument, used by so many for so long, was that there was no alternative to privatisation, austerity and cuts.

We were told anything else would beggar the nation.

They told us there was no way to afford the alternative.

And they said, if any party tried, people would not be willing to put their hand in the pockets and pay a little more to make it a reality.

Well, friends, Scotland today is living proof of the self-serving fallacy that has always been.

People are better off with the SNP.

The majority pay a little less income tax than in the rest of the UK, while we have asked some to pay a little more.

Looking at our poll numbers, it brings the pretty obvious conclusion that the people of this country think that is a pretty fair idea.

And they think that because they know they are better off with the SNP.

Per head we have more doctors than the rest of the UK.

And more teachers.

And dentists.

More fire officers.

And more police.

Better off with the SNP.

And they are paid better too.

Starting salaries for police are higher.

So are teachers’.

And nurses’.

And we are not stopping there. The police pay deal is the best in the UK.

And the nurses deal.

And for teachers?

Well, I know there is much hard bargaining to do, but I want to say this to you and to every teacher in Scotland:

We will make sure the teachers’ pay deal is the best in the UK.

Guaranteed by your SNP Government.

And that’s exactly what the offer on the table delivers.

That’s the SNP showing, yet again, that there is a better way.

And it does not beggar the nation.

The level at which businesses start paying rates in Scotland? Lower than the rest of the UK.

Spending on economic development? Higher.

No wonder we are outstripping the UK’s growth.

And we are now busy building Scotland’s economic future.

Focusing our efforts on productivity, on increasing exports, on automation and AI, and, of course, rising to the challenges and opportunities of the new, green economy.

Westminster is bogged down in Tory backstabbing.

It is consumed by Labour front-stabbing.

We are busy building the new Scottish economy that will deliver prosperity for generations to come.


The self-confidence that follows from taking a different path and seeing it works is delivering world-leading results.

Scotland is hailed internationally for so much that it does, not just at the hand of the government but in all aspects of our nation.

The toughest climate targets anywhere and world’s first Climate Justice Fund.

Public grants for exploitative employers ended.

The first country in the world to provide free sanitary products in schools, colleges and universities.

Home to the world’s biggest arts festival, world-leading video games sector and more top universities per capita than any other country, bar Switzerland.

The first country in the world to introduce Minimum Unit Pricing for alcohol.

Ground-breaking action to reduce violence – now being copied by London and other major cities.

Bold steps to build into our work to give children the best start in life an awareness of adverse childhood experiences.

Consistently topping international rankings for performance on equality and LGBTI rights.

And, of course pioneering measures to grow the economy such as a National Investment Bank.

Scotland, self-confident, world-leading and forging ahead. That’s your SNP government in action.


They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Well, last week, Jeremy Corbyn announced he too would like to build a national investment bank.

Way ahead of you here Jezza.

And he wants to cut tuition fees.

We did that back in 2008.

They want to extend childcare to 30 hours a week.

Already on it.

It will be delivered here by August 2020.

And, of course, they want to renationalise Scottish Water.

Well, that’s just embarrassing.

Finally, they want to build more council houses.

Well frankly even Labour would struggle to build any less than the SIX they managed the last time they were in office in Scotland.


The problem for the Labour Party is that people don’t know what they are for.

You don’t need a bad tribute act when the real thing is playing live on the main stage.

And, of course, Jeremy Corbyn has one other big problem.

It’s called the Scottish Labour Party.

Too busy fighting each other to fight for Scotland, blinded by their hatred of the SNP, in vote after vote they ally with the Tories.

The Labour Party in Scotland has become Ruth Davidson’s little red helpers. Shame. Shame on them all.


There is a better way. A way that makes people socially and economically better off – the SNP way.

Unlike Westminster, we will never hand hospitals over to private companies.

We will never spend more chasing benefit recipients than tax dodgers.

And we will never waste billions on weapons of mass destruction.

Instead we will hold true to the Scottish values of community and solidarity.

That is the foundation of all that we do.

And it informs everything I do in education.

It is why I am determined to reform the way schools are governed and how we help teachers close the attainment gap.

It is why we are expanding free, high quality childcare, so children get the best start in life and parents have the help they need to get work.

It is why we are so committed to widening access to university. And it is why we have seen a 16% rise in students from our poorest communities getting a place at university. That is how we put Scottish values into practice to create a better country.

And, Friends,

I know that our reforms are controversial.

But we need to do this to ensure excellence and equity is available for all in our education system.

One of those reforms is on assessment of pupils. From birth, we assess children to make sure they are receiving all the support they require. The 27 month vocabulary check is vital to catch communication problems for children before they become entrenched. I apply the same rationale to P1 assessments.

I know that there are voices who do not agree with the Government on these assessments out of a genuine pursuit of what they believe is best for our children.

I respect that view and am currently looking at ways to reassure their concerns.

But I also know political opportunism when I see it.

The sight of Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories – the Tories most of all – suddenly discovering that they vehemently oppose P1 assessments after decades of delivering these assessments themselves in councils across the land, is jaw-dropping.

It is easily the worst example of the tribal, SNP-bad politics of the unionist parties I have seen in years. These parties have no right to play politics with the education of Scotland’s children and young people.

We have committed ourselves to closing the poverty related attainment gap by delivering excellence and equity for all. Our work is to make sure every young person is able to fulfill their potential regardless of their background.

And this is the progress we are making.

The percentage of pupils staying on to sixth year has risen 18% to almost two thirds.

The proportion of pupils getting Highers is up more than 10%.

Over 50,000 skills based qualifications – that’s double the 2012 level.

Nearly 9 out of every 10 young people from our poorest communities are now going into work or education or training.

And the gap in Higher passes between the richest and the poorest has fallen by 7%.

So, I say this to Labour and the Tories: stop talking down the achievements of Scotland’s young people.

Equipped with the significant resources included in the Scottish Attainment Challenge, liberated by the freedom offered through Pupil Equity Funding, we are tackling head-on the debilitating impact of poverty on the education of young people.

Our mission is to close the poverty related attainment gap in Scottish education and no amount of politics from the Opposition is going to get in our way.

The greatest privilege of my role as Education Secretary is to spend more time than any other person who comments on Scottish education in schools the length and breadth of Scotland.

I am constantly inspired by the fabulous work of our teaching staff and our young people. I recognise it is a tough task for teachers but I also recognise it is an inspiring one too.

And I want to close with some inspiring words I heard last Wednesday at St Mungo’s Academy from an outstanding young man, S6 Pupil Lewis O’Neill.

Lewis recounted his missionary experience – undertaken through St Mungo’s – to Zambia where he spoke to a group of girls in an orphanage. They spoke to him about their career aspirations to be lawyers, doctors, surgeons, even politicians.

And he said :

“I was taken aback at the ambition they had. They knew just as much as I did that opportunities where they came from were limited. They recognised that education was their way out – to achieve their aspirations. Looking back I have realised that their ambitions were underpinned entirely by hope.”

“……..their ambitions were underpinned entirely by hope.”

And a message of hope is what we need to bring to our country. As we wrestle with the uncertainties and difficulties of Brexit, as we battle to overcome the pernicious effect of Westminster austerity, our duty is to bring hope to this country.

Hope to fulfill the potential of every young person.

Hope to build a better future.

Hope to make Scotland the best that we can be.

Hope that comes from taking our own future in our own hands.