Once again we gather for another conference remotely. No lively discussions in a packed conference hall or bumping into old friends as we tour the exhibition area. Not for now at least.
It is my hope that we will be back together soon, celebrating, belatedly, our party’s historic fourth Scottish Parliament election victory.
Following the election, it was a privilege to be asked by the First Minister to serve as Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills.
I know I’m taking on this role at a critical time. Covid has caused significant disruption to our nurseries, schools, colleges, universities. It’s given our young people, their parents and carers and our teachers and support staff the toughest of years. And many challenges still lie ahead.
I look forward to building on the progress of my predecessor, John Swinney, alongside my colleagues Clare Haughey, Minister for Children and Young People, and Jamie Hepburn, Minister for Higher and Further Education, Youth Employment and Training.
Together, we will drive forward Scotland’s education recovery. It’s a task and an opportunity that we relish.
Conference, our opponents may try to knock our record on education. But, it is record we were proud to put before the electorate. And, in May of this year, judge us they did.
After fourteen years in government, voters resoundingly placed their confidence in the Scottish National Party once again.
And what is that record?
Last month we completed our near-doubling of funded early learning and childcare for three and four-year olds, and eligible two year olds – from 600 hours to 1,140.
That investment – one of the best any government can make – will benefit up to 130,000 children across Scotland, supporting them in the critical stages of their early development and equipping them with the skills they need for starting school and beyond.
Scotland’s young people deserve to be taught in modern, high-quality learning environments. And under this government, school buildings are in their best condition since records began.
Overall, teacher numbers are higher than they’ve been since 2008. And the number of primary teachers is at its highest level since 1980.
In one of the toughest academic years we’ve ever known, our learners have risen to the challenge. This year the number of Higher passes was at its highest since devolution.
Advanced Higher passes were the highest since their introduction in 2001. And the number of Scottish students accepted to university hit a record high.
We made a commitment to ensure that young people from Scotland’s poorest communities have the same chance of going to university as those from wealthier communities.
We’ve made excellent progress, with the number of acceptances from the 20% most deprived areas in Scotland to UK universities at a record high.
We are leading the way as the only administration in the UK to offer bursary support targeted specifically for care-experienced students.
Thanks to free tuition – students in Scotland finish their studies with the lowest average student loan debt of any UK nation.
Taken together, our policies have resulted in the highest level of education investment per person across the UK.
Conference, that’s a record that we are proud to defend.
But there’s much yet to do – and since the election in May, we have done a power of work.
During the election we committed to a raft of actions we would take in the first one hundred days in government.
Upon re-election, we delivered.
We funded councils to increase teacher numbers by 1,000 and classroom assistants by 500.
Thanks to a Scottish Government investment, families will not face bills for music tuition or core curriculum activities.
Expanding free school lunches to primary 4 and 5 children – the first step to introduce breakfast and lunches for all primary school pupils. Delivered.
Increasing Best Start Food funding to £4.50 per week, helping families with children under three to buy healthy foods? Delivered.
Delivering the first allocation of funding for councils for the refurbishment of Scotland’s play-parks? Delivered.
And we know that uniforms can be one of the most significant school costs for parents. That’s why we increased the School Clothing Grant for primary and secondary pupils.
We also abolished core curriculum charges, enabling all pupils to take the subjects they want without families having to struggle to meet costs for practical lessons.
All that and more in the first hundred days of government. Conference, I could go on.
But I want to look forward – to set out the ambitions we have for Scotland’s education system.
Earlier this week, the First Minister set out the Programme for Government for the year ahead. It is a prospectus for renewal and recovery.
At the centre of that recovery is education, ensuring the people of Scotland have the opportunities, and the skills, to reach their potential, throughout their lives.
Conference, no education system is fit for purpose, unless we do all we can to give children the best possible start in life.
That is why we have committed to implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to the maximum extent our powers allow. It’s the global gold standard for children’s rights.
That’s the standard we seek to hold ourselves to, realising it will ensure children’s rights are built into decision making here in Scotland.
In March this year, we were delighted that the Scottish Parliament gave its unanimous backing to a Bill that will embed the convention in Scots law.
Staggeringly, the Tories in Westminster saw fit to challenge Scotland’s right to do this.
I can see no reason for them doing this. I’ve asked myself why anyone would want to stand in the way of a better life for our children?
To play constitutional politics?
To imprison children for months on end in detention centres to preserve their ‘hostile environment’?
To continue to immiserate the poorest families in our society with a punitive benefits system?
On a visit to the UK in 2018 UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, confirmed what we all know.
The level of child poverty in the UK was, and I quote, “not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one.”
And, earlier this year the Children’s Commissioner for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland told the Tories their two-child benefit cap amounted to a “clear breach of children’s human rights”.
We want to do better by our children. We want to hold ourselves to a higher standard. But, this Tory government is utterly heartless.
We await the ruling of the Tories’ challenge to the rights of our children.
