Building a New Scotland: Education and lifelong learning in an independent Scotland

This paper sets out the Scottish Government's vision for Education and Lifelong Learning in an independent Scotland.

Rights and Wellbeing: The Foundations for Learning

Children's rights and wellbeing

The Scotland we are working towards is a country where children's rights are recognised and protected, where we strive to get it right for every baby, child, young person and family, and where we deliver on our commitments to support those that need the most help. This means a strong and unwavering commitment to wellbeing through preventative approaches and early support, with action to tackle child poverty and other inequalities, as well as ensuring help is available to those who have faced disadvantage or trauma, such as care-experienced or disabled children and young people. It also means ensuring that those families facing adversity and vulnerability in our society, are protected, and receive early and responsive support, for as long as this is needed.

Scotland's 'Getting it right for every child' (GIRFEC)[3] approach is internationally recognised, influencing the development of children and families policy in several countries, including Iceland,[4] Finland[5] and Sweden.[6] GIRFEC provides the foundation for the design and delivery of key public services, including those which form our education and learning offer to children and young people. As Scotland's national approach to safeguarding, supporting and promoting wellbeing, GIRFEC focuses on proactive and early support through the universal services of education and health, as well as whole-family support across children's and adult services, where needed. GIRFEC provides a shared framework for everyone involved in the education of children and young people to consider their needs, including additional support needs; it promotes inclusive practice throughout the learning journey and across all learning environments.

The science of early childhood development tells us that the foundations for learning are built early in life, as early experiences shape the developing brain. The wellbeing of children is directly tied to the quality of their caregiving environment and family circumstances.[7] Poverty is associated with various factors leading to poor academic achievement, including limited language development, and a greater likelihood of experiencing food insecurity.[8]

Despite the progress Scotland has already made towards these goals, there are current limitations on the actions the Scottish Government can take to fully realise our ambitions to get it right for every baby, child, young person and family. Matters reserved to the UK Government include immigration, equalities legislation, parental and family leave and pay, much of taxation, social security and employment. With the full powers available in an independent Scotland, a future Scottish Government could make decisions to improve parental and family leave, for example, or to take a radically new approach to social security which better supports our families. Having full power over these levers will allow future Scottish Governments to better look after generations yet to come.

Voting rights for 16 and 17 year olds

As we debate Scotland's constitutional future, it is vital that we continue to make sure the voices of children and young people are heard and that they influence decision-making. In the 2014 independence referendum, young people aged 16 or 17 were granted a vote for the first time. This was the first election or referendum anywhere in the UK where this opportunity was extended to under 18s. The Scottish Parliament made the right to vote for 16 and 17 year olds permanent with the passing of the Scottish Elections (Reduction of Voting Age) Act 2015,[9] which lowered the minimum voting age to 16 for all Scottish Parliament and Local Authority elections.

University of Edinburgh research published in 2023 found that Scotland maintained a boost in electoral engagement among first-time voters enfranchised at 16 at the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections.[10]

Those aged 16 and 17 can vote in Scottish national and local elections, but they cannot currently vote in UK General Elections, where the voting age is 18. With independence, 16 and 17 year olds would be able to vote in every election covered by Scottish legislation, removing this inequality and further encouraging young people to engage in constitutional issues. As the Electoral Reform Society has pointed out, embedding voting behaviours early can have lifelong positive effects; furthermore, 'extending the right to vote would allow a seamless transition from learning about voting to putting it into practice'.[11]


In January 2024, Scotland became the first nation in the UK to incorporate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) directly into law with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Act 2024 (the "UNCRC Act") receiving Royal Assent.[12]

The intention behind the UNCRC Act is to deliver a proactive culture of everyday accountability for children's rights across public services in Scotland. Once fully commenced, it will require all Scotland's public authorities to take proactive steps to ensure the protection of children's rights in their decision-making and service delivery. It will also make it unlawful for public authorities, including the Scottish Government, to act incompatibly with the UNCRC requirements as set out in the Act when delivering functions using powers derived from Scottish Parliament legislation or common law. Children, young people, and their representatives will have a new ability to use the courts to enforce their rights.

Article 28 of the UNCRC sets out the right to education and that States should work towards this right being achieved progressively and on the basis of equal opportunity. Article 29 sets out what education should provide to develop children and young people to their fullest potential.

