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19/05/15 19:30

Education Secretary Angela Constance speech at Robert Owen Centre

Many thanks to Neal for that warm welcome, and to Chris Chapman for chairing our question session later this evening.

I am delighted to be here tonight. It seems appropriate to be making this key speech on Scottish education in the Robert Owen Centre, for Robert Owen was, as you will all know, a passionate advocate of education and to quote the man;

“It is therefore, the interest of all, that everyone, from birth, should be well educated, physically and mentally, that society may be improved in its character, — that everyone should be beneficially employed, physically and mentally, that the greatest amount of wealth may be created, and knowledge attained”.

Robert Owen might have written this in 1841 but these are clearly sentiments that we can identify with today. Not least within Government.

In fact, our Programme for Government is crafted around a similar ambition. Our success as a nation depends on working together to deliver a strong economy supporting a fairer society.

These go hand in hand, and we cannot have one without the other. Which is why we are focused on three key themes

* Creating More, Better Paid Jobs in a Strong, Sustainable Economy.
* Building a Fairer Scotland and Tackling Inequality.
* Passing Power to People and Communities

All of these have resonance for our education system. If we don’t achieve success for our young people, we can’t be the nation we want to be.

It is a great honour and privilege to be part of this Scottish Government and a greater one to be Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning. I want to start tonight by paying tribute to my friend and colleague, my predecessor Mike Russell – Scotland’s longest serving Education Secretary.

I want to pay tribute to his:

* commitment to excellence in higher education,
* to his reform of Scotland’s colleges which has created colleges of scale and influence, ideally placed to support our ambitions,
* to his vision in introducing the “opportunities for all” guarantee of a place in education or training for all 16-19 year olds – the 1st in these islands – a hugely significant step at a time of rising youth unemployment
* and last but not least to his dedication and commitment to the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence at a crucial time.

I have often heard it said of Education Secretaries that we want to recreate or impose our own experience of education. I definitely won’t do that.

But I do have a lot to be thankful for from my own education.

My mother had high ambitions for all her children and recognised the value of education. Her encouragement and sharp words about the need for qualifications as a gateway to choices and opportunities drove me to be the first from my family to go to university.

I was taught by inspirational teachers like my history teacher Nigel Fletcher – not a day goes by when I don’t try to follow what he taught me.

But I also recall in equal measure some of the stigma in the 70s and 80s of being from a working-class family with divorced parents. I remember the green ticket for free school meals and not being allowed to take science in S3. I remember hearing in class the village that I came from was being described as “poor”.

We still sometimes hear hushed tones and see discreet pointing to “the poorer children”. We need to avoid these kind of labels which only serve to limit aspiration and ambition. We need to have the same high expectations of all our children. But we do need to talk honestly and openly about the need to overcome poverty and the negative impact of austerity.

So I don’t want the same education I got for our children today – I want better.

Like everyone who takes on this job I bring with me not just the benefits and baggage of my education but a range of work experiences too.

Ten years as a front line social worker, and as a local Elected Member, before becoming an MSP and then a Minister – which collectively have given me a real passion for the early years, a deep rooted commitment to vocational education and its ability to get people into jobs, and an appreciation of the power of higher education to transform lives.

But the experience that is with me always is that of being a parent – the experience that turns your world upside down.

All parents want what’s best for their children. But in this job, I try hard – as do those around me – to want for Scotland’s children what we want for our own children. We have to inject the hopes, dreams and ambitions we have for our own children into public policy and our education system. If it is not good enough for my son, or for your children, it is not good enough for any of Scotland’s children.

What is it I want for my son? I want him to be happy and healthy, to engage with and enjoy learning. I want to have confidence that he is progressing well with reading and writing. I want him to behave at school but not to have his spirit crushed and be able to express himself. To have the freedom to be a child, to take risks, to try different approaches and experiences. I want him to have friends.

I want to be secure in the knowledge that, like I do, his teachers believe in him and that everything will be done to ensure he reaches his full potential.

In short, if we are to want for every child what we want for our own children, we want an education system that is fair and which provides excellence to all children irrespective of their background or circumstances.

An education system which does not settle for good enough but aims high.

An education system which gives children the skills they need to thrive rather than simply survive in life. Which allows them to fly, not just get by. An education system focused on attainment and achievement, built around delivering equity and excellence, and crucially, aspiration and ambition. For ourselves as a government. For all of you as educationalists. For our communities, society and, ultimately, yes our country. But most importantly, for all of Scotland’s children.

I want tonight to set out my aspirations as Cabinet Secretary for our education system, highlighting its strengths but also shining a light on some of its weaknesses.

