Speech by Deputy First Minister John Swinney to SNP Spring Conference

Below is the speech given by Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, to the SNP 2017 Spring Conference in Aberdeen. Check against delivery.

Conference, in just a few weeks’ time, it will be ten years since this party was first privileged to be elected to government by the people of Scotland. 

It was a surprise to many. In truth, it was a bit of a surprise to us as well.

But we seized the opportunity with drive and determination. We listened to our people and engaged with them, determined to repay the people of Scotland for the trust they placed in us, with dedicated service to deliver hope for our country.

We set to work on day one, focused on making Scotland more successful, a country where everyone has the opportunity to flourish. 

A country where the Government serves the people and never – ever – takes the people for granted.

That enthusiasm and willingness to get on with the task of government has remained constant throughout the many challenges we face as your Scottish Government every day of every week. 

In my new role as Education Secretary, I have the great privilege of working closely with three Ministers: Jamie Hepburn, Shirley-Anne Somerville and Mark McDonald, and our Parliamentary Liaison Officer, Jenny Gilruth. I want to thank each one of them for the contribution they make to our portfolio. 

In the ten months since they took up their roles, they have brought energy, fresh perspectives, knowledge, experience and ideas. They have focused on what we can do to transform the lives of young people in Scotland.

In the last three months alone, between us, we have visited nurseries, children’s services, universities, colleges, schools and businesses in Aberdeen, Kilmarnock, Brechin, Glasgow, Moray, Shetland, Galashiels, Aviemore and Ayr. 

We have met with children, young people, parents and families in West Lothian, Dundee, Fife, Dumbarton, Renfrewshire, Edinburgh, Argyll, Perth, East Lothian, Inverness. 

We have worked on a new national STEM strategy, announced measures to improve the child protection system, set out our Blueprint to expand free childcare provision to 1140 hours, taken forward our commitment to the Named Person service, reviewed governance in our schools, de-cluttered the curriculum, established a review on financial support for students, set out substantial measures on developing Scotland’s young workforce, begun the review of learning for 16 to 24 year olds and acted to ensure the disclosure scheme to protect children and vulnerable adults remains as strong as it needs to be.

We have appointed a Chair of the root and branch review of the care system, awarded £14.5 million in funding to organisations working with children and families from birth to young adulthood, allocated an additional £120 million directly to schools to raise attainment and developed and begun to implement a plan to make our education system world class.

That, conference, is what we mean when we say we get on with the day job.

Every day we go to work for Scotland.  And the country I see today is simply unrecognisable from Scotland 10 years ago.

Perhaps the biggest difference is we have repaired the damage done by Labour’s squandered years in office. Yet, they continue to make bad choices for local communities. 

How else to explain the decision by Labour led North Lanarkshire council to try to swallow up the additional funding we are providing to close the attainment gap. They want to take it out of the hands of the schools to cover up the impact of cuts they are making elsewhere. Cuts which might not be needed had the council chosen to invest in those services by raising the council tax.

They are choosing to sacrifice children’s education in an attempt to cling on to central control.  

Or the decision here in Labour-led Aberdeen – another council which froze council tax this year – but has asked employees, including teachers, to apply for voluntary redundancy.  Even though we have fully funded all local authorities to maintain teacher numbers through the local government settlement. 

Conference, the people of Aberdeen and North Lanarkshire have a choice this year. 

They can choose to keep teachers in our schools and put money straight into their hands directly to benefit children’s education, by voting SNP on 4 May.

Our work nationally points the way to what people can expect locally if they vote SNP in the local government elections. We have worked hard to turn Labour’s record of failure into strong foundations for Scotland to succeed as a fair and prosperous country.

Under the SNP, our country has changed and continues to change for the better. Scotland is now a buoyant country.  

Ten years on, invigorated by a fresh mandate from the people and joined by new and energetic colleagues we are as determined as we were on our first day in office to take Scotland forward.  

