This has been an important year for education in Scotland with the first of the new National Qualifications for learners in S4. These have been introduced as part of Curriculum for Excellence and replace Standard Grades.
Standard Grades, of course, served Scotland well for over 20 years. But as the wider world changes, so qualifications need to change too. We want to give Scotland’s young people the best possible opportunities when leaving school or college — whether they are planning on progressing to college, university, training or employment.
The Scottish Qualifications Authority developed the new National Qualifications in partnership with more than 1,100 individuals – representatives from teaching unions, head teachers, local authorities, colleges, higher education, parents and employers as well as subject experts – to create the best qualifications possible.
They reflect the new style of learning, which places an emphasis on skills and knowledge and tests the understanding of knowledge as well as the facts.
The development of the new qualifications builds on strong foundations in Scottish education. Our schools are performing well and getting better – and in increasingly better condition.
The Scottish Government is committed to delivering good quality, well designed, sustainable schools through the Schools for the Future programme. Just last month, the Deputy First Minister broke the ground on the new £48.5 million Wick Community Campus, which was supported with £17.2 million Scottish Government funding.
By March 2018 the Scottish Government’s £1.25 billion Schools for the Future Programme will see the construction of 67 new schools built for over 46,000 pupils. These schools – with £800 million provided by government and £450 million by local authorities – will be built in every part of Scotland in partnership with local authorities and throughout the year. I’ve attended a number of sod cuttings and official openings, from the Highlands to the Borders. These new schools are state of the art buildings and provide an excellent environment for pupils to learn in.
Of course, the key outcome from better learning conditions is better learning outcomes and Audit Scotland’s recent report on educational attainment showed that performance has improved against all ten of the attainment measures examined.
And we must ensure improvements apply to our most vulnerable children. In June, new summary statistics were published that show the proportion of all school leavers staying in a positive destination such as training, further education or employment after leaving school reached 90 per cent in March 2014 – the highest level on record.
This offers positive evidence that the Scottish Government’s work in tackling the attainment gap – a huge priority for me and this Government – is progressing.
We must continue in our efforts to maintain momentum, and we are. We are committed, alongside our partners, to ensure every pupil in Scotland is able to fulfil their potential as well as doing what we can to reduce child poverty.
So far this year, this has included announcing a £1.5 million Access to Learning Fund, launching a major improvement programme – Raising Attainment for All – with 100 participating schools and supporting the development of Education Scotland’s School Improvement Partnership Programme.
Of course, we know that learning begins in children’s earliest years and that is a key message of our successful Play Talk Read campaign. In May we also highlighted evidence from several major studies showing how high-quality pre-school education helps improve performance at school at all ages.
The Scottish Government is committed to improving and increasing high-quality, flexible early learning and childcare which is accessible and affordable for all children and families. We have committed at least £280 million to expanding provision for 3 and 4 year olds to almost 16 hours a week from this month (August) and extending this to the 27 per cent most disadvantaged two year olds over the next two years, reaching around 15 per cent in the first year.
Of course, we have also outlined our ambition to use the budgetary choices and the economic opportunities available with independence to transform childcare, moving to a universal system of 30 hours a week pre-school entitlement from age one.
To ensure the development of an excellent workforce that matches the scale of our ambition, in February we appointed leading children’s expert Professor Iram Siraj to undertake a review of the early years sector – building on our investment of £4 million in skills.
And of course, I am proud that this is the year the Scottish Government committed £70.5 million in funding over two years to increase the entitlement to free school meals. From January next year, every one of Scotland’s P1 to P3 children will have the option of a free meal in school – promoting healthy eating, supporting improved attainment and saving families around £330 a year for each child.
This will be supported by the Better Eating, Better Learning guidance, which I launched in March alongside Richard Lochhead, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Food and the Environment, which sets the agenda for the coming decade to drive further improvements to both school food and food education.
This has also been an important year in Scotland’s higher education sector.
In September, the strength of the sector was recognised in the latest world university rankings published by Quacquarelli Symonds, with Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews Universities all improving on their placings from last year.
We have also seen Higher Education Statistics Agency statistics that show graduates from Scotland’s 19 higher education institutions have better prospects within six months of graduation than their peers in the rest of the UK.
The quality of our university research is recognised around the globe.The Fraunhofer Centre for Applied Photonics and the Max Planck International Partnership have been attracted to Scotland to work in partnership with our universities.
These examples illustrate, once again, that Scotland has a university sector to be proud of – one that punches above its weight in research and education.
Access to university rightly remains a topic of huge importance. Everyone knows our position and it remains very simple – access to higher education is based on ability to learn, not the ability to pay.
This Government is also strongly focused on supporting more young women and men towards work. That’s why we set up the Commission for Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce, chaired by Sir Ian Wood, which provided its final recommendations in June.
We are working in partnership with local government and other stakeholders to deliver world-class vocational education, training and to create more jobs and opportunities for the young people of Scotland, underlined by our initial £4.5 million package of measures to support implementation of these recommendations.
So far this year, this has included the launch of a partnership with Siemens and the University of Highlands and Islands to create advanced apprenticeships in engineering and technologies.
Throughout this year, we have been building on established strengths and successes that have been achieved over generations in Scotland, but shaped in recent years through the powers afforded to us through devolution.
We know we can do more. Scottish education is poised to take advantage of the powers of independence to make Scotland the best place to grow up and as set out in Scotland’s Future, independence would let us do so much more to support those in our education system - our nurseries, schools, colleges and universities.
Independence will provide the ability to join up policy and create greater opportunities for the whole education system, including investing further in the early years of childhood to match the best in Europe and integrating our approach to education with taxation and benefits to tackle the attainment gap.
An independent Scotland will have the opportunity to internationally enhance the profile of our institutions, and will have new responsibilities for immigration policy, following independence, to attract leading research talent from around the world to study and settle in Scotland.
And with independence, Scotland will have the opportunity to internationally enhance the profile of our institutions, and will have new responsibilities for immigration policy, to attract leading research talent from around the world to study and settle in Scotland.
For now, we will continue doing all we can to support those in our education system.
Education Secretary Mike Russell