I welcome the opportunity to lead this debate on education.
And I am grateful and excited to be reappointed as the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning.
I would like to outline this Government's vision for how we intend to build on the many successes already in place and how we intend to further improve outcomes for children and young people.
Also, how we intend to tackle the problems that still affect education and how we can overcome current challenges.
In doing so, I will make clear that I intend to take forward this work in partnership.
I welcome back Liz Smith, and I welcome Ken Macintosh and Liam McArthur to their respective roles. I would also like to wish Des McNulty and Margaret Smith well for the future.
I look forward to constructive debate and discussion; how we will collectively understand the challenges; how we will all contribute to solving them.
I, like you, am absolutely committed to improving the life chances of Scotland's children and young people.
This Government's vision is to achieve that through improving attainment for all; raising and realising ambition for all.
This vision is aspirational and challenging. It is achievable.
At the outset, let me stress that I will only make changes to our education system if I am convinced it will improve outcomes for learners.
I think that we all now know that a greater focus on early years is critical.
Angela Constance, Minister for Children and Young People, is working with me to create a fairer start for all.
We will continue to implement 'Getting It Right For Every Child' - ensuring the resources deliver for all, including the most vulnerable children.
For our most vulnerable children, we will see a greater focus on early intervention to achieve stability and improved outcomes.
There are hard-edged economic benefits to early intervention. Early and effective intervention can significantly reduce costs to the state, both in the short and long term, and deliver better results for the individuals involved.
We set out clearly our commitment to supporting children in their earliest years and have talked about the need for a fundamental shift in philosophy and approach.
A shift away from intervening only when a crisis happens to prevention and early intervention.
Of course there are some long term challenges. The biggest are:
- Sustaining investment in the right things at a time of financial pressure
- Improving life chances for Looked After Children
I also know that every administration has said that these are priorities. Every administration has said that they will tackle these issues. Every administration has tried.
And yet, we are back to saying that this is a priority for this administration. This cycle must stop.
This isn't just a matter of statistics and targets. This is about the life chances of our children and young people. We have the courage to take long term action.
We set out a package of measures to take this forward. One of those elements will be to build on our investments in early years by investing in a Change Fund, part of which will deliver a new generation of family centres [Susan Deacon].
We plan to introduce legislation early on in this Parliamentary term to ensure investment in early years is not an optional extra.
We also intend to go further - to explore legislative options to ensure Getting It Right For Every Child is firmly embedded in the whole of the public sector.
We will be consulting with stakeholders over the summer to define where the legislation can have the most impact and support the positive developments that are happening. We are open to views.
And, because we recognise the importance of the home environment, an early priority will be the development of a national parenting strategy that encourages agencies to work together to support parents.
Ensure early years investment supports children's readiness to learn in school.
Last week, Bill Maxwell (interim Chief Executive of Education Scotland and senior Chief Inspector) advised Directors of Education:
"The challenge we have in schools is not that our schools are failing. The greater challenge lies in the large group of schools which are too willing to accept that their current performance is 'good enough.'
The key to success lies in lifting aspirations and the performance of many schools that are in effect 'coasting' and capable of so much more than they are achieving."
Let me repeat an additional perspective: my belief that the reality of Scottish Education is that we have hundreds of thousands of good pupils, taught by tens of thousands of good teachers in thousands of good schools.
The reality is that we can constantly improve the attainment of every child. We can do this by narrowing the gap between the highest and lowest achieving; we can do this by also improving the attainment of our highest achieving children.
For example, in Ontario, a Literacy and Numeracy Strategy which seeks to empower and inspire pupils and teachers has seen high school graduation rates increase from 68 per cent to 79 per cent.
[As Avis Glaze, one of the key figures in the Ontario strategy, says: "It is about building capacity. Staying as a poor, low performing school is not an option. We are interested in improvement, rather than where schools are at any given time."]
I too am interested in improvement. Working with Dr Alasdair Allan, Minister for Learning and Skills, I want to support schools, all schools, to be excellent; to enable every child to reach their full potential and realise their ambitions.
Curriculum for Excellence
Everything will build on the platform of Curriculum for Excellence which is the vehicle that Scotland has chosen to underpin the learning journey, and beyond. To be innovative, ambitious, relevant and supportive to each child's own talents - recognising that each child is unique.
This Parliament united in support for Curriculum for Excellence and I want this Parliament to remain united in its commitment to the delivery of Curriculum for Excellence.
I can confirm to this chamber that work continues apace on the development of the new national qualifications. They will be delivered on time and successfully.
We are working hard to ensure that teachers have as much information as they need as we move forward.
The new agency, Education Scotland, will of course have a key support role for teachers and schools from July 1 onwards.
Within the context of Curriculum for Excellence, we need to make some changes to the broad general education.
Delivery of our Literacy Action Plan through the Literacy Commission.
An emphasis on the importance of language learning.
Bringing together Scottish Studies, including Gaelic language, Scots, Scottish History and Culture, to help our young people understand Scotland and its place in the World.
Building on GLOW - the world's first national school intranet. We are in process of procuring the next generation of GLOW, listening to users.
