Growing up in a working class community in Ayrshire in the 1980s, I was fortunate to be supported by loving parents. I came from a stable home, and was supported in my ambitions to study law at Glasgow Uni – which I was able to do without paying any tuition fees.
But I was also conscious that many other children in communities like mine were badly affected by the policies of Margaret Thatcher’s government.
Deindustrialisation, mass unemployment, poverty – these injustices were a major motivation for me to get involved in politics as a teenager.
When I became First Minister, I said that improving education – to help give all young people the best start in life – was my top priority.
This is actually about more than just our education system – it is a task for the whole of government.
And a task which begins even before a child is born.
You probably saw some of the extensive media coverage of the Baby Box, which has just been rolled out nationwide after a successful pilot.
Based on a similar scheme in Finland, which has a proven record of decreasing infant mortality, the box is available to all new mothers on request – and includes essential items for a baby’s first weeks and months and also provides a safe space for babies to sleep near their parents.
Looking ahead, these children will also be the first to fully benefit from our transformative roll-out in childcare provision.
The most important capital investment that we are making in this parliament is not in any road, rail line or bridge – it is in the infrastructure that will enable us to offer 30 hours of flexible, good quality nursery education.
This obviously makes it easier for parents to enter the labour market, but is also a long-term investment in the education of our youngest children before they start school.
And once they do start school, we are reforming that system to ensure that each of them receives the most fulfilling and rewarding experience possible.
The Curriculum for Excellence has been endorsed by the OECD and our International Council of Education Advisers as a bold approach that equips young people with the skills they need in a constantly changing world.
But it’s not just about what kids are being taught. It’s about who is making the key decisions around their education.
I believe that as much as possible, those decisions are best taken by a child’s parents and teachers.
So after extensive consultation, this year we’ll be introducing a new Education Bill proposing more powers to headteachers, more support to teachers and strengthening the role of parents.
This is backed by significant investment. Over this Parliament we’re giving an extra £750m to schools through our Attainment Challenge and much of it will go direct to headteachers. They can decide how best to invest it – whether that is hiring extra teaching or support staff, new equipment or much more.
And to give our parents and teachers the fullest possible information about a child’s progress, we will phase in new standardised assessments in P1, 4 & 7 and S3 from autumn this year.
Improvements to our education system won’t happen overnight. It will take time before we see their full effect. Reform will continue and we will keep faith in our teachers.
As a devolved government with limited powers, there are some areas over which we have little control – which is deeply frustrating.
The welfare cuts being introduced by the UK Government are having a devastating effect on poverty levels across the UK. They have even scrapped their statutory targets to reduce child poverty.
This year we will pass our own wide-ranging Child Poverty Act which will reintroduce these targets in Scotland.
We are investing over £100m a year in mitigating some of the worst of these welfare cuts, but as long as the key welfare levers remain at Westminster, we’ll be fighting child poverty with one hand tied behind our backs.
It may be a cliché to say that young people are our future.
But it happens to be true.
When today’s young generation grow up, I want them to look back and be able to say that we did everything we could to give them the best possible start in life.
This article was originally published in the Sunday Post.