Sturgeon Sets Out Plan For Scotland

Scotland's education system should deliver "excellence for all'', First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said as she outlined her priorities for the next five years in Government.

The SNP leader reiterated that the ``defining mission'' of her administration is to improve education, telling MSPs at Holyrood they have a "precious opportunity'' to make improvements for the current and future generations.

After the party's election manifesto set out a "comprehensive plan of action'', she said the Scottish Government is preparing its ``blueprint for delivery''.

With the SNP having lost its Holyrood majority in the Scottish election, Ms Sturgeon said she would give consideration to ideas put forward by other parties - notably the introduction of a young carers' allowance, as suggested by the Greens, and Labour proposals to expand the minor ailments service to all pharmacies.

Flagship efforts to close the attainment gap in schools will be taken forward ``as far as possible on consensus'', the First Minister pledged.

She also said there is a "clear progressive majority'' in Holyrood, setting out plans to build alliances to fight ``unfair or regressive Westminster policies such as continued austerity, the renewal of Trident or attempts to undermine human and trade union rights''.

Here, Ms Sturgeon vowed: "We will work with other parties to maximise parliament's influence and to make parliament's voice heard.''

A key early priority will be for parties to work together "defending Scotland's place in the EU'' in the run-up to June's referendum, she said.

The First Minister also pledged the SNP Government will "continue to build the case for Scotland to become independent'' - insisting this is ``a position backed by a majority of MSPs in this chamber'', as the Greens, who have six MSPs, also support leaving the UK.

But she stressed: "We know that Scotland will only become independent if and when a majority of the people are persuaded.

"And we also know that our job is to govern, at all times, for all the people of this country. That is always what we will strive to do.''

Ms Sturgeon confirmed a number of policies outlined in the SNP's recent election manifesto - giving a "baby box'' of essentials to new parents, introducing tougher climate change targets, and increasing free childcare to 30 hours a week for eligible youngsters - will be brought in.

The expansion of childcare "will be our most important infrastructure project of this parliament'', she said, helping parents into work and providing a "transformational investment in the life chances of our children''.

Having already installed her Deputy First Minister John Swinney as Education Secretary, she said he will set out a draft delivery plan for closing the attainment gap in schools before the summer holidays start at the end of June.

It is "simply unacceptable'' that youngsters from the most deprived areas of Scotland only do half as well as their counterparts from the richest areas when sitting Higher exams, Ms Sturgeon said.

She told MSPs: "I want our work to close the attainment gap to be the mission not just of this Government or even this parliament, but of the country as a whole.''

The Attainment Fund set up by the Scottish Government in the last parliament will be boosted with an addition £750 million over the next five years, with Ms Sturgeon saying from next April £100 million a year will go "direct to head teachers so that they - not councils or central government - can decide how best to use it''.

As well as setting up a body of international experts to provide advice on education, she also said a "major summit on school reform and raising attainment'' will take place in the coming months.

While she stressed the Scottish Government will "work hard to build consensus and partnership'', the First Minister added she will not "allow the search for consensus to result in inertia or in the lowest common denominator for action''.

Ms Sturgeon said: "We intend to be bold and to move forward with purpose and with pace.

"We have a precious opportunity over the next five years to make real improvements for the benefit of this and future generations - we are absolutely determined to seize that opportunity.''

Ms Sturgeon claimed her Government's ambition for education "will be matched in other areas'', and, with new powers over welfare coming to Holyrood, she said her administration would ``put dignity and respect back at the heart of our social security system''.

She restated her pledge to end the so-called "bedroom tax'' and to increase the Carers' Allowance, paid to those looking after a loved one.

She continued: "I can announce today that we will also consider the introduction of a Young Carers' Allowance to provide extra support for young people with significant caring responsibilities.

``This is a proposal that was in the Green Party manifesto. I think it has real merit and so we will now ask our carer advisory groups for their views on how to take it forward.''

She also promised a "major programme of investment and reform'' for the NHS, with day- to-day spending on the health service to increase by £500 million a year more than inflation.

This will include a 10-year strategy to improve mental health care, with Ms Sturgeon having already appointed Maureen Watt as Scotland's first dedicated Mental Health Minister, something the First Minister said was "a key ask of the Liberal Democrat manifesto''.

Ms Sturgeon said: "World-class, universal public services are part of our vision for Scotland.

"However those services need to be paid for and underpinned by a strong economy - just as a strong economy is enabled by world-class public services.

