At the start of 2020, it is timely to reflect on what has happened over the last year and consider what lies ahead.
Firstly, I want to pay tribute to the enormous effort that teachers, pupil support assistants and catering staff make day in, day out, for our children and young people. Thank you for all that you do.
There is much to be proud of.
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The pay deal agreed in April – which delivered a 13 per cent rise over three years – provides a solid foundation for employers and teaching unions to address workload and continue our empowerment journey.
Teacher numbers have increased for the fourth year in a row, with primary teachers at their highest level since 1980.
This is supported by our continued recruitment drive and finding new and alternative routes into teaching, including a focus on increasing the number of Stem teachers. These routes into teaching have attracted 800 people over the past two years, who may not otherwise have entered the profession.
Heading in the right direction
With the ratio of pupils to teachers, nationally, remaining at its lowest since 2013, I believe we are in a strong position to drive targeted improvement.
But more than that, the International Council of Education Advisers (ICEAS) – a group of world-leading education and business experts – urged me to not to be distracted from our long-term goals by day-to-day issues.
They said that based on the evidence, Scotland is heading in the right direction, and taking the right approach to improving education. I valued and welcomed that advice.
Data from the Programme for International Student Assessment 2018 (Pisa) published last month showed that reading levels have recovered sharply in the past three years and are now above the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) average, with just five countries out of 36 higher than Scotland.
Pisa data also shows that social background is now less of factor in performance, corroborating wider evidence that the attainment gap is closing.
The Curriculum for Excellence level (ACEL) data shows, for the second year running, increases in attainment across all four of the key outcome measures – for example, a rise of around one percentage point in primary literacy and secondary numeracy.
The latter is particularly welcome in the light of the Pisa results, which showed that we have more progress to make in maths.
The ACEL data, based on teacher judgement and assembled pupil by pupil across every school in the country, gives us a picture of performance.
We also know that the attainment gap between the most and the least disadvantaged has narrowed, and we are beginning to see the system-wide benefits of the reforms that we have introduced.
I believe the improvement in reading has been driven by great teachers and well-supported pupils, and also our unrelenting focus on improving literacy through the Scottish Attainment Challenge and Pupil Equity Fund.
We now need to make sure that the same happens in relation to maths and science, and the ACEL data indicates that the steps that we are taking are supporting that direction of travel.
We are now seeing record numbers of school leavers going into work, education or training and more young people from our most disadvantaged communities going into university.
There is a lot of good news in Scottish education and this is a tribute to the hard work of young people and their teachers.
Time for constructive discussion
All of this progress in education brings me to the current political debate on education.
The opposition has made a number of sustained attacks on the government’s education approach and performance. All of this debate featured in the recent general election campaign and the result demonstrated that this unrepresentative criticism of Scottish education got the opposition nowhere. So I want to use this moment of post-election reflection to encourage the opposition to engage more constructively in the debate about Scottish education.
I am the first to accept that we need to deliver even greater improvement. It is quite clear that not everything is perfect in Scottish education. But I believe the opposition do a disservice to our students and educators when they make the criticism they make.
Having made no progress electorally by their attacks on government education policy, I invite the opposition to engage in a constructive discussion that recognises the strength of our education system and focuses on the road to improvement. We need to take the polarised politicking out of Scottish education.
I believe that the direction of travel is the right one – and the data published last month supports that view – and our responsibility now is to keep a strong focus on continued improvement.
I am entirely focused on continuing to deliver that, and I urge teachers, headteachers and support staff to follow the advice of the ICEA, and "stay the course" in 2020.
I wish you and your family a happy new year.
John Swinney is Scotland's education secretary and deputy first minister