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18/08/15 14:04

A World Leader in Education

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
Wester Hailes Education Centre
18 August 2015

This week is the first week of term for many young people across Scotland – including for almost 60,000 children who are entering primary 1.

60,000 excited little minds, eager to learn and curious about the world around them. The duty we have - as a society - to each and every one of them is sacred.

I visited some of those children earlier today at Clovenstone Primary. And of course, it’s impossible to do something like that without thinking back to your own school days.

I was very fortunate. The education I got at Dreghorn Primary and Greenwood Academy in Ayrshire was first class. My teachers were superb. The quality of my education - together with wonderful parents who encouraged me to see horizons beyond anything they had ever experienced - are the reasons that this working class girl from Ayrshire is able to stand here today as the First Minister of Scotland.

So it matters deeply to me personally that every young girl and boy growing up today – regardless of where they were born or what their family circumstances are - gets the same chances that I did.

And of course it also matters to us as a nation. Scotland pioneered the idea of universal access to school education in the 17th and 18th centuries. Ever since then, a commitment to education has been part of our identity, part of our sense of ourselves as a country.

But it's about much more than pride in our past. Excellence in education is essential to our prosperity, competitiveness, wellbeing - to our overall success as a nation - in the future as well, just as it has in the past.

And so since this is the first school year to start since I became First Minister, I want to make clear, beyond any doubt, the intention of my government to ensure that Scotland's proud educational traditions are renewed and refreshed for the modern age, so that they stand, not as a symbol of our past, but as the hallmark of our future as a country. I want to be able to say, with confidence and with evidence, that there is no better place in the world to be educated than here in Scotland - and I want to know that this claim holds true for all young people, regardless of their background or circumstance.

And in outlining how my Government will help the children starting school this week - and all young people in Scotland - to have the best possible start in life, I will set out two overarching priorities. The first is straightforward. We want to raise standards everywhere, for every pupil, in every school in the country.

And the second follows on from the first. We want to raise standards most quickly, in the areas where improvement is most needed. In particular, we want to close the gap in educational outcomes between pupils from the most and least deprived parts of Scotland.

But before I talk about how we will do that, I want to emphasise a basic and very important truth - albeit one that is too often overlooked.

Despite the undoubted challenges that we face, Scotland’s schools are a success story.

The last 8 years have been tough – the recession, and the deep public spending cuts which followed, have created pressures for the Scottish Government, for local government and for many families. But the fact remains that education in Scotland has made progress.

The introduction of curriculum for excellence has been a major step forward – and one which is now attracting international attention. It gives teachers more flexibility, provides a broader education for young people, and sets higher standards for achievement than ever before.

More than 500 schools have been rebuilt or refurbished since 2007. That’s 1/5 of all school premises in the country; and it’s 200 more than in the previous 8 years.

We’ve provided funding to maintain teacher numbers. In 2006, more than 15,000 primary one children were in classes of more than 25. Now, the figure is below 500.

In 2007, just 45% of students stayed on at school until 6th year – now, the proportion is 62%. One reason why that increase has been possible is that we retained the educational maintenance allowance when it was abolished in England – a step which benefits 35,000 school pupils and college students every year.

And we are seeing better outcomes than ever before.

School leaver destinations are the best on record. Of the students who left school last year, more than 9 out of 10 were in employment, education or training nine months later.

Two weeks ago, young people in Scotland gained a record number of passes at Higher and Advanced Higher. And the successes haven’t just been about Highers. More people received Awards, National Certificates and National Progression Awards - qualifications relating to wider skills for life and work – for example in childcare and construction, leadership and personal finance. We’re providing a more flexible school environment, with more qualifications which provide routes into work.

Preparing young people for work is going to be an even bigger focus in the future. It’s an area where we’re working increasingly closely with employers. We’re implementing a national plan for developing the young workforce and widening access to our universities – as a result, we are expanding what young people can learn, and where they can learn it.

Finally, it’s worth saying something about school inspections because they attracted some attention last week. In our last national performance report, 90% of schools were graded satisfactory or better. But to suggest, as some have done, that this means that 90% of schools are just satisfactory is simply wrong - it is to ignore the 'or better' part of the categorisation. In fact, the percentage of schools with a grading of just satisfactory was 21%. 69% of schools were graded as good, very good or excellent.

