What a great start to the week when St Andrew’s and St Bride’s High School welcomed Nicola Sturgeon on Monday morning. Nicola was launching the First Minister’s Reading Challenge for senior pupils and St Abs is one of Scotland’s six pilot secondary schools. The organisation of the event was superb – teachers, pupils and staff to be commended for all the preparation that must have taken place beforehand – and the clearing up afterwards! It really was a joyous occasion, with the love of reading and storytelling to the fore.
Children and young people are priority for Scotland’s Government, and indeed across the parties in our Parliament there is a recognition that the early years are vitally important. Voluntary Action South Lanarkshire recently published an excellent special newsletter about that focus on the first years of a child’s life and some of the assistance available: Baby Buddy – an ‘app’ for young parents and parents-to-be; Baby Blether – what’s your child’s view of the world? Getting it Right for Every Child. More information available from VASLan, or direct from me.
Last week saw another important launch – the nationwide rollout of Scotland’s Baby Box. Our Government in Scotland is determined that every child, regardless of their circumstances, should get the best start in life. The Baby Box includes essential items for baby’s first weeks and months. The box itself is British Safety Standard accredited for use as a crib – a safe space for babies to sleep near their parents. Expectant mums can register to receive the Baby Box at an existing midwife appointment.
The Baby Box is in addition to other supportive measures introduced by the Scottish government; a new Early years Grant for low income families; £300 birth payments for all children; the Healthy Start Voucher scheme for low income families; expanded Family Nurse partnership programme.
Experts acknowledge that measures undertaken in the 0-3 years’ age range have the opportunity to make the biggest impact, and Nicola Sturgeon is clear that her early years’ initiatives are “about laying the foundations for future generations, with the aim of helping to deliver a healthier, fairer and more successful country”. I don’t think anyone can disagree with that!
Learning though, is more effective in a good environment, and if you feel content. We talk about that often in relation to schools in poorer countries overseas, for example, and the good work carried out by many of our community groups, churches and charities. But it matters at home too – good nutrition, not being hungry, is key to effective learning. That’s why back in 2015 the Scottish Government introduced universal eligibility for free school meals for primary 1-3 pupils.
Two years down the line a record number of pupils are now registered for free school lunches – more than quarter of a million across Scotland, and over 16,000 in South Lanarkshire. Guaranteeing our youngest pupils a healthy meal during the school day helps them to learn and can save families an estimated £380 a year. For me, a really important element is that the universality means no stigma attached to being seen as ‘getting something for nothing’. That matters when you’re a bairn, or a parent struggling to get by.
A couple of weeks after the SQA results’ day I enjoyed this morning talking with senior pupils about their aspirations for leaving school – further study perhaps, straight into a job perhaps, an apprenticeship perhaps? Across Scotland, for the third year in a row, more than 150,000 pupils got Higher passes, with the number of skills-based awards more than double the level of five years ago. Impressive too that there is a 13 per cent rise in the number of students from disadvantaged areas gaining a place at university.
Our four senior schools in East Kilbride are impressive. Our young people in East Kilbride are impressive. Myself and the First Minister of Scotland were left in no doubt of that when we visited St Andrew’s and St Bride’s High School this morning.