I have had the privilege of being Education Secretary and Deputy First Minister for the last five years.
It has been the most challenging and most rewarding time of my life in government.
I have visited hundreds of Scotland’s schools.
Spoken to thousands of teachers.
And listened to many, many of our young people as they tell me of their dreams for the future.
That is a privilege in itself.
But more than that, I believe their dreams for the future are at the heart of my job. They are at the heart of the job of the SNP government.
Building a future where our young people can prosper.
A future where they are safe, secure, and free.
That is ultimately our job.
Friends, I am a parent.
I know what it means to watch as a young mind grows. To worry as they take their first steps and make their first mistakes.
Every parent knows the fierce joy – the pride – in seeing them step, stumble, fall, but get up again, determined, unstoppable. And do it again.
I want all our young people to have the skills, knowledge and support they need.
I want all our young people to be everything they can be.
To be the confident young citizens of a new nation, taking its first steps onto the world stage.
To be the generation that makes our nation’s first decisions as an independent country.
They won’t all be correct. But if they stumble, they will get up, dust themselves down and try again.
Friends, be in no doubt.
The generations now sitting in our classrooms – our secondary classrooms – are that generation.
They are the young people who will grow into adulthood as we grow into full, independent statehood.
That is why the role of Education Secretary is special.
Our schools may be run by our councils, our colleges and universities may be independent, but the responsibility for those young people’s education rests, ultimately, in the hands of the SNP education secretary.
It is a daunting, deeply awe inspiring responsibility.
And I have felt privileged to be entrusted with it every day for the last five years.
Five years ago we pledged to make radical changes to our nation’s education system.
Starting with the youngest, we pledged to expand high quality childcare.
When we took office, the total number of hours a child received in nursery was just 412.
By 2016, we had increased that to 600 hours – an increase of almost half.
But in 2016 we said we would go further – much further. We pledged to essentially double childcare, matching the hours children spend in primary school.
And we committed to it being free for everyone, high quality and flexible enough to fit with family life.
School pupils to be given laptops to bridge ‘digital divide’ https://t.co/tKmA494wV7
— Erik Geddes (@erikgeddes) March 28, 2021
This is probably the single most transformative investment we have made as a government. The early years of life make the biggest difference to the education of a child. And we all know that education is the real answer to so many of our nation’s problems.
Despite the impact of Covid, 1,140 hours of free high quality childcare has now been delivered for almost two thirds of nursery children and, from this August, 100% of nursery pupils will get 1,140 hours.
In our schools, we launched a radical programme designed to give more power and resources into the hands of teachers.
This has seen the Pupil Equity Fund put money into the hands of schools to undertake the programmes that make the most difference to closing the attainment gap.
Since 2015/16, overall we have invested almost £600 million in tackling the poverty related attainment gap.
And, we have driven up the number of teachers.
In every year of this parliament, the number of school teacher rose. It is now at its highest in over a decade and, for primary schools, the highest since 1980.
And they are properly paid, with a rise of more than 13% taking the starting salary of a fully-qualified teacher above £30,000 for the first time.
The schools themselves have been transformed.
Almost 1,000 schools have been replaced or refurbished under the SNP, more than 300 in this parliament.
When we took office, just 60% of school buildings were up to an acceptable standard. Now, 90% are good or satisfactory. And, we will not stop there, in the next parliament we will deliver another £1 billion programme that will see new and refurbished schools the length and breadth of the country.
This transformation has seen attainment improve and the attainment gap narrow.
The gap between most and least deprived pupils getting a Level 5 award – for example National 5s – has shrunk by more than a third.
And at level 6 – Highers – the gap has shrunk by a fifth.
That is a massive shift in the attainment gap.
At university, it has driven record numbers of poorer students getting a place, widening access to young people who previously never dreamed of going to university.
And, we have done that, of course, without imposing tuition fees.
But, I know that we have much more to do.
We know that no matter how good the teacher, no matter how new the school building, there are real barriers to learning faced by too many of Scotland’s children.
A child who is hungry cannot learn.
A child who is poorly clothed will not have high self-esteem.
And, in the modern age, as Covid has taught us, a child without access to the internet will struggle.
These are the challenges on which we must focus next.
In the last Parliament, I am proud that we delivered a massive expansion in free school meals – extending it to all P1 to P3 pupils and making sure throughout the pandemic that school meals continued, in school, out of school, during term and over the holidays.
Now, if elected in May, from 2022 we will extend universal free school lunches to all primary school pupils, P1 to P7.
But, we want every child to have every chance to learn every minute of every school day, starting from the moment they arrive in class. So, we will also extend free provision of a healthy breakfast to all primary school pupils as well.
Breakfast and lunch for every pupil every school day.
This parliament, I am proud we took on the other barrier children face, introducing a national minimum school clothing grant of £100 to help more families afford school uniform costs.
And, we put tens of thousands of new laptops and Chromebooks in the hands of children learning at home during lockdown.
But I want to do more.
Covid has reinforced the need to break down the barriers to learning.
