Scotland on top of the world by 2020

Now is the time to consider what will take Scottish education forward in the next 20 years, says Jack McConnell

* education, there are brand new school buildings, more teachers, smaller class sizes, top quality nursery places for every three and four-year-old, and higher expectations for excellence in the classroom. The result is that attainment in Scottish schools is rising - with international comparisons now showing that Scottish 15-year-olds are among the best performing in the world in maths, literacy and science.

Perhaps the biggest result of all is that, through working in partnership with Westminster, the number of Scots living in poverty has been cut - particularly the number of children. Since the Tories left office, nearly a quarter of a million Scottish children have been lifted from absolute poverty, reducing absolute child poverty by 65 per cent. Critically, the gap has narrowed too. The number of children living in relative poverty has been cut by a third.

Yet there are some who wonder what the Scottish Parliament has achieved.

Without this Parliament, and without this Government, Scotland could never have been the first place in the UK to have comprehensive enterprise education in every classroom, for every child, or created the Project Scotland national full-time volunteering scheme for young people. We wouldn't be able to boast proudly that our school pupils get the best school dinners in the UK.

The fact is Scotland is a far better place than it was before devolution.

That record is the starting point. Now is the time not to consider what has held us back for the past 20 years, but to consider what will take us forward in the next 20 years.

Two years ago, the Scottish Government set up a Futures Project, building a better understanding of what Scotland must do to succeed 20 years from now.

This project is not trying to predict the future with certainty. It is about Scotland's place and positioning. To determine our place, we conducted a strategic audit to benchmark Scotland internationally.

To me, the evidence demonstrates clearly that poverty and inequality are at the root of Scotland's greatest weaknesses. Despite the significant progress in cutting poverty in recent years, we must remain resolved to abolish child poverty by 2020.

The second part of the project sets out the likely trends that may emerge in the next 20 years. Our job is to make sure Scotland is best positioned to respond.

The trends paint a complex picture. We can be relatively certain of an increasing pace of technological change, of an increasingly knowledge-based economy, of growing disposable incomes and more consumer choice.

For both the challenge and the opportunity of increasing interdependence, the task for Scotland's Parliament and Government is to equip Scots with the skills that are globally useful - in languages, technology and science.

For me, it is clear that knowledge and skills are the primary way to enhance Scotland's competitive advantage over the next 20 years and beyond. So my absolute conclusion is that continuous, high-quality learning and education has to be Scotland's strategy for the future.

Our history and our instincts tell us that learning is the best tool we have to improve the life chances of all Scots. Education is the purest form of investment, investment in human potential. Education is an escape route out of poverty. Education is the only investment which drives all things.

It drives productivity and economic prosperity, it promotes social cohesion and cultural development.

Scotland has one of the best education systems in the world, but we need it to be the best. Our ambition is to have the best education system in the world by 2020.

So, we must finish the job we have started, and build upon it. We must complete the school building programme, to ensure our school buildings are the best in the world. We will train more teachers, so Scotland's teaching profession is the best in the world. We need even more vocational options in schools, so young Scots have the best choices in the world. And we can drive up standards and ambitions through more schools of ambition.

We will support Scottish universities and colleges that are already among the best in the world. And we must stay true to our commitment: reducing the number of young Scots not in education, employment or training.

The patriotic choice for Scotland is to do the right thing for our children. There is nothing more satisfying or inspiring than to see a young mind grasp the opportunities for learning - to see a young person learn basic knowledge, develop creative skills, realise the potential of cultural experiences and become more confident, more understanding and more ambitious as a result. And I want that for all of Scotland's children.

Jack McConnell is First Minister of Scotland. This is an extract from his speech to the opening session of the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday of last week

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