Now, let me be clear, I am not satisfied with that. None of us should be satisfied with that.

As a result of the work we are doing, I want to see the percentage of schools in the good or better category rise on a year on year basis. Education Scotland is currently reviewing its approaches to inspection and I have asked them to advise me specifically on any changes to our system of school inspection that they consider would help to support that wider improvement work.

But the basic picture is clear. In every part of this country, Scotland has good schools, good teachers, and our young people are good learners. Standards have risen and are continuing to rise. That’s testament to the work of our local authorities. It’s also due to the contribution of many other individuals and organisations – for example, the third sector, youth workers and community learning and development staff all work increasingly closely with schools. And most of all, it’s a huge tribute to the dedication of teachers, parents and students across the country.

Wester Hailes Education Centre is a great example of this progress. In 2009 only 6% of school leavers here gained at least one Higher – last year, 43% did. It’s a place where better schooling and better results are leading to better life chances for many young people.

There are two points about that. The first is that it’s impossible to think about that success, without thinking about the expertise, commitment and passion of the teachers here – led by Sheila Paton until recently, and now by Stuart Heggie.

I also met great teachers at Clovenstone Primary earlier this morning, led by Carolyn Didcock. In fact, I see at schools across the country just how much we owe to our teachers and headteachers. That’s why we’re investing in their professional development through Teaching Scotland’s future. It’s why we have established the Scottish College for Educational Leadership. And next month marks the start of our new Masters-level qualification for headship – by the summer of 2019, it will be mandatory for all new head teachers to have one. We know that supporting teachers and headteachers to be local leaders and drivers of change and improvement is an essential part of supporting our young people.

And the second point is that the success and improvements we’ve seen – here at Wester Hailes and across Scotland – should and must encourage us to aim for even greater improvements.

Because although standards have risen across the board, we do still need to do much more. The recent SSLN report - albeit a snapshot survey - suggesting that standards of literacy had fallen was of significant concern to me and it should be of significant concern to all of those who care about the future of our young people. That is why much of the attainment work that we are undertaking is focussed so firmly on literacy and numeracy.

And, on the subject of needing to do more, we know there is still a significant - and unacceptable - attainment gap within and between schools in different parts of Scotland.

Now, there is already some evidence that progress is being made - though not far or fast enough.

For example in 2008, just over 2 in 10 students from the most deprived areas of Scotland, obtained at least one higher or equivalent. Last year, the figure was almost 4 in 10.

However, for students from the most affluent areas, the figure was not 4 out of 10 - it was 8 out of 10. In other words, when it comes to Highers, school leavers from the most deprived 20% of areas in Scotland currently do half as well as school leavers from the most affluent areas. That is quite simply unacceptable and we must strive to improve that.

My aim - to put it bluntly - is to close that attainment gap completely. It will not be done overnight - I accept that. But it must be done. After all, its existence is more than just an economic and social challenge for us all. It is a moral challenge. Indeed, I would argue that it goes to the very heart of who we are and how we see ourselves as a country.

I remember five years ago, I went to the funeral service of Jimmy Reid, the great trade union activist, in Govan Old Parish Church. Billy Connelly was one of the speakers, and he told a story about going for walks with Jimmy in Govan when they were young. This was probably in the 1950s - they would have been going along streets in the constituency I now represent. And Jimmy would point to a tower block and say: “Behind that window is a guy who could win Formula One. And behind that one there’s a winner of the round-the-world yacht race. And behind the next one … And none of them will ever get the chance to sit at the wheel of a racing car or in the cockpit of a yacht.”

It’s a beautiful way of expressing the way in which poverty can stifle aspiration. Despite our many achievements, it’s still far too relevant today. And of course, it’s not just relevant to exceptional occupations like the ones Jimmy mentioned.

If you look at a profession like medicine – the most deprived 20% of areas in Scotland provide 1 in 5 of Scotland’s school leavers, but just 1 in 20 successful entrants for medicine and dentistry courses. That under-representation isn’t a reflection of young people’s talent; it reflects the fact that for all the great work that goes on in schools across the country, too many children have their life chances influenced more by where they live, than by how talented they are, or how hard they work.

