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09/02/15 14:24

First Minister speech on Scottish Attainment Challenge

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon MSP
St Joseph’s Primary, Victoria Park Primary and Balgay Hill Nursery campus, Dundee
09 February 2015

It’s a pleasure to speak to you this afternoon.

Education is a central, defining priority of this government.

It’s also a personal passion for me.

The education I got at Dreghorn Primary and Greenwood Academy in Ayrshire was first class, and the teachers who taught me were absolutely fantastic.

It is in no small measure down to them that this working class girl from Ayrshire is able to stand here today as the First Minister of Scotland.

So it’s really important to me personally that every young girl and boy growing up today – regardless of their background – gets the same chances that I did. And that includes the chance to go to university without the need to pay tuition fees.

Of course, we are fortunate in Scotland because a strong commitment to education is engrained in our history; it’s part of our very sense of ourselves. We had five universities in Scotland at a time when the rest of these islands had just three. We pioneered the idea of universal access to school education. Education is one of the reasons we have punched above our weight as a nation and made such a mark on the world.

Today I’m going to talk about how we stay true to that tradition of educational excellence, by ensuring that our education system continues to improve and that we give everyone in Scotland a fair chance to succeed.

And I want to start by making one thing clear. Schools and teachers in Scotland already do a great job. I’ve seen in schools across the country just how much we owe to your skill, dedication, and the sheer passion for the work that you do. We trust your professional judgement; and we’re investing in your professional development through Teaching Scotland’s Future. When the students amongst you take up posts in primary schools, you’ll join an education system which is already a significant success story, and which is continuing to get better.

At school, curriculum for excellence has been successfully implemented. Exam passes are at an all time high. School leaver destinations are the best on record - of the students who left school in 2013, more than 9 out of 10 are in employment, training or education.

However we know that we need to do more. When I became First Minister, I said that one of my top priorities would be to tackle inequality and I am very clear about the role that our education system must play in this.

We know that, despite its many strengths and improvements, Scottish education still faces big challenges. And the biggest is perhaps the difference in attainment between children from our most deprived areas and those in other parts of the country.

In terms of qualifications achieved, the statistics are stark - school leavers from the most deprived 20% of areas, currently do only half as well as school leavers from the least deprived areas.

In the most deprived 10% of areas of Scotland, fewer than 1 young person in every 3 leaves school with at least one higher. In the most affluent areas, it’s 4 out of every 5. That gap in attainment - and the gap in life chances that it can then create - is, quite simply, unacceptable.

Of course, we all know that poverty and inequality – and the barriers they present to learning – have their origins well beyond the school gates. But we must make sure that, in our schools, young people are getting the support they need to overcome those barriers.

And there are great schools and brilliant teachers in every part of the country helping students to do just that - to overcome those barriers. But too many children still have their life chances influenced more by where they live, than by how talented they are, or how hard they work. None of us should accept a situation where so many people are unable to realise their full potential. It lets too many young people down. It harms our economy and it weakens our society. And it diminishes all of us.

So I am very firmly putting the determination to tackle educational inequality at the heart of my government's agenda.

One thing that’s clear is that improvements have to start in children’s early years. A report last year from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation calculated the difference in reading attainment between children from low income and high-income households. By the age of 5, the gap was already 13 months.

That’s one of the reasons that we have placed such an emphasis on the early years, with a commitment over the next parliament to increase the provision of free childcare to 30 hours per week.

And it’s also why primary school is so important. Over the last two months I’ve been to three different primary schools to launch three separate initiatives – each of which will have a significant impact on improving attainment.

In December, at Castleview Primary School, I launched a new literacy and numeracy campaign for primaries 1 to 3, called Read, Write, Count. It will focus in particular on primary schools in deprived areas – where pupils and parents often need more assistance than others.

Last month, I went back to my old primary school - Dreghorn in North Ayrshire – to mark the start of free school meals for all children in primaries 1 to 3. That is now benefitting 135,000 children across the country. It will also save families £330 a year. And because we know that school lunches help a pupil’s ability to learn, it should help all children to benefit more from their classes.

And today I am pleased to be at St Joseph’s Primary School to announce our new Scottish Attainment Challenge.

The Scottish Attainment Challenge will be backed by a new Attainment Scotland Fund of £100m over the next four years. The first £20m of this new fund was confirmed in last week's budget and will be allocated in the coming financial year.

The resources will be targeted initially on schools in the local authorities with the highest concentration of deprived areas. They will be directed specifically to improve literacy, numeracy, health and wellbeing in primary schools in these areas – because we know that if we can close the attainment gap when children are young, the benefits will continue into secondary school and beyond.

The Scottish Attainment Challenge will build on the work already underway in our schools and it will draw on best practice from elsewhere – wherever that might be. I have been particularly impressed by the London Challenge - which has transformed school performance in that city - and with Ontario’s special secretariat for literacy and numeracy. Whenever we see ideas that have worked, we will apply them here in Scotland. So, while not all of it will be appropriate to Scottish circumstances, the Scottish Attainment Challenge will nevertheless draw heavily on the experience of the London Challenge.

As part of the Attainment Challenge, participating local authorities and schools will benefit from dedicated support from educational and improvement experts and have access to the best evidence and research.

A bespoke improvement plan, appropriate to local circumstances, will be agreed for each school or cluster of schools - this will include an agreement to gather data to measure the impact of the interventions supported. Measurement must, of course, be proportionate - but it is vital if we are to learn the lessons of what works and what doesn't and apply that learning nationally. It is also vital if we are to assure ourselves that our key objective is being met - which is to raise the attainment of young people in our most deprived areas

The improvement plans will be supported by the Attainment Scotland Fund. The resources available will be used to support a combination of additional teachers, educational resources and materials, training, out of school activities and third sector programmes.

What today’s initiative does - taken with our other recent steps, including our plan to appoint attainment advisers in every local authority area and our commitment in last week's budget to make available £51m to maintain teacher numbers across Scotland – is provide a new impetus and focus on closing the attainment gap. We’re making support for attainment available to all schools; and we’re also placing additional assistance and resources where they are needed most. We want to raise standards everywhere; but we want to ensure that the biggest and fastest improvements occur where there is the greatest need.

By doing so, we will help to tackle intergenerational poverty, and help to meet the target I set out just after I became First Minister - that a child born today in one of our most deprived communities will, by the time he or she leaves school, have the same chance of going to university as a child born in one of our most affluent communities.

I spoke earlier about the value that the Scottish government places on the work of teachers. The posts you take up will be some of the most important jobs anywhere in the country.Your success in the next 5, 10 years and beyond, will have a huge impact on our success as a nation in the next 20, 30 and 40 years.

My promise to you is this is - my government will listen to your views, respond to your concerns, and respect your expertise. And we’ll do everything we can to help and support you and the young people you teach. By doing that, we can go a long way together towards making Scotland the best place in the world to learn; towards ensuring that every boy and girl in Scotland has an equal chance to flourish; and towards creating a fairer and more prosperous country.

A good education is, quite simply, the most important gift we can give our young people. As I said earlier, in centuries past it is Scotland, our country, that is credited with pioneering education for all. Here and now, in the early part of the 21st century, let us make attainment for all our guiding mission.