In this parliament let’s secure the best possible future for our young people

Today Scotland’s new MSPs begin arriving at Holyrood to get ready for the next five years.

There is something very invigorating about the start of the new parliamentary term – as new MSPs find their feet alongside old hands, everyone wants to repay the trust voters have just placed in them by making a positive impact.

The election campaign over the last six weeks brought out a lot of clear differences between the parties – but it also brought out many areas of common ground.

Probably the area of biggest consensus was the desire to improve education.

From the moment I became First Minister, I’ve said that raising educational attainment is my number one priority – which is why it dominated our manifesto.

And the SNP’s emphatic victory last week has given us a clear mandate to make education central to the programme for government for the next five years – with ambitious proposals from the earliest moments of a child’s life all the way to university.

Early on in the election campaign, we announced plans to introduce a baby box, which will be provided free to all families expecting a baby.

It offers essential items for a child’s first weeks including bedding, clothing, sleeping mat and books. The box itself can be used as a basic crib or travel cot.

An adaptation of the successful Finnish model, it will encourage more women to take up ante-natal care and help with early literacy.

Everywhere I visited across Scotland over the last few weeks, people were asking me about the baby box – so I am delighted that we now have the mandate to take this forward.

We’re also committed to recruiting an extra 500 health visitors in the first years of this parliament.

However, by far our most ambitious proposal for the next five years is a transformational increase in the provision of free childcare.

We’ll almost double the current availability to 1,140 hours – or 30 hours a week. And as we do this, we’ll focus just as much on quality as on quantity, with investment in teaching skills – especially in our most deprived areas – as well as in bricks and mortar.

I can’t stress enough how ambitious this is – but it’s an absolutely vital investment to ensure that every child gets the best start in life.

We are also planning a major push to drive up school standards, with significant new funding to raise attainment in more deprived areas.

Over the next five years, the SNP plan to give an additional £750m to schools in deprived areas to raise attainment.

Crucially, this money will go directly to head teachers to decide how to invest it.

But it won’t just be head teachers getting a greater say. Alongside a strong national framework, I want to see parents and teachers, who have some of the best ideas about how to support children’s education able to play a bigger role in the life of their schools.

As we work to tackle the attainment gap, we must make sure that further and higher education are accessible to all.

We will maintain full-time equivalent college places and protect Educational Maintenance Allowances for nearly 60,000 school and college students.

We’ll also retain student bursaries, including for student nurses, and review student funding to make it fairer.

I was proud that the SNP abolished tuition fees in Scotland – and as long as we’re in government, education will be based on the ability to learn, and not the ability to pay.

And although there has been an encouraging increase in recent years of the number of young people from deprived backgrounds applying to university, there remain many complex challenges which won’t be addressed overnight.

That’s why we established a Commission on Widening Access, which recently reported back with a number of recommendations. It set out challenging targets that an SNP government will act on.

I’ve already accepted the Commission’s recommended targets to ensure that, by 2030, students from the 20 per cent most deprived areas make up 20 per cent of Higher Education entrants.

And we’ll work with universities to ensure that people with care experience who meet minimum entry requirements will be guaranteed a place at university and receive a full bursary.

I want to see universities, colleges and the entire education system embrace these recommendations and take steps to improve access to university.

To ensure there is no complacency we will appoint a Commissioner for Fair Access to be an advocate for change across the whole of the sector.

If the Commissioner finds universities that are not delivering on their commitments then they should be able to recommend that the Scottish Government use the powers we have to impose change on universities.

These are are the ideas that we put to the people of Scotland during the election campaign.

And the remarkable result for the SNP in last Thursday’s vote – where we became the first party to poll a million constituency votes in any Scottish Parliament election – gives us a clear mandate to take our plans forward.

But equally, the SNP have never pretended that we have a monopoly of ideas.

We will of course reach out to other parties – not because we have to, but because we want to.

So my call to the other parties is this.

If we’re all agreed that raising educational attainment is the biggest priority over the next few years – let’s give these issues the honest, mature and constructive debate that they deserve.

Being elected to serve your community in the nation’s parliament is an immense and humbling privilege.

Let’s all resolve that, when this parliament dissolves five years from now, we’ll be able to look voters in the eye and say that we have done everything we can to give all of Scotland’s young people the best possible future.