With Gaelic education, we will continue to support expansion where demand exists. In Edinburgh, demand for places has meant that the Gaelic Unit has outgrown its current premises at Tollcross primary.
I was therefore delighted, last week, to be able to confirm to City of Edinburgh Council that the Scottish Government will provide capital funding towards the costs of renovating the disused primary school in Bonnington.
Curriculum for Excellence is the bright hope for Scottish education. As are our teachers - particularly the young ones coming out of teacher training.
We need to harness their talents and enthusiasms - not dull them through periods of unemployment. I have previously spoken to Parliament about my concerns for teacher employment.
I have taken steps, agreed through the SNCT process, to ensure that the number of teachers being trained is brought into balance with the number of posts available. I expect numbers to be in alignment next year.
I regret the distress these difficulties may cause. It is Local Authorities that employ teachers, but I have taken action to ensure we do not have this waste of potential. The root cause is over supply - it takes a long time to turn around.
We will support and develop our teachers - building greater leadership capacity, improving the quality of teaching and learning.
Following on from the Donaldson Review, we will continue to drive forward the ambitious changes to support our teachers to deliver new levels of attainment in the future.
That is why I have established the review of teacher terms and conditions led by Professor Gerry McCormac.
I do not wish to pre-empt the conclusions of Professor McCormac's work here today.
Education is about creating and sustaining enthusiasm in individuals. The structures that surround education are a means to create success - not an end in themselves.
The education [lifelong learning and culture] committee in the last session of the Parliament looked at the governance of schools. They did not reach a definitive conclusion but set out questions we need to address.
I want us to collectively consider these questions; with this Parliament and with our partners, the chief amongst which is COSLA.
It is that partnership approach that has led to a sea change on rural education across communities, local authorities and Government.
The legislation we passed was good but it has not worked as well as it should. We are making progress on this, in partnership, and I will soon announce the details of the commission on rural education, which will involve our partners, again, including COSLA.
One of the greatest issues we must tackle is the 14 per cent of 16 to 19 year olds who are not in employment, training or education. This issue, for this age group, has existed for too long. This is about their life chances.
We can prevent any talent going to waste by:
- getting it right in the early years and in schools
- supporting the child, the pupil, the student
- balancing individual needs with the needs of our labour market
For those young people leaving school and not going to further or higher education, we are reviewing the avenues that are open to them and where these lead.
Skills development should start in schools. A young person's strengths and ambitions should be nurtured and developed to provide clear direction in their journey into well paid and sustainable jobs.
A young person's decision to go to college, undertake training, voluntary work or a modern apprenticeship will be made easier if the skills have been developed and the benefits and outcomes are clearer.
We have demonstrated this commitment through the funding of 25,000 modern apprenticeships opportunities for 2011/12. This is the highest ever number of modern apprenticeships opportunities in Scotland.
We recognise that providing a variety of learning opportunities is the best means of encouraging young people to stay in post-16 learning and improving their long-term job prospects.
Our young people also need the right support if they are to get the most out of their learning. We are honouring our commitment to support the least well off students in Scotland.
Although abolished in England, we are continuing to provide Education Maintenance Allowances (EMA) to 16-19 year olds from low income households that help them return to or stay in full time education - and investing some £31.5m in 2011-12.
We are committed to do more to help young Scots find the right training and employment.
Colleges and Universities
Further and higher education has played a key role in Scotland's economic success. They will continue to do so in the future.
Parents, pupils, students and business in Scotland have been safe in the knowledge for some time that higher education will remain free and based on ability to learn, not the ability to pay.
In a rapidly changing world our universities and colleges continue to innovate. As part of this, I believe that the learning journey which begins in the classroom must continue to be flexible beyond school.
So the provision offered by our colleges and universities needs to be delivered in a more coherent fashion, with much greater collaboration than presently exists. The institutions themselves must also be governed in ways that will help them cope with the challenges of the future.
The journey which I began on higher education with the Green Paper will reach another important staging post next week when I will say more about my plans. And later this year I will set out a wider package of reforms on post 16 education covering colleges as well.
On the specific subject of university governance, however, I can announce today that Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski, the Principal of Robert Gordon University, will chair a small five member panel that will undertake a review of the current governance arrangements. Will include unions and students as well as a Chair of Court.
The panel will publish its remit before the summer recess and invite views on this important subject over the summer. They will provide me with their conclusions at the end of the year and we will base our plans on their proposals for change.
I have provided here an idea of the ambition that the Government holds for Scottish Education. I have also indicated some of the challenges.
In the first four years we started to address the challenges, but there is more to do. I remain committed to bearing down on class sizes in the early years of primary school - however, I recognise that progress will not be as fast as I would like.
I would also like to say that although education is fully devolved, were we fully independent we would be able to focus the sort of resources in education that we can currently only dream about.
However, we will aim high to achieve excellence across all sectors - in early years, our schools, our colleges, our universities.
I have touched upon the various interests and people that we will listen to and support: parents; teachers; lecturers; social workers; employers; the wider community - it might even be politicians.
We won't all agree all the time.
But, above all, my task - our task - is to ensure that we focus on the attainment of all of our young people and enhance their life chances.
This will be to the success of not only our young people, it will also be to the success of Scotland as a whole.