In many ways, this is a good time for Scottish education to take a hard look at itself.

On taking office our First Minister made plain she was making education a priority.

She asked me to take on the task of moving Scotland on – with you – from being only ‘good enough’ to being truly great again.

Six months on, it’s time to offer an honest evaluation. It may not always be comfortable, but I hope you will engage with it and work with me as we move forward.

And though I am focused on all the responsibilities relating to Scottish education in my role and ensuring that the entire system works well together, tonight I want to concentrate on some key aspects and themes that are relevant largely – but not exclusively so – to school education.

What is it that we want?

We must deliver equity and excellence in education for all our children. And what we do needs to be informed by the evidence of what works.

That bold ambition is one which we must all embrace and we must do that now. But if we are to grasp the nettle of this task, we need to be clear why this should be our focus. We must also be consistent in how we proceed. And vitally, we must understand what we mean by equity and excellence.

For me, equity is about ensuring that each child is given every chance to succeed in school. It really is that simple to say but, as we know, quite difficult to deliver. And excellence is about ensuring that children get the best possible learning experience at all ages and stages. But it is also about ensuring that we invest in our teachers and other staff, so that they have the skills, knowledge, competence and, importantly, confidence they need to do their jobs to the best of their abilities.

Key to achieving these aims are the values upon which we base our education system.

I am committed to working towards a Scottish education system:

* which is free and open to all;
* which is centred on the needs and interests of children as individuals, providing them with the right support in the right place at the right time
* which gives our children the best start in life no matter where they live, what their circumstances are or what their background is;
* which involves and includes parents, families and communities in their children’s education;
* which values and invests in teachers and other staff;
* which focuses on attainment while recognising and valuing all that children achieve;
* which is free from the commercialisation that we see happening elsewhere
* which recognises and supports learning throughout life
* which is evidence led and determined to apply what works – not driven by dogma or ideology.

Let’s explore these themes and values in more detail.


Why does equity matter? Well, let’s be blunt. While some children excel at school and many children do very well, there are some children who are failed by school. The recent literacy findings from last year’s Scottish Survey on Literacy and Numeracy made that plain. It found a drop in performance in both reading and writing and it found no positive evidence of a reducing deprivation gap.

But failure does not start at the school gate. Very often, these are children that society is failing, who are losing out on their childhoods because they are growing up in poverty and with all the disadvantages associated with that.

If we wait until children are at school, then inequalities that emerge in the early years can persist; they can become entrenched; and worse – they can widen – through the school years and into early adulthood.

Tackling this inequity is a priority not only for the Scottish Government but for me personally – and I know for many of you too,

I am determined to close the attainment gap.

No child should be born to fail. Every child should have the same chance to fulfil his or her potential.

We all acknowledge the barrier poverty presents to attainment.

Let me be crystal clear.

This Government is committed to doing all in its power to eradicate poverty in Scotland – but it will never be acceptable for poverty to be an excuse for failure.

It is our job – the job of everyone in this room – to overcome that barrier, not use it as an excuse.

And, we will not have completed our work until every child, in every community, has every chance to succeed.

Inside each and every one of us should burn the same ambition we have for our own children, for Scotland’s poorest children. For in truth, they have the most to gain from success in school and in turn, we gain too, as a society and an economy, from their success in life.

And if we meet our aspirations for children to succeed at school, then so we should aspire for them to have an equal chance at success in further and higher education. This is fundamental to this Government’s enduring commitment to free university tuition. Every child should have the opportunity to go to university based on their ability to learn, not on their parents’ capacity to pay.

I recognise the power university can have to transform lives providing exposure to new ideas and experiences and enabling students to develop the knowledge and skills to succeed in their chosen careers.

That is why we are determined that no one should be excluded from this opportunity by circumstance. We have established the Commission on Widening Access to help secure our goal that a child born today in one of most deprived communities should, by the time they leave school, have the same chance of going to university as any other child.

But it’s not just about university – equity is also about giving equal value to vocational routes which suit many young people. And that means investing in our institutions, facilities, teachers and professionals so they can be the best they can be.


The key to unlocking educational excellence is literacy and numeracy. Literacy and numeracy skills are essential skills for life and for work. Our aspiration is that each and every child succeeds in gaining these basic skills at the highest possible level while at school.

Primary schools have a crucial role to play in this by:

* igniting a lifelong enthusiasm for learning;
* empowering children to take responsibility for their own learning choices; and
* equipping them with essential skills for learning and life.

PISA 2012 tells us “students can only achieve at the highest levels when they believe they are in control of their success.”

