Today I want to talk about our schools.
A major international report published last week found that Scotland’s school standards are not as good as we want them to be.
And while most people would expect politicians to try and gloss over difficult figures, I have absolutely no intention of doing that.
Instead, I think our kids deserve for us to be upfront about the challenges we face and what we are doing to address them – and that’s exactly what the SNP government is doing.
The report in question, the Programme for International Student Assessment, is carried out by the OECD every three years.
It looks at the reading, maths and science skills of 15-year-olds across 72 countries.
Although this year’s report shows that Scotland’s scores are similar to the OECD average in all three areas tested, it also show that, compared with 2012, our performance in science and reading has fallen.
Now, this study rightly got a lot of attention when it was published last week – but it’s important to note that the survey work was actually done way back in March 2015.
That’s around the same time our own stats showed that attainment in some parts of our schools system was not as good as it should be.
When these stats were published we launched an immediate programme of reform. We based this programme on recommendations of what will make a difference. These recommendations were included in a report by the OECD – the same people who produced PISA – on Scottish education.
They told us the key changes we need to make to get Scotland back to having a world class school system.
Let’s look first at the school curriculum.
Any of you with kids at school will know that we’ve made major – and widely backed – changes to the curriculum over the last few years, with the roll out of Curriculum for Excellence.
The OECD said that it was ‘an important reform’ that was the right approach for Scotland – and we’ve taken on board a number of suggestions they made to improve it.
Secondly, we’re looking at what more support we can offer our teachers.
John Swinney, the Education Secretary, has been working closely with teachers to reduce their workload – stripping away unnecessary bureaucracy and freeing them up to teach.
And so teachers and parents can have the fullest possible information about how their pupils are progressing, we’ve developed standardised assessments to be carried out in P1, P4, P7 and S3, to inform the judgments teachers already make about whether or not pupils are meeting the required standards.
Of course, effective leadership in our schools is key to their success – so we’ve also just announced proposals for new mandatory qualifications for headteachers.
Thirdly, we’re making extra investment.
Improving education is obviously not just a question of money – but we certainly need to help our schools in our poorest areas to tackle the attainment gap.
That’s why we’ve created a major new £750 million Attainment Fund, which will channel money directly to schools in the most income-deprived areas – including schools in and around Glasgow.
Headteachers can use this funding to hire extra classroom assistants, invest in new equipment or however else they see fit.
Fourthly, we’re taking more steps to help children improve on the basics.
For instance, earlier this year I launched the First Minister’s Reading Challenge to try and encourage kids in primary school to read more for pleasure – because children who read more are better readers.
It’s essentially a huge book club – with kids choosing from a list of 100 books to read, submitting their own reviews and getting their achievements recognised by teachers and librarians.
I’m delighted that over 80 per cent of eligible pupils have already signed up – far more than expected at this stage.
What I’m trying to say with all of this is that we are not under any illusions at all about what needs to be done – indeed, this OECD report underlines exactly why reforming our education system is so important.
Over the coming days, weeks and months, you will continue to hear me and the SNP Government talk a lot about education – as I’ve said before, improving schools is the area I want to be judged on when I leave office.
But in spite of these challenges, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Scotland’s schools still offer some of the finest teaching in the world.
We’ve seen record exam passes in recent years, and record numbers of young people are leaving school and going into work, training or further education.
In fact, more of our young people are educated beyond school level than any other European nation.
One of the privileges of being First Minister is the opportunity to meet so many dedicated teachers and education professionals, the length and breadth of Scotland, who are working tirelessly to educate the next generation.
They fill me with great confidence – and with the right support for both them and for our pupils, I know that we’ll once again make Scotland a world leader in education.
Finally, as this is my last column before Santa comes, I’d like to wish you and your family a very merry Christmas.
This article originally appeared in the Evening Times.