"Supporting the economy has always been important to government, but with new powers over income tax it will become even more so.''

Here the SNP leader pledged to "use the parliament's new tax powers fairly and progressively''.

Her party has ruled out increasing the basic rate of income tax - a move supported by both Labour and the Lib Dems - during the next five years, with Ms Sturgeon saying: "We will protect those on low and middle incomes.''

But with the SNP not planning to raise the threshold for the higher rates of income tax, as the UK Government is to do, she said they would also "generate extra revenue for public services'', while reforms to the council will "ask those in the most expensive houses to contribute more''.

She said: "The priorities we pursue over the next five years will shape Scotland for the next generation and beyond.

"The proposals I have outlined today have at their heart a faith in social justice - a belief that we will prosper as a nation, and succeed as a society, if we encourage every person's potential and respect every person's dignity.

"It's is only by empowering individuals that we will achieve our shared ambition for a fairer and more prosperous nation.

"The priorities I have outlined are designed to do just that.''

Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, who are now the SNP's biggest opposition, accused Ms Sturgeon of "repackaging'' Tory education policies.

She also attacked the SNP for continuing to "slap themselves on the back over free university education'', while offering a ``slap in the face'' for colleges.

And she said the Scottish Government has "enough to be getting on with'' without relaunching its campaign for Scottish independence.

Ms Davidson also accused "the Three Amigos'' leading Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens of planning tax rises based on "envy''.

Kezia Dugdale, leader of the heavily reduced Scottish Labour Party, accused the SNP of "cynicism of the worst kind'' by demanding an end to austerity but rejecting tax rises at Holyrood.

In a speech that namechecked singer David Bowie, former US president John F Kennedy and a robot called Baxter, Ms Dugdale warned that Scotland must prepare for the technologically advanced jobs of the future or risk being left behind.

Ms Davidson said Scotland needs a plan for growth which looks beyond its "dangerous reliance'' on big infrastructure projects.

"The test for us when deciding whether to support or oppose this Government will be whether we are helping or hindering growth,'' she said.

"We will call out short-sighted fixes or tax raids born of envy rather than common sense.''

She added: "The Three Amigos leading the Greens, Labour and the Lib Dems are ganging up to form a new high tax alliance.

"I just remind my Labour and Lib Dem friends today that it was this positive, forward- looking vision for Scotland - of hitting hard-working people in the pocket - which saw them lose 13 seats between them earlier this month.

"If you want to keep charging up the valley of death - please, be my guest.

"But to the Scottish Government, I say in all seriousness: there is no long-term future in a policy direction which will only suck enterprise out of Scotland.''

She welcomed the emerging "consensus'' over proposals to give communities more control over education.

"We were flattered during the election campaign to find that so many Scottish Conservative ideas published in January were repackaged in the SNP manifesto in April,'' she said.

"The Government says that local school communities should have more say over education: we agree.

"The Government also now says it supports the creation of so-called 'school clusters', with their own governing bodies - and again we agree here too.

"But where we will oppose the Government is on any attempt to further centralise control over education.

"The new Education Secretary must resist the temptation of assuming he can improve things by ensuring he controls all the levers in Edinburgh.''

She continued: "Slap yourselves on the back about the benefits of free university education if you must.

"But remember it comes at the cost of slapping further education colleges in the face.

"And it's seen poorer Scots less able to even walk through the front gate of a university than if they lived anywhere else in the UK.''

Ms Dugdale said: "We would ask the richest 1% to pay their fair share so that we can educate our young people and prepare them for the future.

"That is not a tax grab, that is not the politics of envy in Ruth Davidson's words - that is a question of fairness, it is an economic necessity.''

She said the SNP "call for an end to austerity and for investment in public services'' at Westminster but have ``the power to stop the cuts, to invest in education and they refuse to do so'' at Holyrood.

She said: "It is cynicism of the worst kind. It is a dereliction of the duty they owe to some of the most disadvantaged people in this country.''

She added: "It was David Bowie who said 'Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming'.

"Just before Christmas I stepped into the future, also known as the Informatics Department at University of Edinburgh. There I met Baxter, a robot with the capacity and mobility to undertake many human tasks.

"He represents a future where existing jobs are redundant and those set to replace them are still to be discovered.

"If we are not ready for this, we will be left behind.''

She continued: "JFK said 'Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our fundamental resource.'

"In Scotland we understood this aphorism long before he coined it. We led the world in education, and our ambition should be no less than to do so again.''

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