Involving children and young people in their own learning, and the decisions that affect them, is central to achievement and attainment.

Health and wellbeing needs to be at the heart of this. Education must focus on every child as an individual, nurturing his or her well-being, talents and skills. Making sure they feel welcome, safe and cared for throughout their time in school.

A crucial part of ensuring that children are ready for school and are ready to learn lies with parents. Sometimes it lies with wider family members too.

Parents’ involvement in their child’s education – taking an interest; helping out with homework; providing motivation and moral support - has a significant, positive impact. But we also know that there are parents and families who do not feel a positive connection with their child’s school or their education. Our efforts to encourage more parents back into work, create another challenge. For many parents, children starting school is the point at which they step back into the workforce making it more difficult for them to engage with school, particularly during school hours.

We need to overcome the barriers which exist. Schools need to reach out to parents and develop real channels for two-way communication. We know that good practice exists but many schools and teachers need to think more creatively about when and how they interact with parents.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has conducted significant research in this area. It concludes that the evidence supports the use of interventions focused on parental involvement to improve outcomes. These are the sort of interventions that can usefully be implemented through the Scottish Attainment Challenge and where we find that they work, they can and should be rolled out elsewhere.

Crucially, there is much evidence to suggest that such parental input even outweighs income or socio-economic status as a factor in shaping attainment and achievement – it gives children the skills and desire to succeed in school.

However, we cannot and must not underplay the role poverty plays. We are living and working in challenging times.

In difficult financial circumstances, this Government has maintained funding allocations to local authorities and it is their responsibility to ensure that as much of that funding as is needed is reaching schools and the children who need it most.

We are also doing our best to mitigate the worst impacts of austerity measures and welfare reforms, investing over £100 million a year in doing so.

But we know now, with a majority Conservative government in power at Westminster, that there is worse to come. I and my colleagues in government will do all that we can to minimise that impact but we only have a limited set of powers with which to do it. The case for more is not for this speech, but let’s be clear.

Scotland is one of the richest countries in the developed world. Yet, tens of thousands of families are dependent on foodbanks and one in five children are growing up in poverty.

As a result of the cruel welfare reforms and measures undertaken by the UK Government, poverty is on the rise in our country for the first time in a decade.

We can and must do more to ensure that those children growing up hardest hit by austerity are not consigned to failure at school and in life by our failure to act.

Developing the young workforce

And we need an education system that prepares all children and young people for the world of work.

I am particularly passionate about the Developing Young Workforce - DYW - agenda. This is work I started in my previous role; and I remain deeply committed to it.

DYW will transform our approach to tackling the scourge of systemic youth unemployment. I won’t refer to it as a strategy or an initiative. It’s a deeper, long-term commitment about the full realisation of Curriculum for Excellence and getting away from the notion that vocational education is just for children with lower attainment.

It will offer a new wave of vocational pathways, accessible to all young people, that start in school, and allow progression to college, university, training or a job. And running alongside the changes this demands to our system - and which are well under way - is the need to change culture among young people, their parents and teachers so they understand the many routes available into a variety of good jobs.

We recognise the size of this effort, and have committed to a seven-year plan to make it happen. It’s an effort that goes beyond politics – indeed, beyond Parliamentary terms. And it’s not limited to any one sector of our education system or our economy – there is a huge role for employers in helping our children develop the skills they need.

Developing Scotland’s young workforce is absolutely central to building a fairer society, tackling inequality, and ensuring sustainable economic growth.

How well are we doing?

So how are we doing?

Make no mistake. There is much to be proud of in our system.

We have taken the lead in pioneering work on early years, and the whole notion of preventative spend across education, health and criminal justice.

In our schools, we have a long term national plan for success in Curriculum for Excellence that is delivering improved outcomes for our children.

My commitment to CfE is absolute. Its principles and approach to learning will deliver the skills, knowledge and experience we want to see for all our children and young people. I want to pay tribute to the work of teachers across Scotland and the flexibility and autonomy they have shown in developing and implementing CfE.

In Scotland we have

* a well-trained and highly professional graduate workforce. The importance of teaching and leadership is why as a Government, we have placed such emphasis on ensuring we maintain teacher numbers.
* This year’s agreement with Councils to protect teacher numbers has shown that we will intervene where we are sufficiently concerned by Council decisions. I am clear that if funding methodologies are getting in the way of providing what we need to deliver excellence, then we must be open to reviewing them. We cannot allow our ambitions and aspirations for our children to be constrained by “aye been”.
* We have more hours of childcare than in any other part of the UK – and through the Early Years Framework, we are ensuring that childcare is better quality.
* We have record exam results and a drop in those leaving school with no or few qualifications
* Record numbers of school leavers securing positive destinations
* Record proportions of Scots from the most deprived areas entering higher education.
* Youth unemployment at a five year low.
* We have international standing – with OECD’s 2012 PISA study showing that Scotland performed above the OECD average for reading; and that we narrowed the gap between the most and least disadvantaged pupils between 2009 and 2012 – the only UK country to do so.