And if we’re missing out on many of the talented medics of the future, it doesn't take much imagination to know what else we’re missing out on: engineers, computer coders, life scientists, artists, teachers - even MSPs and MPs.

The attainment gap doesn’t simply hold back young people who deserve a fair chance to fulfil their potential – it impoverishes all of us as a society.

That’s why closing that gap is a defining challenge for the government I lead, and for our society as a whole.

Now, I’m very aware – as I’m sure everyone in the room is – that a huge amount of what we need to do goes far beyond the education system. By the time children are entering school at the age of 5, the gap in vocabulary between the poorest and wealthiest families can already be 18 months.

So at a time when UK Government cuts to tax credits and welfare are hurting so many households, the work we’re doing to support children and families matters hugely. That’s why it’s vital to tackle poverty and to use the Scottish Parliament’s new welfare powers wisely when we get them; it’s why we’re supporting parents through investment in more health visitors for young children, and through early reading projects such as bookbug; and it’s why our major expansion of early learning and childcare is one of the best investments we can make as a country.

But school education – and how that relates to people’s home and family circumstances – is hugely important. It’s therefore the main focus of my remarks today. While we must recognise - and address - the factors beyond the school gates, we must never, ever, become content to shrug our shoulders and accept that these factors make under -attainment in our schools inevitable for some young people.

Instead, we must see school education as one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal to help overcome the disadvantages associated with poverty. We must make a reality of the old adage that education is the great leveller in life.

So I want to outline today some of the work we are doing to increase standards in all schools and – crucially – our focus on raising them most quickly in the areas where it’s most needed.

We are focussing some of our key initiatives on primary schools - because we firmly believe that if we can close the attainment gap when children are young, the benefits will continue into secondary school and well beyond.

And we’ll focus in particular on young people’s literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing. We are ensuring the education system adapts to the career paths and work patterns of the future – that’s a major theme of our work on developing the young workforce. But we understand that to do that, we have to ensure that all children have a good grounding in the most essential skills. After all, children’s ability to read, write and count - and be confident, healthy and happy learners – underpins their success in all other subjects.

So I’ll talk about our plans for improving literacy and numeracy in particular. And I want to begin with a fundamental point. When it comes to the education of our young people and to improving attainment, and closing the attainment gap, what matters to me is what works.

That’s why the Scottish Government is happy to learn lessons from around the world – for example in the last 6 months I’ve visited successful and improving schools in Tower Hamlets in London and in Brooklyn in New York. And it’s why all of our attainment initiatives within Scotland – as I’ll go on to discuss - encourage schools to learn from each other. But if you believe that what matters is what works, I think you also need to accept something else.

We need, here in Scotland, to have the information available about children's attainment to be able to measure progress consistently so that we can see what’s working and where we still need to improve. That need for better and more reliable information is especially acute in primary and early secondary school.

Virtually all local authorities recognise the importance of standardized assessment for those age groups – that’s why 30 out of 32 currently use it. Standardised assessment helps teachers – it provides useful information to support their own judgement of children’s progress. But many local authorities use different systems. That makes it much more difficult to get a clear and consistent picture of progress.

That’s why we are now developing a National Improvement Framework. I will say more about the Framework - and, in particular, how it will address this issue of a lack of clear and consistent information - when I set out my Programme for Government to the Scottish Parliament two weeks today.

The basic purpose of the improvement framework will be to provide clarity on what we are seeking to achieve and allow us to measure clearly where we’re succeeding and where we still need to do more. By doing that, it will enable us to raise standards more quickly. And as a result, it will help to change the future for young people across our country.

And of course by doing all of that, the improvement framework will help to underpin all of the other steps that we are taking to improve attainment.

Last year, we launched the Raising Attainment for All programme. It is a voluntary programme which now covers more than 250 schools in 24 local authority areas. It’s not about significant extra funding – that’s not always possible in the current spending climate. But it is about helping schools to try new things and to learn from each other.

