Both before and after the Scottish Parliament elections in May, I pledged that creating better opportunities for children and young people would be the key priority of the government I lead.
2017 will see us make further steps towards fulfilling that commitment.
From next summer, all children born in Scotland will receive a baby box. The baby box is a gift with lots of useful items for parents of newborn babies – from bodysuits and beanie hats to thermometers, reusable nappies and baby books. The box itself doubles as a sleeping space and comes complete with a mattress and bedding.
Other countries have successfully provided similar boxes for many years. Finland, for example, has achieved one of the world’s best records for infant and maternal health. So we know that the baby box will make a real difference to people’s lives; and it also symbolises the government’s commitment to ensuring that every child in Scotland gets the best possible start in life.
By the end of this Parliament, all three- and four-year-old children and around a quarter of two-year-olds will be eligible for more than 1100 hours a year of free early learning and childcare. That’s almost doubled the current levels of provision. The babies born in 2017 will be amongst the first to benefit from that expansion.
We’re also investing £750 million over this Parliament in our school attainment fund. We aim to improve attainment for all and also to reduce the gap in attainment between children in more deprived areas and those in more affluent areas.
And for young people leaving school, we are ensuring that they continue to benefit from free higher education and that they have opportunities for modern apprenticeships, college places and fulfilling employment.
We’re investing for the future in other ways as well. In 2017, we will complete the largest Scottish infrastructure project of modern times – the new Queensferry Crossing. We will also finish the electrification of the main railway line from Glasgow to Edinburgh. And we’ll make further progress on other major projects: dualling the A9, the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route and making superfast broadband available to all households across Scotland.
These are further examples of how we are building a better future for communities in every part of Scotland. And as we do that, we’re also working to safeguard the opportunities that so many people in Scotland now take for granted. We’re determined that Scotland’s vote to remain in the European Union will be respected; and that people in Scotland can retain as many of the benefits of EU membership as possible, including the freedom to work, travel and study in other European countries.
New Year is inevitably a time when we look to the future. I’m determined to ensure that we give our children and our young people – Scotland’s future – the support and care they need to live happy, healthy, fulfilling lives. And I’m confident that in 2017, we will make further progress towards that goal. That’s something which is well worth looking forward to.
So wherever you are – whether you’re here in Scotland or further afield; whether you’re at work, spending time on your own or with your friends and family – I hope you have a wonderful Hogmanay and a great New Year.
I wish all of you all the best for 2017.