In the last year Scotland has hosted more than 25 overseas delegations seeking to learn about the reforms delivered through Curriculum for Excellence and Scotland’s system of teacher induction and training.

We should celebrate the progress that we have made.

But I am just as clear that there is – and there will always be – a need to do more. And that need is urgent.

Things don’t stand still. We need to keep asking ourselves, keep challenging ourselves – does what we have deliver the best outcomes for our children? And in asking that question, we must not be limited by existing structures. We must not be bound by politics or ideology – we must be led by the evidence.

The forthcoming OECD review of CfE, which is primarily focused on Broad General Education will provide us with valuable, independent evidence on how well CfE is performing.

It will draw on the experience of other countries – including those who have undergone major curricular reform. We can only benefit from such expertise.

Ensuring equity

We know the gap in attainment between children from low income and high income households starts early.

By the age of 5, that gap is 10 – 13 months.

School leavers from the 20% most disadvantaged areas do only half as well as their peers from the most affluent areas.

These statistics will be familiar to you. The children who are these statistics are ones you will know only too well. I know from my conversations with teachers, with the teaching unions and with local authorities that huge amounts of time, energy and resources are already being focused on equity, on reducing the attainment gap. But the painful truth is that we have not yet delivered. We have made some progress in raising attainment but the gap remains.

Literacy and numeracy

The Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy results in 2014 on numeracy and this year’s results on literacy show that we need to step up the pace of change. Frankly, it’s not good enough that some children appear to be doing less well in basic skills the older they get.

I am particularly concerned about what these results tell us about boys and their achievements in school. The evidence suggests that current approaches to teaching children to read, write, listen and talk are less suited to boys than girls. So we must find and embed new ones.

Likewise, there is much still to do in encouraging girls and young women into careers in the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths – ensuring that no young person’s aspirations are limited by gender stereotyping. This is an important part of the Developing our Young Workforce agenda.

SSLN also found that, if we take away English teachers, fewer than 20% of secondary teachers think that reading and writing is “vital” to their curriculum area.

I’m astonished at this, frankly. And if it is the case, then we must change those attitudes and do more to support our schools and teachers, to raise the quality of teaching in literacy across other curriculum areas. If we are to achieve our goals and ambitions for all of Scotland’s children, then the whole system needs to be focussed on achieving our literacy goals.

What next?

So what next? How do we close the gap?

Not simply by taking a universal approach.

The Accounts Commission report on school education spoke of the need to target resources to the lowest performing pupils, to raise educational achievement; and for the need for councils to understand better, the most effective ways of improving pupil performance.

That is why we are investing £100 million through a national attainment fund over 4 years targeting support to those local authorities with the most deprived communities, providing schools with greater access to expertise and resources, through the Scottish Attainment Challenge.

On Friday, Education Scotland began recruiting attainment advisors for every local authority area, to work within learning communities to build capacity in schools on literacy and numeracy. If you are interested, please apply. We want the very best people in these challenging roles.

We are also continuing to support the Raising Attainment for All programme with 23 local authorities and 180 schools committed to improving literacy, numeracy and health and well-being.

Later this year, we will also launch a new literacy and numeracy campaign – Read, Write, Count – aimed at children in P1-3.

And underpinning it all will be new duties through the Education Bill to ensure that both Councils and Ministers attach priority to the on-going challenge of inequalities of outcome. The introduction of reporting duties will ensure increased accountability at both a local and national level – as well as providing a rich seam of learning which can be shared with others.

Curriculum for Excellence is critical to achieving equity and excellence.

It is the realisation of GIRFEC in education – and throughout primary school; throughout the broad general education, we must ensure that there is a personalised approach that does not endeavour to make one size fit all.

The OECD review of Scotland, and the lessons and recommendations it will have for us, provides the right point for moving to the next phase of CfE. A CfE where we are even clearer about what our priorities are. And where we have much richer improvement and performance information to help ensure that we keep making positive progress.

We have to do more. And we have to do it now. Every school, every Council needs to own its attainment gap and take action. We must not rest until we see clear evidence that educational outcomes are improving for every child in Scotland.

