Thank you for continuing your commitment to the people of Scotland by taking up your role as Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills. I look forward to continuing to work together to deliver real, tangible improvements in the lives of the people of Scotland.
We, as a country, have faced incredible challenges over recent years. We are still recovering from the impact of the COVID pandemic. War continues in Europe, and the impact of Brexit and the cost of living crisis have combined to create some of the most challenging economic conditions in living memory. Alongside this we face the twin crises of climate change and nature loss, which are global threats of existential proportions.
As a Government, we must be unapologetic about supporting those who need help the most. We will collectively deliver on the promises we have made in our Policy Prospectus and use the priorities it sets out to drive our decision-making, our accountability to parliament and our engagement with partners and the people of Scotland. This will mean that we will need to make tough decisions to ensure that every pound we spend and invest is targeted in such a way that it reaches those that need it most and delivers maximum value.
Our aims as a Government
To ensure we maintain a laser focus on delivery for the people of Scotland we have set out three critical and interdependent missions in our policy prospectus Equality, opportunity, community: New Leadership – a fresh start for the period between now and March 2026. These will be underpinned by our refreshed National Performance Framework and our shared policy priorities set out in the Bute House Agreement. These three outcomes are:
- Tackling poverty and protecting people from harm. Continuing to tackle poverty in all its forms to improve the life chances of people across Scotland.
- A fair, green and growing economy. Delivering a wellbeing economy through harnessing the skills and ingenuity of our people and seizing the economic and social opportunities from meeting our net zero targets.
- Prioritising our public services. Creating, investing in, and maintaining sustainable public services, to ensure the people of Scotland can access modern, effective, and timely services when they need to.
These missions will define our work as a government. You and I have agreed an ambitious range of education and skills outcomes that you will deliver over the next three years. We also have a collective responsibility across Cabinet to deliver all of the objectives we have set out in our policy prospectus to succeed in our missions.
Throughout all this, you should ensure you are contributing to Scotland's National Outcomes. Our National Outcomes describe our shared priorities, including the need to respect, protect and fulfil human rights and allow all in Scotland to live free from discrimination.
Having agreed this range of longer-term outcomes, I now ask you to consider what this looks like in terms of outcomes and delivery actions over the next year.
Objectives for your portfolio for 2023/24
As Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, the work of your portfolio is key to completing these missions: a strong, agile and equitable education and skills system supports our work across many portfolios. I welcomed our recent discussion of the priorities for your portfolio for the remainder of the parliamentary term, as listed in Annex A and set out in the policy prospectus.
For this financial year we have agreed that you will deliver on the following outcomes:
- You will take forward work to build the system infrastructure for School Age Childcare, including through investing in a range of projects across the country to test and refine approaches.
- You will begin to build the evidence base and start work to trial and evaluate models to deliver funded childcare for 1 and 2 year olds, focusing on those who need it most.
- To prepare the way for us to participate in the PIRLS 2026 and TIMSS 2027 studies, we will engage with the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA). This will include appointing a National Research Coordinator contractor during the coming year to allow us to participate in PIRLS 2026.
- You will invest a further £200m to support schools and authorities in their efforts to improve attainment of those children and young people impacted by poverty.
- You will support our teaching profession by delivering the historic pay deal for our teachers, which represents a cumulative pay uplift of 33% between 2018 and 2024. Education Scotland will continue to provide a range of professional learning programmes and wellbeing resources to support practitioners across the education system.
- Through our education reform programme, you will design and deliver a national organisational infrastructure for education in Scotland that more effectively support the system as a whole to deliver the vision for education in Scotland. The programme provides an opportunity for the new bodies to collaborate and strengthen support for the teaching profession, supporting a coherent learner journey, within which curriculum and assessment are aligned at all levels.
- You will develop and publish a response to the recommendations made in the Independent Review of Qualifications and Assessment (the ‘Hayward’ Review), part of the next steps to ensuring we have an equitable, accessible, valid and reliable qualifications system for all. To ensure there are no financial barriers preventing any child or young person accessing the curriculum, we will continue to fund the removal of core curriculum charges. We will also continue to fund activities to improve the quality of the curriculum for all learners.
- You will continue to implement the actions set out in the ASL Action Plan, supporting children, young people and their families who use additional support for learning so that they have better experiences and outcomes.
- Working closely with COSLA, you will agree a funding model and mechanism to distribute £13m capital funding to local authorities to invest in their digital provision across the learning estate, which will enhance learning and teaching.
- Following on from our commitment to expand free school meal provision, you will work with COSLA to prepare schools and infrastructure for the expansion to eligible young people in P6 and P7.