So the schools themselves identify what they will do to improve standards. They then assess whether those actions are working. One school is focusing on setting aside time so that children can read for pleasure; another is prioritising written work among a certain age group; another might work on improving numeracy; and others are trying different approaches according to their particular needs. These ideas and examples are shared with other schools, so that the ones which work best can be used more widely.

Raising Attainment for All has been working well over the last year. But we know that we need to do more. So we’re supporting the recruitment of an attainment adviser in every local authority area. And we’re launching two further initiatives specifically for primary schools.

The Read Write Count literacy and numeracy campaign began yesterday. In the coming months, all children in primary 1 will be sent a pack of books and learning materials. Primaries 2 and 3 will receive a pack in 2016.

The campaign encourages young children. And crucially, it recognises the fundamental importance of parents. For example it provides hints for possible activities – whether it’s reading to the children at bedtime, or playing counting games in the supermarket.

And the campaign also includes special sessions – targeted in areas of greater deprivation – which will bring parents and carers together with teachers.

And most importantly of all in this context, the Scottish Government announced earlier in the year that we would allocate an additional £100m over the next 4 years to a Scottish Attainment Challenge. The Challenge will focus specifically on - and provide additional funding for - literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing in primary schools in our most deprived areas.

A large proportion of the Attainment Fund has been allocated to the seven local authorities which have the highest concentration of pupils living in poverty. Each of those authorities is developing its own plans according to its own priorities.

Most of the extra funding is being used to recruit more staff – teachers, classroom assistants, learning support specialists and family link workers. As a result, schools will be able to provide even better support for children and parents in the areas where it is most needed.

So West Dunbartonshire will provide more targeted support as children move from nursery to primary, and then from primary to secondary schools. It will also recruit more maths specialists to improve teaching in primary school. Dundee’s plans include a strong focus on music, drama and dance. Glasgow is recruiting 90 additional teachers and looking at staff development, among other issues. The point is that each local authority has flexibility; and the Scottish Government, together with each authority will closely monitor the results of the different interventions, so that the evidence of what works can be shared more widely.

But the fund isn’t solely for those 7 local authorities.

Today I can confirm that it will support 57 more schools in another 14 local authority areas.

This takes the total number of primary schools benefiting from the Attainment Fund to more than 300.

One of the reasons I visited Clovenstone Primary today, is that it’s one of the Edinburgh schools which will benefit. It’s a school which already has a strong focus on literacy and numeracy, and which is working increasingly closely with parents and the wider community. This funding will enable it to do even more for all of its students – including the boys and girls I met today who were starting primary 1.

The final area we’re focusing on is aspiration. And I want to be clear about exactly what I mean here. It’s sometimes easy to talk as though it’s the job of adults to give children aspirations; as though they wouldn’t have ambitions otherwise. But actually, most young people are full of ambition and dreams - what is often lacking as they get older is the information, support, and role models which make them see and believe that those aspirations are achievable.

That’s why we’re putting together an aspirations package for schools. We’ll work with organisations such as the Children’s University - as well as with local employers and entrepreneurs - to ensure that young people have access to the experience, knowledge and networks that make them realise what they can achieve. It’s a practical approach which will help young people understand the work they need to do to realise their ambitions. It is consistent with the aims of the commission on Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce. And it’s another way of giving all of our young people a fair chance to succeed – to find work which makes good use of their talents, and which enables them to lead productive, fulfilling and happy lives.

That, more than anything else, is what this government wants to achieve. I spoke earlier about Jimmy Reid’s reflections on the wasted potential he saw when he was growing up in Govan.

Reid’s famous Glasgow University rectorial address in 1972 captured the same point differently, but just as well – “The untapped resources of the North Sea are as nothing compared to the untapped resources of our people”.

My priority for my time as First Minister, is that every young person should have the same advantage that I did when I was growing up in Ayrshire. They should know that if they have the talent and work hard enough, they will be able to fulfil their potential.

That’s a challenge for schools, for local government, indeed for society as a whole – and it’s one on which my government is determined to show leadership.

Because by succeeding, we’ll secure a fairer and more prosperous future – not just for the boys and girls starting school today – but for all young people and for Scotland as a whole.