My agenda for Scottish education

I was appointed as Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills ten months ago and since then have been engaging closely with all aspects of our education system.

When the First Minister asked me to assume this role, I recognised it would be challenging but I also recognised it is the greatest privilege to have the opportunity to shape the future of Scottish education.
The First Minister conveyed a clear message by asking me to take on this post; by appointing her Deputy First Minister as Education Secretary, she signalled the significance she attached to strengthening Scottish education.

Put simply, my job is to deliver the brightest future for Scotland’s youngest generation.
In taking that task on, I inevitably reflect on my own experience. I went to Forrester High School in Edinburgh – a school packed with teachers of quality and of inspiration. It gave me strong educational foundations and is a time I look back on with great fondness.
One reflection, however, has never left me.
When I started first year, it was in a year group of 120 pupils. By the time I reached sixth year, there were just eight of us left.
Many of my contemporaries had left school to go on to pretty poor destinations. They were young people who had not fulfilled their potential.
For too many of my classmates, poverty and inequality determined their future. And, two generations later, poverty and inequality continue to hit the life chances of too many of our young people today.
There can never be a time when we are not striving to do much better for our young people.
Education is by far the most effective means we have to improve their life chances.
I am determined to seize the opportunity the First Minister has given me, to use it to transform lives for the better and, in doing so, transform the future of our country.
That is my agenda for Scottish education.
The question, of course, is how to we achieve this aim?
Since my appointment as Education Secretary, one thing is abundantly clear to me: there is no shortage of opinions on what I should do.
We have a vibrant, healthy contest of ideas about policy and performance. That is as it should be.
But sadly some of the contributions to that debate create an impression of Scottish education that is simply false. A wholly unrepresentative picture is sometimes given of our schools, colleges and universities.
It serves neither the country nor our children and young people for that impression to go unchallenged and I challenge it at every opportunity. But nor does it serve anyone for the challenges we do genuinely face to go unacknowledged and unaddressed.
In assessing what is fair, constructive criticism and what is simply political rhetoric, there is only one yardstick: the data.
Let’s start with the positives.

We now have more young people achieving excellent exam results: the number of Advanced Higher passes last year reached an all-time high while the number of Highers passes surpassed 150,000 for only the second time.

Four out of ten students from Scotland’s 20 per cent most deprived areas left school in 2014-15 with at least one higher or equivalent – double the rate in 2007.

We have more school leavers going on to positive destinations – a record 93.3 per cent went on to positive destinations in 2015-16, up from 87 per cent in 2007.

Over 90 per cent of full-time and over 93 per cent of part-time college students are satisfied with their overall college experience.

We have a record university entry rate of 10.9 per cent for 18 year olds from the 20 per cent most deprived areas in Scotland, a 3.7 percentage point increase since 2006.

And, in 2014-15 – 91 per cent of graduates from Scottish HEIs went into either employment, further study or a combination of the two.

That is what some of the data tells us.

It shows that those people who seek to run down Scottish education, are choosing to ignore the objective reality of our system in pursuit of an ideological aim or to inflict political damage on the Government for other purposes.
But it is not the only thing the data tells us.
While we must promote the positives, if we are to close the attainment gap and raise the bar for all, we must also acknowledge and address the challenges.
Our PISA scores – the OECD’s international measure of school education performance – have fallen. And they reflect the same finding as our own figures on literacy and numeracy.
In Higher Education, yes, more pupils from poorer backgrounds are going to university, but it is equally true that they remain massively under represented. We need to widen access.
Our debate therefore must start from a truly informed perspective and focus on what now needs to be done to build upon that strength of performance.
Looking at the data, the status quo is not an option.
Change is needed, change is happening and more change is coming.

Read about our action to improve attainment in Scotland here.