- You will continue to support public authorities to respect, protect and fulfil children’s rights and engage with key stakeholders and children and young people to ensure their views continue to inform our approach to this. A revised UNCRC (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill will be brought back to the Scottish Parliament later in the year.
- Last year we published our Promise Implementation Plan for how the Scottish Government will keep the Promise to Scotland’s care experienced children, young people and families. You will continue to progress work across portfolios to help families thrive and stay together where that is safe to do so and to reduce the number of children who have to go into care away from home. This will include developing a forward investment plan for the Whole Family Wellbeing Funding (with the Deputy First Minister leading work to agree a multi-year approach to WFW budgeting), responding to the Mackie Review on Children’s Hearing system redesign and working with COSLA to agree minimum levels for Foster and Kinship allowances.
- By further developing our Careers Information Advice and Guidance Service, working with employers and with third sector specialist providers, you will ensure all school leavers, regardless of their background, have the support they need to further their education or secure a job or training place.
- Working with the Strategic Working Group, you will co-develop a statement of intent for Scotland’s first National Transitions to Adulthood Strategy, which will set out the scope, vision, aims and national priorities. This will be a crucial part of ensuring that there is a joined up approach to supporting our disabled young people as they make the transition to adult life.
- In pursuit of the vision and outcomes set out in our published Purpose and Principles for post-school education, skills and research you will appraise and take forward reforms to funding, skills planning and qualifications which will allow us to develop a system that is agile and responsive to the needs of Scotland’s learners and employers, and supports Scotland’s world class college and university sector.
- Via a short-life working group, you will work with the sector to develop a consistent and robust set of measures which will improve the process of identifying access students. You will continue to work closely with universities and the Scottish Funding Council on how best to support the university sector to achieve the interim target, and will support the newly appointed Commissioner for Fair Access in taking forward any new approaches.
- Through our on-going funding for research and knowledge exchange, you will continue to provide long-term, sustained investment to support the foundations of Scottish university research.
- With the Scottish Funding Council, we will work with colleges to enhance their financial flexibility.
- Following consultation with stakeholders, this year you will publish the national framework, to better support schools in tackling gender based violence and sexual harassment, as part of wider work to ensure schools are safe spaces for all.
A number of commitments that support the achievement of these outcomes have been identified as part of the priorities set out in our policy prospectus. These will not be the only areas of work to contribute, but are some of the key levers we have to deliver the outcomes set out above. I expect impact and improvement to be key considerations as you deliver these priorities and I expect you to bring forward suggestions for where we may achieve better outcomes if you think there are additional or alternative options. I would also like you to consider the opportunity for public service reform within your portfolio and the efficiency of the institutions and public bodies you have responsibility for to deliver better outcomes for Scotland.
Responsibility for financial sustainability
As we take action together to carefully manage the Scottish Budget to deliver these priorities, you must work within your portfolio to drive efficiency and reform, and identify measures that can be taken to create additional flexibility within the wider Budget and deliver a balanced outturn against agreed envelopes. I note the constraints you face in funding teacher pay deals from a limited budget, and the challenges this presents for other elements of education delivery. As I have indicated, I am content for us to review this approach.
We must prioritise, to ensure that we use our finite resources in the most effective way. That prioritisation work is significant, but it will also be demanding, and will require us to make hard decisions. I know you will be guided by our commitment to support those who need the most help and prioritise resources to the policies and programmes which make the biggest difference to our three core missions.
Collaborative working with partners
It is important to recognise this work cannot be achieved in isolation. It requires collaboration with key partners: Local Government, business (including small businesses), communities and third sector partners, among others. I believe, as I know you do, that the participation of, and collaboration with, these key partners is essential. I ask you to continue to ensure you listen to their ideas, their views, and their lived experience, take into account potential impacts – as well as benefits - on them and put them at the centre of our work. You will also work closely with our colleagues and partners in the Scottish Green Party, to ensure a continued, positive and productive relationship via the Bute House Agreement.
Our Policy Prospectus set out our commitment to resetting important relationships. As well as resetting the relationship with business, our commitment to resetting the relationship with local authorities and working collaboratively with Local Government is central to the delivery of many of the things we have committed to achieve. I ask you to work with your colleagues to support the Deputy First Minister in building on the constructive progress already made in developing our relationship with Local Government. I also recognise the specific issues related to education in the New Deal, including in relation to teacher numbers, the poverty-related attainment gap, existing and planned early learning and childcare commitments, and the ongoing variability in outcomes. Education constitutes the largest share of Local Government spend, and we will need to consider carefully where there remains benefit in continuing to ring-fence or direct funding elements of that, as well as developing an agreed set of outcomes and an associated accountability framework with COSLA.