Although the passing of the UNCRC Act is a significant achievement that offers new protection for children's rights which is not available in other parts of the UK, the scope of the protection is more limited than the Scottish Parliament first hoped to achieve due to the Supreme Court's adverse judgment[13] following a reference by the UK Government, and the subsequent need to take remedial action to amend the Bill.

This means children will not be able to take action under the UNCRC Act to enforce any breach of their rights by public authorities acting under functions derived from Acts of the UK Parliament, even in devolved areas. Similarly, under the UNCRC Act, courts cannot consider whether provisions derived from a UK Act are compatible with UNCRC requirements under the Act or use their interpretative or strike down powers if they were found to be incompatible. There are many existing Acts of the UK Parliament in devolved areas that impact on children's rights including the Education (Scotland) Act 1980.[14]

With the powers of an independent country, the Scottish Government could incorporate – in full – the UNCRC into Scots law. The UNCRC requirements specified in the Act could be expanded to include previously reserved matters. An independent Scotland could place a duty to act compatibly with the UNCRC on all of its legislation, including all legislation related to the delivery of education in Scotland.

Independence would enhance children's rights, allowing the protections in the UNCRC Act to apply to the full breadth of functions over which our Parliament would have control.

Supporting those with care experience

The Independent Review of Children's Social Care 2022[15] has made proposals to include 'care experience' as a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010.[16] This recommendation was made following testimony from care experienced people sharing their stories of the discrimination they have experienced, similar in nature to other groups that have a legally protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. This option is not currently available to Scotland as equalities is a reserved matter determined by the UK Government.

With full powers over equalities in an independent Scotland, a future Scottish Government could work with the care experienced community, building on the existing unwavering shared commitment to Keep the Promise, to decide if making 'care experience' a protected characteristic is a change that would be welcomed. If so, action could be taken accordingly to ensure greater legal protections to those with experience of care.

Pre-birth to three

The period of a child's life from before they are born and during the earliest years is the most unique and critical period of development.[17] The actions governments take in this period can create a strong foundation for all future learning, healthy social and emotional development, and physical health.

Currently we offer all families and parents high-quality and accessible maternity care, our universal Baby Box[18] offer and support from a Health Visitor or Family Nurse to build their parenting skills and understand what helps with early child development. We provide information to all new parents through our publication 'Ready Steady Baby',[19] which provides information on their health and their baby's health and development, through dedicated on-line advice via the NHS Inform website, and through the Parent Club website, which complements the support provided through core universal services.

Our ambition to improve early child development was reinforced recently through the launch of the Transformational Change Programme[20] – to drive connection, awareness and action across and between existing systems, removing silos and barriers to change to meet the needs of families with young children.

Enhancing parental leave

The very earliest days in a child's life from pre-birth to pre-school are a unique period when the foundations of optimum health, growth, and neurodevelopment across the lifespan are established.[21]

A child's development of a secure attachment to one or more caregivers provides the foundation for achievement of developmental milestones and sets the child on a trajectory for social and emotional wellbeing.[22] UNICEF states that fathers or partners who bond with their babies from the beginning of life are more likely to play a more active role in their child's development and that research also suggests that children who experience positive early interaction with their fathers or other parents are more likely to have positive longer-term outcomes, including better psychological health, self-esteem and life satisfaction.[23]

Powers over parental leave and pay are currently reserved to the UK Government. Future governments in an independent Scotland could decide to take action to improve the offering to parents.

Rates of pay for maternity and paternity leave in the UK are low. In comparison to OECD countries, maternity payment rates in the UK are amongst the lowest, with less than one-third of gross average earnings replaced by the maternity benefit. Despite lengthy maternity leave entitlements, full-rate equivalent paid maternity leave in the UK lasts only eleven weeks on average.[24]

Father (or partner) specific leave in the OECD is often well-paid when short, although payment rates tend to fall once entitlements last longer than one month or so (4.3 weeks). In the UK, only two weeks of paternity pay is paid whereas Norway offers 15 weeks and payments replace 100% of gross earnings for an average earner.[25]

Families with a child under the age of one are also at considerably greater risk of living in poverty than average.[26] Addressing rates of pay for maternity and paternity leave could help to address this inequality and drive down the number of children who live in poverty at the start of life.

