This year's Scottish Learning Festival is taking place at one of the most exciting times for Scottish education. Curriculum for Excellence is well under way, young people have achieved record passes in their exams, Scotland's Schools for the Future programme is delivering new schools and we are implementing the Donaldson report to ensure we have world-class teachers.
I am hugely encouraged by what's happening in our schools. The Scottish education system is doing a very good job for the vast majority of our pupils.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's assessment survey clearly shows that we have routinely performed at or above the global average in reading, maths and science. And that we have stopped the decline that occurred from 2000 to 2006.
But halting the slide is not good enough. We need to climb back up the tables to put Scottish youngsters at the forefront of our future, develop their ambition and improve their life chances.
We want to ensure those who aren't doing so well are given the help they need to reach their goals, while continuing to enable our highest performers to reach ever greater heights.
I am pleased to confirm that I have set up a group to look specifically at attainment. The members will bring expertise in teaching and leading learning across the Scottish education system, including improving attainment in a variety of settings.
The group will use their knowledge and experience to identify issues and develop ideas on specific areas of the system that have a key influence on attainment and where performance needs to improve.
Alongside this group, we need a stronger focus on performance. Like every teacher, school and local authority, college and university, I am ambitious for every one of our pupils and students. Our learners need to understand how they are performing across their education and how they can develop and improve.
Our teachers and schools must understand the progress being made by their pupils and how to put in place effective approaches to secure improvement throughout a pupil's education. Our local authorities must have systems in place to ensure that teaching and learning is responsive to the world that our children will be growing up in, and that every single child is able to progress.
The attainment group is part of our on-going support to drive forward Curriculum for Excellence and maximise the real and lasting difference that it's making to learning and teaching.
We know that, through CfE, children are learning in new ways. Whether that's finding information for themselves through, for example, internet research or working in groups, the days of teachers standing at the blackboard all day are behind us. Now pupils are learning skills that are relevant throughout school and into the world of work.
While the main focus has been on how children learn, there is also an increased focus on literacy, numeracy and health and well-being. Now, as we look towards the future, we also need to develop what children are taught. In the global economy, the importance of language skills will increase. That's why we are committed to introducing a new approach which will see children have the opportunity to learn two languages in addition to their own.
It's also important that children have a good knowledge of their own country. That's why we'll also be introducing Scottish studies, which will give them the opportunity to learn in a more structured way about the history, culture and languages of Scotland.
As we move forwards we are also continuing to look closely at what more we can do to deliver progress on CfE. For example, we've produced factfiles to explain the changes to parents and we are working closely with the National Parent Forum to consider what additional information will help parents.
In terms of support for schools, we are working closely with SQA as they provide more detail on the new National 4 and 5 qualifications. What's more, I promise we will keep listening to teachers and do our best to put in place the support you need to make the most of the new opportunities.
And of course, the McCormac review builds on the Donaldson recommendations and signposts further work that needs to be done as we continue to develop our teacher workforce.
But our work does not begin or end at the school gates. The Scottish Government is determined to get the early years right, ensuring that children have the best start in life. This means early investment and early intervention, both of which are critical for improving life chances. This is non-negotiable if we are going to raise the bar for all children.
A young person's strengths and ambitions should be nurtured and developed throughout their life to provide clear direction in their journey into well-paid and sustainable jobs. That's why we are maximising the opportunities for young people - whether they are interested in one of our 25,000 modern apprenticeships, a job, college or university.
By making sure education continues to be free, we will support our young people to develop into a career. We know that better skills mean better jobs, and better jobs means a wealthier Scotland for all. These issues will be at the core of our wider ambitions for the reform of post-16 education.
Scottish education is in a good place. We can work together to make it even better and cement our reputation for excellence in education. This in turn will ensure young people have the skills and knowledge to realise their ambitions and compete for the jobs they want in the global economy of the future.
Education Secretary Michael Russell will give the keynote address on Wednesday, 10.45am at the Scottish Learning Festival, SECC Glasgow.