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LABOUR CONFERENCE: SCOTLAND'S FIRST MINISTER'S SPEECH

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McConnell reveals plans for new skills academies...
McConnell reveals plans for new skills academies

Speech by Jack McConnell MSP, Scottish First Minister, Labour Party Annual Conference, Manchester G-Mex Centre, yesterday:

'Seven years since our Labour Government created Home Rule for Scotland, I am proud to be here to report on the results.

That film was made by G5 films. A group of young Scots - one of whom is among the first 'graduates' of Project Scotland, the UK's first full time volunteering programme.

Full time volunteers giving something back, earning respect and opening doors of opportunity - in many cases to youngsters whose lives had gone wrong.

And the music is written and performed by an up and coming band from Fife called 'Without Malice'.

The talented young people behind this film represent a generation of young Scots who are confident, with values and motivation that bode very well for the future of Scotland. Thanks very much to them.

They are proud of their country, and all of the Labour Party can be proud of what has been achieved in Scotland.

You would expect Scotland's First Minister to say that Scotland is a far better country than we were in 1999.

But let me prove it to you.

On the economy.

We are investing in skills and enterprise, and in further and higher education; in more air routes and better ferries, new train stations and track and more trains too.

And the result is Scotland's economy is stronger and growing.

And after decades of emigration - the last two years have seen the highest net in-migration to Scotland since records began.

The brain drain from Scotland to the rest of the UK and beyond has been reversed.

There are new schools, more teachers, smaller class sizes, quality pre-school education; and higher expectations for excellence in the classroom.

And the result is attainment in Scottish schools is rising and young Scots at the age of 15 are amongst the highest performing young people in the world in maths, literacy and science.

There are new powers to tackle knife crime and anti social behaviour, more police and community wardens to implement them and a more effective court system to deliver better justice for victims.

And the result is crime is down, clear up rates are up and communities are fighting back against anti social behaviour.

Increased investment, more nurses, more doctors, more consultants, better buildings and equipment, a focus on Scotland's key killer diseases.

Deaths from heart disease, stroke and cancer down .

And the best waiting times in Scottish NHS - ever.

I am very proud of Scotland.

But I have never been more proud of Scots than in the last 6 months.

The people of Scotland have made the most bold, forward looking decision of the

For six months, every pub, club, restaurant and enclosed public place in Scotland has been smoke free.

And we are a better country for it.

And conference if you aren't yet convinced of Scottish Labour's progress, try this:

-- All pensioners have bus passes to travel the length and breadth of Scotland - for free; and we have increased re-cycling from 5% to 23%;

-- We signed a co-operation agreement with Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world, to share our experiences in health, education and economic development;

-- And we have welcomed hard working immigrants, promoted multiculturalism and tackled sectarianism.

And today, there is speculation in Scotland following yesterday's Old Firm football match that we may have finally turned the corner and we can see an end to sectarianism in my lifetime.

Together we can win the battle against the bigots.

And I congratulate all those in Scotland's football clubs, police forces, churches and schools for all that they have done.

We don't do these things in the Labour Party's name just to tick boxes, or to manage things better than others would.

No other party would have delivered such change - we do it because of our Labour values.

So that pensioners are liberated and enjoy their retirement.

So all young people, not just some, develop all their talents.

So all families live in secure communities - regardless of where they come from, what they look like or where they choose to practice their faith.

We practice those values and deliver those results in a Scottish Parliament where Labour does not have a majority.

Where the only way to achieve success is to have elected members who are well organised, hard working, disciplined - and united.

Your Labour group of MSPs are that. And they are driven by a desire to improve the lives of ordinary Scots.

I have been Scotland's Labour First Minister for nearly five years now.

But before I was a politician, I was a maths teacher.

I taught in the 1980's and 1990's when girls and boys could see fewer and fewer opportunities open to them.

And in a system where chances were becoming more limited, and the school environment more miserable.

I loved teaching, but I wanted to change all that - and nothing in my job today gives me more pleasure than the way those life chances have changed 20 years on.

For 80% of young Scots attainment has improved, and around 50% of school leavers go into higher education.

There are also better jobs and more training than before.

But the world is changing; competition in the global economy is fierce.

And our competition is not just from low skill, low wage economies.