At the heart of what we do, and who we are, is this fundamental truth. 

That the power of Government should be applied for the common good and exercised with principle. 

Since the First Minister entrusted me with the education and skills portfolio, my purpose has been very clear. 

To ensure that every child has an equal chance to fulfil his or her potential. 

To deliver the best possible outcomes for all children. 

To use every moment in this term of Parliament to interrupt the cycle of deprivation and poverty which attacks the life chances of far too many children and young people in Scotland. 

My job – the best job – is to deliver a bright future for Scotland’s youngest generation.

That starts before birth. So we are committed to giving every child the best possible start in life. We demonstrate this in our commitment to give every family a baby box for their newborn child and to near double entitlement to free early learning and childcare for every 3 and 4 year old and vulnerable 2 year olds by 2020 – saving families over £4,500 a year in the process.

It continues into primary school. Through our determination to raise standards for all and close the attainment gap between children from the most and least deprived communities, backed by our investment of £750 million over the lifetime of this Parliament.  

And into secondary school, creating more opportunities through Curriculum for Excellence and Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce for our young people to move into positive destinations in young adulthood. 

That journey continues through further and higher education by maintaining full-time college places and widening access so that every child has the opportunity to go to university.

Everything we do, from the earliest years to the end of formal education, is being focused on the huge task we have set ourselves. We are determined to close the attainment gap and deliver excellence for every single young person in Scotland.

As part of our work to deliver excellence for all, we are working to widen access to university. But not every young person can or should go on to university. 

That’s why we have been reforming vocational education and increasing the number of Modern Apprenticeships, hitting new records every year on the road to our target of 30,000 new starts by the end of this Parliament.

We need the whole system to work together if we are going to make the scale of difference that is our ambition. And, we need to break down the barriers between the different parts of the system.

That’s what our new Foundation Apprenticeships do. They are Apprenticeships undertaken at school, with work-based learning, alongside academic exams. 

They are the chance to get a head start on a career by gaining industry-recognised qualifications, working on real projects and gaining the experience every employer looks for.

So far, this innovative approach has been small scale while our ground breaking programme was developed. 

350 Foundation Apprenticeships started in 2016. 

We will now massively expand that number.

Conference, by the end of 2019, 5,000 new start Foundation Apprenticeships will be available in Scotland’s schools, raising the attainment bar in vocational education and giving all our young people equal chances and choices to succeed at school and to succeed in life.

Across Scottish education, we are making progress. 

Last year, our young people achieved record levels of Advanced Higher passes with the level of Higher passes second only to the record high achieved in 2015. More young people from the most deprived communities now leave school with at least one higher or equivalent. And the proportion of young people leaving school for positive destinations reached a record high in 2015/16. 

Last year, 12,000 more students successfully completed FE and HE related qualifications at college than in 2008-09, while the number of Scots going to university to study full time for a first degree has also increased significantly. 

Now, young people from Scotland’s most deprived communities are more likely to participate in higher education by the age of 30 than they were in 2006-07.

Conference, these achievements are no accident. They are the result of the right choices being made.

Choices to put children and young people’s needs and interests at the heart of how and what we deliver in education. 

We have chosen to do more than any previous administration to expand free entitlement to early learning and childcare. And we decided to go further than the Westminster Tories and provide that entitlement to all families in Scotland, not just for those in work, and to provide universal free school meals by 2020 as well. 

Just today, research suggests that under the Tories’ new formula, spending in half of England’s schools will fall while here in Scotland, under the SNP, over 3,200 schools will benefit directly from an additional £120 million funding to close the attainment gap and raise standards for all children. 

When the Tories abolished the education maintenance allowance in England, we chose to keep it so that by 2014-15, the proportion of young people from the 20 per cent most deprived areas receiving financial support to stay on at school was the highest on record.

