On 19 November 2014 I was privileged to stand up in the Scottish Parliament and accept the nomination to become First Minister of Scotland.
At that time, I said my intention was to be a First Minister for all of Scotland – regardless of politics or point of view – and to work tirelessly to build a more prosperous, fairer and better society.
Twelve months on, my passion to deliver that fairer society is undiminished and I am proud that the Scottish Government has been able to build the strong foundations that will allow us in the months and years to come to make a difference in areas such as educational attainment, fair work, gender balance and childcare.
I knew that making progress in these absolutely critical areas was not going to be easy – especially given the extremely difficult financial backdrop that we face in Scotland. But I remain absolutely committed to removing the barriers that can stop young people achieving their potential.
That is why I have put closing the education attainment gap at the forefront of my priorities. I have acknowledged that this challenge would be difficult, but I believe we are now set to make progress.
Central to that will be a new national improvement framework to provide consistent evidence to allow us to judge what is working. This will be backed by the £100 million Attainment Challenge, launched in February that is already providing funding to schools in the most deprived areas to find innovative new ways of teaching.
Of course, it is not just deprivation that can hold young people back. In my First Minister acceptance speech, I said I wanted to nurture the ambitions of girls and women in Scotland. I hope my efforts over the past year have provided some encouragement to them and, that more importantly, my government has provided some help.
Practical steps, like compelling public authorities with 20 employees or more to publish pay scales will help bring attention to the continuing scandal of the gender pay gap. I also hope that my commitment to encourage gender balance in the boardrooms of public, private and third sector organisations by 2020 will begin to redress the imbalance that still exists at the top level of businesses and other sectors.
These are specific actions I have taken to address gender inequality, but one of the most important policies will also bring a huge benefit to women in Scotland. Too often, women find it difficult to re-enter the jobs market after maternity leave. That’s not just a tragedy for those individuals; it’s a real waste of talent. That is why I was extremely proud that, this year, we were able to expand our free childcare policy to 600 hours for two year olds from low-income households. This means 20,000 two-year-olds across Scotland are now eligible and many more people will find it easier to get back to work.
That is a considerable achievement, but it’s just the start. In February I was able to confirm that – over the lifetime of the next parliament – funding for this policy will double, from £439 million this year to around £880 million.
All of this will remove barriers to people entering the workforce. But it’s important that when people do get jobs, that they are treated fairly and paid a decent wage. We’ll have less success encouraging people back into work if the conditions or contracts are bad, the wages are poor or the progression opportunities are limited.
Over the past year, the economic debate in this country has been completely transformed. I am proud to think I have played my part. Yes, there is – rightly – still the strongest focus on investment, jobs, and innovation, but increasingly we are also interested in the quality of that work. When I came to office, there were around 30 living wage accredited employers in Scotland. Today, they number more than 380 and 81% of the Scottish workforce are paid at least the living wage – the highest proportion in the UK.
The living wage is a crucial component of the Scottish Business Pledge I launched in May. This new partnership is based on inclusive growth – the notion that fair working practices, like the living wage, ending exploitative zero hours contracts and a balanced workforce increases productivity and helps businesses succeed.
Making sure we have health services that people can rely on is also essential to a strong economy and a fair society. That’s why the last year has seen a renewed focus on transforming primary care and continued progress on integrating health and social care.
Scottish health spending this year is over £12 billion for the first time, and the NHS employs 10,000 more peoplethan when we took office.
And, of course, waiting times are shorter. When I became health secretary in 2007, the waiting time target for inpatient and day-case treatment was 18 weeks – just 85% of patients were seen in that time. Today, the target is 12 weeks and 95% are seen within it.
That’s real improvement – delivered by NHS staff, supported by your Scottish Government.
On that day in November 2014, when I accepted the nomination to be First Minister I pledged that my government would be bold, imaginative and adventurous, a government with purpose.
The work that has been delivered in the months since is an excellent start on those aims, a strong foundation on which to deliver further progress for the people of Scotland.