Others have up-skilled, and competition comes from people and countries who are innovating and developing quickly.

It is the job of the Scottish Parliament to help prepare Scots for the future.

And a third term of that Parliament has to act for the long term.

Whatever the future world may throw at us, whatever challenges may come our way, I believe Scotland's strategy for that future has to be continuous, high quality education and learning.

Scotland was the first place to institute universal schooling; our standards are amongst the best in the world.

But I have no doubt that we can be the best.

So Labour will fight our election in 7 months time on our plans to make Scotland's education system the very best in the world.

But to be the best we need to do two things.

First of all, we can no longer tolerate the tail of underachievement.

The bottom 20% for whom standards have failed to rise significantly since 1999 - their achievements, opportunities and aspirations are a national priority.

We must inspire those who are turned off by school. We must help those young Scots who leave school to do nothing.

We will drive up standards in maths and English, specifically to give every young person the opportunity to pass a tough literacy and numeracy test before they leave school.

And I want centres of excellence in schools and colleges - to provide all young Scots with proper vocational options from the age of 14.

So today conference, I can announce that the 2007 Labour manifesto for Scotland will commit to new Skills Academies creating new opportunities in every part of Scotland.

Scotland has the highest employment rate in the UK and we are closer to full employment than almost anywhere else in Europe.

But we want to go further.

We will create a full employment agency. It will be tasked with taking Scotland to full employment, bringing existing agencies together for a united effort.

This initial package - Skills Academies, higher standards in literacy and numeracy and a Full Employment Agency will make sure no young person in Scotland is left behind.

But we want to hold no young person back either.

We will not neglect the youngster who has the potential to be a high achiever.

Because untapped potential of any kind is a waste.

So Scottish Labour's programme for 2007 will do two things. We will leave no child behind. And we will hold no child back either.

Conference, there is a choice of two futures for Scotland in 7 months time.

For three centuries, our proud nations have chosen to unite together. Never losing our national pride, our distinctive traditions, or our patriotism. But together forming a United Kingdom with a pride and a heritage of its own.

And within that union it was this party - Labour - that recognised a democratic deficit and delivered Keir Hardie's founding pledge for Home Rule.

A Scottish Parliament to handle domestic matters - while Scots elected to Westminster stand up for Scotland there.

Scotland can choose to continue this path. To continue its heritage of leadership of the UK, of providing cabinet ministers, sporting heroes, scientists, artists and musicians - and all the other opportunities that the UK gives Scots and that have enabled Scots to enrich Britain.

Within the stability of Britain's economy, and Britain's global influence - Scotland can build the best education system in the world, turn around our national health, make our communities safer, and support Scottish families in their aspirations to own a home, travel, and combine parenthood with a fulfilling career.

We can do all of this without losing one bit of what makes us a nation.

Or Scotland can choose a different path.

The SNP would have us debating the merits of statehood, while businesses withdrew and financial institutions stalled.

They would waste years disputing the conditions of separation, from embassies and passports to pension funds and currencies.

They want to leave the G8, the Security Council, and NATO, have a marginal role in international affairs, at a time of increasing global uncertainty and insecurity.

But its not just Scotland that would be worse off from separation.

Scotland is one-third of the UK landmass, we have two-thirds of its waters.

Scotland is an integral part of the UK's public life, business, academia, defence, culture, and broadcasting.

Today over 2 million Scots have relatives elsewhere in the UK.

So Scotland's choice matters to Britain too.

Labour's vision is not as the Nationalists will claim, a vision based on fear of a separate state.

It is a positive vision of why devolution within the UK is best for Scotland.

Our election campaign will be a policy rich, forward looking programme for the third term of Scotland's Parliament. We will put substance before separation.

And our first promise to the people of Scotland is to put education and young people first.

Something the Nationalists can never say, because all Scots know that breaking up the United Kingdom is the first, last and abiding obsession of the Scottish National Party.

This election campaign will be long and hard. We will need the support and solidarity of the whole labour movement. This will be a big election where the stakes are high - and the stakes matter to you too.

We are proud of what Labour in Scotland has done, and you should be too.

We will set out the risk of separation, and it should concern you too.

We will campaign tirelessly for a Labour victory at next year's Scottish elections - and you should too.

We will put education and young people first and together we can win.'

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