So I am urging each and every one of you to consider the contribution you can make with me, to tackling this – the biggest challenge we face in Scottish education today.

Strong Workforce/Excellent Leadership

Teachers are, of course, crucial in leading any change.

The quality of our teaching workforce and the excellence of our educational leadership, provide the bedrock of our education system.

And all – (not some) - teachers must play their part. They need to understand poverty and children’s lives better.

Seeing the children they teach not just as pupils or learners, but as individuals with foibles, weaknesses and challenges but importantly too, strengths, opportunities and enthusiasm – all the qualities that make each of them who they are. Each child is unique and deserves the very best learning and school experience we can provide for them.

It is vital that our teachers are supported by excellence elsewhere. That is one reason why we will continue to place great emphasis on high quality early years provision. We know that those working with children in early learning and childcare are the most important factor and that we must invest in their skills and knowledge. In early years and in primary school, we must continue to aim high.

That’s why we commissioned leading children’s expert, Professor Iram Siraj, to undertake a wide-ranging, independent Review of the early learning and out of school care workforce.

I expect the Professor’s final report to be published in the coming weeks, and I look forward to considering her conclusions and recommendations.

We will also continue to work with our partners to embed the core ideas of Teaching Scotland’s Future:

* Establishing the Scottish College for Educational Leadership, with a focus on leadership at all levels.
* Introducing a mandatory qualification for headteachers, to ensure that those who apply for the personally and professionally challenging role of headteacher are well-prepared and well-supported once in post.
* Committing £4m over the last three years, to masters learning for teachers
* Creating partnerships between universities and local authorities

And it is why – through the Education Bill - we are requiring all teachers in independent and grant-aided schools to register with the General Teaching Council for Scotland.

The teachers in our classrooms have to be qualified and I believe that should apply to the independent sector as well – so that, irrespective of where their children are educated, parents can be assured that the standards and quality of the teaching staff are regulated by the GTCS.

Some might say that we are lucky to have one of the most skilled and professional teaching workforces anywhere in the world. Luck has little to do with it. It is down to creating a system of initial training and continuing professional development that supports teachers at the beginning and throughout their careers to realise their ambitions.

To aspire to be as great as they can be and through their skills, knowledge, dedication and yes, hard work, guide our children through their years at school to success, to achieving all that they can be.

As a Government, we will do all that we can to support and strengthen that professionalism.

But learning is not just a right. It is a professional obligation.

All teachers must step up to their professional challenges and realise the opportunities that the education system holds for them as professionals, but most importantly of all, for all of Scotland’s children.

Learning from the evidence

In working out how best to take this activity forward, we need to focus on the evidence.

When we announced the Scottish Attainment Challenge in February, much was made of its links with the London Challenge. I make no apology for that – this Government is open to taking lessons from the very best of practice, no matter where that practice takes place. Particularly when we are talking about promoting equity and excellence.

We must be led by the evidence of what works – not by fads, fashions or knee-jerk reactions.

And not by dogma, ideology or vested interest.

International evidence provides the starting point. The OECD is clear:

* Excellence and equity in education need not be mutually exclusive. The highest performing education systems are those that combine both.
* Autonomy over the curriculum and assessments – trusting our teaching professionals – improves performance.

So we are looking at systems around the world that the evidence shows, succeed. Obviously, we are not looking to adopt other countries’ education systems or initiatives wholesale.

But we should not be afraid to challenge some of our long held preconceptions, so that we can take the best of what we see and adapt it to fit our own educational context.

When I was in Ontario recently, I was struck by the simplicity and effectiveness of their focus on a small number of key priorities around attainment, equity, wellbeing and public confidence. Everyone in Ontario knows and understands these priorities and their work is geared towards them. It is an approach which is delivering better outcomes for children.

I see clear benefits to Scotland having a similar focus on our own national priorities so that they are integral to the planning and delivery of education in Scotland.

National Improvement Framework

In looking at the evidence, we must also recognise and learn from the good practice already underway in our early years centres, schools and classrooms.

Earlier this month, at a conference on the legacy of Teaching Scotland’s Future, I heard Sue Ellis call for a national conversation about the role of data and knowledge for improvement.

I agree absolutely, with the need for us to gather reliable data on experiences and attainment and use it intelligently. Data which shows us which children our system is serving well, and where the issues might lie. Data which shows us not just what is working, but why, for whom and in what circumstances. And importantly, data which tells us what is not working so we can take steps to address it.

To help ensure that we are gathering that information, I announced recently that we will work with partners to develop a National Improvement Framework. A Framework that has the buy-in and support of teachers and others in the system.

High performing