Conference, when our country achieves its independence, their objections will not matter. There will be nothing standing in the way of doing what’s best for our children and young people.
But, in the here and now, we will use the powers at our disposal to give Scotland’s children the best start in life.
We will move forward onto the next phase of our childcare revolution. In the lifetime of this parliament we will expand our offer of free childcare to all one and two year olds, starting with children from low income households.
We know that the need for childcare doesn’t end at the nursery graduation. And it doesn’t take a summer break. That’s why we will build a system of wraparound childcare for school age children – offering care before and after school and during the holidays – with those on the lowest incomes paying nothing.
Conference, the last eighteen months have been a major test for our education system. During that time, Scotland’s schools had to close to all but children of key workers.
Teaching was moved online. Young people went without seeing their friends. Exams were cancelled. When schools did re-open, they were different.
Learning interrupted by periods of self-isolation, and like the whole of society, social distancing, face masks, ventilation, and good hand hygiene became the norm.
Conference, I am inspired and proud of Scotland’s learners, parents, and carers in equal measure. I want to say thank you all for the sacrifices you have made.
As we move to recovery, we must redouble our efforts to make sure our education system offers a world-class experience for all – no matter what your background.
The inequality that exists in society has been brought in to sharp focus by the pandemic – with those from the poorest backgrounds hit hardest.
And while the Tories continue to punish families – this week with a hike in National Insurance that will hit those on low pay hard – this SNP government is wholeheartedly committed to supporting those most in need.
We cannot let poverty stand in the way of children and young people fulfilling their potential. Closing the poverty-related attainment gap remains one of this government’s defining missions.
That’s why, over the course of this parliament, we will invest a further £1 billion, with a refreshed Scottish Attainment Challenge.
On top of that, we have committed to tackling the costs of the school day, ensuring children have access to the same opportunities, including digital devices, school trips and more.
We will also make sure no child is hungry in our classrooms, providing free breakfasts and lunches to every pupil in Scotland’s primary and state-funded special schools.
Delivering on our ambitions for Scotland’s education system will, of course, only be possible with the support of our world-class teachers, support staff and lecturers.
They have borne much of the strain of the past eighteen months, serving learners tirelessly, so that they are still able to succeed in the most of difficult circumstances. For that I want to say a heartfelt thank you.
Going forward, a cornerstone to our recovery is ensuring our schools have the staff they need, and that our children and young people are taught in supportive learning environments.
That’s why over the course of this parliamentary term we will fund the recruitment of an additional 3,500 teachers and 500 classroom assistants – and that’s over and above the 1,400 already funded through local authorities during the pandemic.
While the pandemic has caused untold disruption to our education sector, it provides us with an opportunity to do things differently. Conference, in the few short months I have been in post, I have embarked on a significant programme of reform in our schools system.
It’s been over a decade since the Curriculum for Excellence was introduced. It ushered in a new national curriculum from nursery to secondary school. It represented a significant reform to the curriculum in Scotland, and placed learners at the heart of education.
The Scottish Parliament seemed like a different place then. I remember the national curriculum enjoying the support of all five of Scotland’s political parties.
We want our education system to be truly world class. That’s why we commissioned the OECD to conduct an independent review into the Curriculum for Excellence.
And, upon its publication I accepted all twelve of the OECD’s recommendations. The government will now take this work forward this year with teachers, learners and parents.
Alongside this, the SQA will be replaced with a new specialist agency with responsibility for curriculum and assessment. And the role of inspection will move out of Education Scotland.
I said at the time, that we are embarking on a period of change. But, ultimately, it is change to deliver what is best for Scotland’s learners. And we will work with anyone willing to help us make that a reality.
Conference, we also must ensure that our students are supported to succeed in their studies. While tuition is free for Scottish-domiciled undergraduate students in Scotland, learning is not.
This is something the pandemic placed under a bright light. While students were unable to work many faced dire straits. And so, we acted, delivering tens of millions of pounds in emergency hardship support to Scotland’s students.
But we must do more. This parliamentary term, we will institute a package of improvements to student support: expanding our total student support package to reach the equivalent of the real living wage, ensuring no student loses their benefit entitlements because they are in receipt of – or even entitled to – student support – as well as conducting reviews into summer support and postgraduate funding.
On top of that, we’ll take steps to tackle the day-to-day costs students face.
The impacts of this pandemic will be felt acutely by your young people who are at greatest risk of the long-term impacts of the economic crisis.
We must support them. That’s why we will continue to deliver our Young Person’s Guarantee – backed up by £70 million – providing at least 24,000 new and enhanced opportunities for young people across Scotland.
Conference, as we continue to tackle the challenges which the pandemic gives us – both within education and in wider society, we will also look to the future – to recovery.
Education and skills will be at the heart of this recovery, and every step of the way – from the nursery gates, to the graduation halls, and beyond – this government will be there for learners.