Future Scottish governments could consider improvements to the parental leave and pay system, with higher minimum standards than those currently set by the UK Government. When circumstances allow over the longer term, this could include gradual improvements by:

  • enhancing the length and level of paid maternity leave for mothers
  • for fathers/partners, enhancing the current statutory two week leave and pay provision and providing additional weeks of shared parental leave taken at the end of the fifty-two-week maternity period
  • ensuring that those who experience miscarriage receive three days paid leave

To progress this, once independence has been secured, the Scottish Government would work with families to consider change. In considering what enhancements could be made, we would be able to draw on examples from comparable European countries and internationally where they have progressive policy innovations to share.

Supporting kinship carers

The Promise states that 'Kinship carers must be supported to continue to care for the children they are looking after',[27] and that Scotland must 'ensure that children living in kinship care get the support they need to thrive'.[28] The Scottish Government has subsequently called on the UK Government for an urgent update of statutory leave recommendations for kinship carers.

With full control over parental leave legislation in an independent Scotland, future governments would have the power to implement the 2022 Independent Review of Children's Social Care's recommendation that kinship carers receive paid employment leave on a par with statutory adoption leave.

Tackling child poverty

With the full powers of an independent country, future Scottish governments could accelerate action to tackle and reduce child poverty in Scotland, improving the lives and outcomes of Scotland's children and young people, their families and wider communities.

We know that experience of poverty lies at the heart of many of the challenges we face as a nation, driving inequalities in outcomes, including in relation to health and education. Through the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017,[29] Scotland remains the only part of the UK to have set in statute ambitious income-based targets to significantly reduce child poverty.

The Scottish Government's second Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan, 'Best Start, Bright Futures', outlines how we will work together with partners to drive forward reductions in poverty. This includes action focused on increasing household incomes, reducing the cost of living, improving the wellbeing of families, and supporting children and young people to reach their full potential.[30]

Despite the limited powers available under devolution, Scottish Government policies, such as the Scottish Child Payment, are anticipated to keep around 100,000 children out of relative poverty in 2024-25, with relative poverty levels ten percentage points lower than they would have otherwise been.[31]

Modelling estimates that, were the UK Government to introduce an Essentials Guarantee and remove the two-child limit, together with reinstating the family element in Universal Credit, a further 40,000 children could be lifted out of relative poverty in 2024-25.[32]

For the past 20 years, Scottish child poverty rates have been consistently lower the than the UK average,[33] with investment in key measures, including our Scottish Child Payment, expected to increase this gap further in future years.[34]

Scotland does not currently have full powers over all of the policy areas that would allow it to fully tackle child poverty. With access to the full powers of an independent state, future Scottish governments could make different policy decisions about how to tackle child poverty most effectively.

For example, in the Building a New Scotland paper on social security, ten key actions are set out in the early years of independence that would help families with children on low incomes. These include:

  • removing the two-child limit, and scrapping its 'rape clause', to increasefamily incomes and lift some families out of poverty. The evidence shows that the two-child limit has had very little impact on family size but has increased the number of children in larger families who are living in poverty and/or material deprivation[35]
  • removing the benefit cap that limits the amount of benefits that a household can receive each year – again, this primarily affects families with children. We are already investing in mitigating the benefit cap, but independence would give Scotland the full powers to lift the benefit cap
  • replacing Universal Credit 'budgeting loans' with grants to help individuals and families in the first weeks of claiming the new benefit. This would ease the five-week wait for a first payment and mean that Universal Credit was paid at its full rate, without the deductions and the debt that people face just now
  • ending the current benefit sanctions regime to make sure that people are supported into sustainable employment and better long-term outcomes, creating a fairer, more dignified and respectful approach to social security
  • ending the young parent penalty in Universal Credit would ensure that parents under 25 receive the same amount of financial support for their family as those over 25. Rent and food cost the same no matter your age
  • strengthening and investing in more support with the costs of moving into work, including the likes of up-front childcare costs, travel and clothing. We would also transform the delivery of existing support, including through Job Centre Plus work coaches and Access to Work, to ensure that services are responsive and meet the needs of those who rely on them.

The previous Economy paper sets out how control of employment powers would enable future governments to create fairer workplaces, enhance workers' rights in Scotland and increase access to flexible working opportunities. This is particularly significant for low-income workers as it can help raise income levels and ultimately help them and their families escape poverty.

With the full powers of an independent nation, we could use all the levers other governments have to tackle and reduce child poverty, helping to ensure that every child has the opportunity to reach their full potential.



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