We chose to reform further education to focus on providing more full-time courses for young people and since 2006/07, the numbers of young people aged 16 to 24 going to college full-time has increased by over 11 per cent. At the same time, full–time students aged 25 and over have increased by over 33 per cent and the number of women studying full-time is up by over 12 per cent.

Our decision to not only keep maintenance grants, but increase them last year, at the same time as the Tories were abolishing them, is helping more students from poorer backgrounds go to university. 

But conference, you won’t ever hear about any of this from the opposition parties. 

They try to paint a picture of a Scottish education system that bears no resemblance to reality.  At no point do they recognise or acknowledge the efforts of everyone in education at all levels who make success happen for children and young people.

But then, that is the luxury of opposition. 

Last year, the Tories claimed that they wanted to provide a strong opposition but conference, they are barely a credible opposition.  There would be no Oscar for their La-La Land performance in Parliament – even if the envelope was opened by mistake. 

How else can we explain a party that brings a different shopping list of uncosted policy asks to Parliament every week, then calls for tax cuts for the wealthiest in our society, while conveniently ignoring that their government in Westminster is slashing Scotland’s budget. 

For all their talk, the Tories haven’t changed. The Tories still are bad for Scotland.

For all the progress we have made, we know there is more still to do.

That sometimes requires making tough choices and not shying away from difficult choices.

The easy choice to make – as the First Minister said on Monday – would be to wait, to see how things pan out. That applies equally to education as it does to our constitutional future.

But I am not prepared to wait and see if the current way of doing things will be enough to deliver an education system that is world class, a system that can provide equity and excellence for all our children. 

To achieve our ambitions means making change happen. 

That means creating a different way of delivering education, creating better structures that empower teachers, schools, communities and families. So I am choosing to change our approach to school education. 

It means listening to teachers and not being afraid to tackle workload to free them up to teach and our children to learn. So I chose to declutter the curriculum and reduce the amount of assessments.

It means targeting the investment of resources to where the need is greatest.  So we have chosen to make more funding available to local authorities and to schools with the greatest levels of deprivation. With more money directly into the hands of head teachers who are best placed to know what their school and their children need to succeed. 

It means insisting upon a consistent approach to improvement and assessment so that I can see where we might need to do more or do things differently. 

And it means ensuring that we have the right people with the right skills in our classrooms and schools.  So we will continue to expect local authorities to maintain teacher numbers and pupil teacher ratios. And it means investing in the leadership to transform Scottish education.

Friends, we know what marks this party out from the rest. 

It is that even after ten years in government, the desire to make a difference still burns fiercely. For this Party, our ambition for Scotland will always drive the tough choices we make. 

And there are choices in our current political debate – choices that demonstrate the fundamental differences between us and the Tories.

We want to move Scotland forward, they hold us back. 

We talk Scotland up, they do us down.

While we seek to give effect to the democratic will of the Scottish people, they want to force us to accept an outcome – which will change all our lives forever – that we neither voted for nor want.

We want to turbo charge our Parliament with powers, they are now threatening to rip up the devolution settlement.

We welcome people to our country, they want to drive them from our shores.

Conference, they think they can do anything to Scotland and get away with it.  We’re not going to let that happen.

Friends, democratic sovereignty is not a gift to be given – or withheld – at the whim of a Tory Prime Minister.

Sovereignty does not belong to Theresa May. It rests with the people of Scotland.

And it is the people’s right – and their right alone – to exercise it as they choose, through the Government they elect, and the Parliament it serves.

The sight of a Tory Prime Minister trampling over the sovereign rights of the Scottish people – the right to choose the form of government they wish to have – is an outrage to every democrat – yes or no – in the land.

It will not – it cannot stand.

Friends, I share the outrage every democrat feels at the actions of the Westminster Tory Government. 

But I say to you, this is a time for cool heads. Cool, clear heads that must now stand up for Scotland’s sovereignty. 

This is what the choice ahead of us amounts to.  The chance to choose our future.