A child cannot do their homework on mum or dad’s phone.
And they cannot study online if they can’t connect to the internet.
These tools are no longer luxuries. They are the basic building blocks of a good education.
It is time now to recognise that.
And, because education is about levelling up, it must be done for everyone. Rich and poor alike.
If we are re-elected in May, the SNP will roll out a new programme to deliver into the hands of every school child in Scotland a laptop, Chromebook or tablet to use in school and at home.
It will come with a free internet connection and full technical support. It will be updated when necessary, replaced when needed and upgraded as technology improves.
As a child moves through their school life, it will change with them, going from the simpler devices needed at P1 to the more advanced in the senior phase of secondary.
And, we will build in partnership with the teaching profession, the support they need to help our children as they learn on the new devices.
Just as in my day, the teacher handed out a jotter to all, so in this internet age, we will hand each child the device they need to learn and prosper.
We will end the digital divide between those who have access to the rich educational resources of the internet and open that electronic world to every child in Scotland.
Friends, full details will come when we launch our manifesto, but we are determined to tear down the barriers to education that too many children face.
💻 Every school child in Scotland will be given a brand new computer under an SNP government, helping to give them the best start in life.
— The SNP (@theSNP) March 28, 2021
Scotland has a proud record of action for our children.
Just last week we became the first country in the United Kingdom to incorporate the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child – the UNCRC – into law.
At a time when rights are under attack elsewhere, it was the biggest shift in power since devolution.
Not a shift into the hands of ministers like me. No. It shifted power out of my hands into those of children themselves.
It builds children’s rights into the fabric of decision making in Scotland as every devolved body, every health board, every council and the Scottish Government itself will be legally obliged to make sure they respect children’s rights.
Children’s rights won’t be an optional extra, something to be done if convenient, if easy.
They will have to be respected, even when it is awkward, when some people would rather not, when it is hard.
And, if they are not built in with the bricks, children and young people can challenge breaches of their rights in court and the court can order action to be taken.
That is exactly as it should be.
In the week that the UK Tory government announced they were increasing the number of nuclear weapons they stockpile, the Scottish Parliament was passing into law, the Bill to incorporate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and doing so unanimously.
What a contrast. It brought the slogan to life. Bairns not bombs.
Not a single voice was raised against the Bill.
Not a single voice that is, other than the UK government.
They have claimed that we are going beyond our devolved powers. They want to block the Bill from anything the U.K. Government does here in Scotland. They even want to block it from the key legislation that underpins our health service, our schools, our social work services.
They are wrong. Those are devolved services.
But think about what they are really saying here.
Once we were told that Scotland would have the most powerful devolved parliament in the world. Near-Federalism – that old apologist for Westminster – Gordon Brown once called it.
Now, the truth is there for all to see.
Scotland unanimously wants to protect the rights of children – our own children – and Westminster says that we are not allowed.
That is not just morally repugnant – it is deeply menacing.
The only people who need fear this Bill are people who want to breach children’s rights.
The only people who want to block this Bill are people who know they are already breaking those rights.
Friends, we will not stand for it.
If the UK Tory Government wants to target the rights of Scottish children, they had better be ready for us.
We are unanimous. We are determined. And – if need be – we will see the U.K. Tory Government in court.
The contrast between the SNP government and the UK government has never been more stark.
The SNP put the people of Scotland – not Boris Johnson – in control.
And, as the last year has truly revealed, leadership matters.
I have had the privilege of working with our First Minister Nicola Sturgeon over many years but, I have to tell you, the last year has been like no other.
She has wrestled with impossible decisions. And she has done it in the most difficult of circumstances.
Yes, I am talking about the pandemic. But yes I am also talking about the baseless attacks on her character.
Our First Minister has spent the last year wrestling with questions of life and death, and of economic catastrophe.
She has been tested like no other leader in modern Scottish history.
And she has come through.
Her decisive leadership has saved lives and saved jobs.
Her dedication and devotion to protecting the people of Scotland has been there for all to see.
For all, at least, with the eyes to see.
For some have not.
Some saw the crisis of Covid and, instead of putting their shoulder to the wheel, instead of asking, how can I help my nation through this, they asked, how can I make this harder?
Their interest was not the national interest.
Their interest was trying to trip up our First Minister. Of trying to force her into a mistake. And of trying to bully her from office.
Through it all, through some of the toughest of times, Nicola Sturgeon stayed steadfast, stayed resolute and stayed determined.
It has been remarkable to see.
Leadership matters. Integrity matters. Character matters. We will need all of that in the years to come.
Brexit is only just beginning to bite.
And the Tories are determined to tear devolution down.
We are determined to recover from Covid, to build our nation anew, and, yes, to press on to independence.
These are monumental tasks. And we cannot know what else fate will throw at Scotland in the years to come.
But I do know Nicola Sturgeon. And our country knows Nicola Sturgeon.
And we all know, she has all that it takes, to lead Scotland through these crucial days.
I am confident our people will put their faith in her again.
In re-electing the SNP government.
And in building the dreams of the future that is the right of our young people.