Given the connection between our skills system and ensuring workers are fit for the future, I would encourage you to work closely with the business community to ensure that policies and how they are delivered takes account of potential impacts on businesses and considers opportunities for businesses, especially small businesses, to benefit from our policies and spend.
Collaborative working across Cabinet
It is your responsibility to engage, timeously and appropriately, with your Cabinet colleagues and their junior Ministers as we seek to deliver on these objectives. In addition to those objectives laid out above, you are also expected and required to work on cross-cutting government objectives, which will contribute to our priority outcomes. These include, but are not limited to, the transition to Net Zero; work to meet our child poverty targets; Keeping The Promise; and the incorporation of human rights treaties into Scots law, as far as possible within devolved competence. I know you will also continue to work closely with the Minister for Independence to provide the people of Scotland the information they need to make an informed choice about whether Scotland should become an independent country.
In considering what issues to bring to Cabinet, I want you to prioritise those issues which most clearly support the delivery of our three core missions and therefore most significantly engage the collective responsibility of this Government. This will ensure that Cabinet is focused on long term delivery, on the most critical issues of policy and on what matters most to the people of Scotland.
Cabinet Sub-Committees and Ministerial Working Groups also play a key role in ensuring leadership and accountability of cross cutting issues to support delivery of our three core missions. They are critical for providing a space for oversight on delivery of our commitments thereby helping us to maintain our outcomes focus. I expect all members of the Cabinet Sub-Committees to play a proactive role in them, recognising that there will be a number of challenging decisions to be taken by the Cabinet Sub-Committees in the coming months.
Planning and accountability for delivery
I ask that you ensure that thorough, evidence-based and financially assessed delivery plans are in place for these commitments, to support the ongoing and effective monitoring of progress and impact. This plan should contain baseline performance measures for each commitment and highlight which commitments you are prioritising for early implementation, alongside related timelines, dependencies and assumptions. It will be my expectation that this articulates your agreed programme for the year ahead, with outcomes which represent best value for money for the resources you have at your disposal and that they demonstrate your balanced portfolio budget. This will in turn allow the Deputy First Minister and I to ensure all portfolios deliver within our overall budget the prioritised set of outcomes we are seeking.
I have asked the Deputy First Minister to consider these plans from all portfolios and to join me in six monthly discussions with you on progress against out agreed objectives. The Deputy First Minister will be in touch separately with you around reporting arrangements as part of her role in co-ordinating cross government delivery.
I look forward to working with you to deliver on our shared ambitions for Scotland.
Education and Skills policy priorities for the remainder of the parliamentary term
- Build a system of school age childcare and develop a funded early learning and childcare offer for 1 and 2 year olds, focusing on those who need it most.
- Continue to focus on closing the poverty related attainment gap, whilst raising attainment for all, using our investment in the Scottish Attainment Challenge to further empower headteachers and local authorities to achieve their ambitions to improve outcomes for children and young people impacted by poverty.
- Sought to increase the provision of internationally comparable data on Scotland’s education performance by re-joining the Trends in International Mathematics and Science (TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy (PIRLS) studies
- Deliver excellence in school education through empowering and supporting our teaching profession, putting learners’ needs at the centre. Our new national education bodies will have clearer roles and responsibilities to support this work collaboratively.
- Strengthen support for the curriculum and have an equitable, accessible, valid, and reliable qualifications system for all.
- Improve the experiences and outcomes for children, young people and their families who use additional support for learning.
- Improve digital access for learners.
- Expand free school meal provision.
- by 2026, we will have made Scotland the first UK nation to incorporate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into domestic law, ensuring we are a country that respects, protects and fulfils children's rights
- Continue to focus on Keeping The Promise made to the care community by 2030, by helping families to thrive, and stay together where that is appropriate, and reduce the numbers of children who have to go into care.
- Help all school leavers, regardless of their background, to access the transition support they need to achieve their potential, and ensure every young person aged 16-24 can further their education or secure a job or training place.
- Introduce Scotland’s first National Transitions to Adulthood Strategy to ensure there is a joined-up approach to supporting our disabled young people as they make the transition to adult life.
- Restructure the skills landscape to better meet the needs of Scotland’s learners, following the outcome of the Withers Review.
- Work towards meeting our interim target of 18% of full-time first degree entrants to universities coming from the most deprived communities in Scotland by 2026.
- Support and evidence the continuation of international excellence in teaching and research within Scotland’s Higher Education institutions.
- Deliver a national framework to tackle gender-based violence and sexual harassment in schools, and then commissioned an independent review of our work on this.
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