This week, in Care Leavers’ Week, I’d like to pay tribute to all care experienced young people across Scotland.

Over the past couple of years I’ve chosen to spend quite a bit of time talking to and learning from young people who have grown up in care. One of the things they have told me is that their experience of care - whether long term or for short periods of time - never leaves them. Instead, it stays with them throughout their lives. Increasingly, young people are coming to understand and embrace their care experience as part of their identity. As they do so, they are connecting with one another and claiming their rights. That is to be celebrated and supported.

What’s crucial to me and the SNP government is that we do everything we can to help those who grow up in care to achieve a lifetime of equality, respect and, most important of all, love.

The success of so many of care experienced young people that I’ve had the privilege of meeting is inspirational - but the barriers young people with care experience face in achieving their ambitions can still be far too difficult to break through and that is what we must change.

Statistics do not define a person but they are important in highlighting why this issue is of such great importance. Care experienced young people are more likely than others to end up homeless or in prison, suffering mental health challenges or dying prematurely. And they are less likely to go to university or college. Let me be clear - that is utterly unacceptable and it’s something my government is absolutely determined to change.

This is why we initiated a root and branch review of Scotland’s care system, looking at the underpinning legislation, practices, culture and ethos. We know that there are many great examples of good care out there. There are also many dedicated people who work in the system and I want to thank them for the incredible job that they do.

But we also know we don’t get it right for every young person. And we know that many young people in care feel deprived of the most important thing of all - love. That’s why we are determined to make real change.

The review is well underway but we don’t need to wait for it to conclude before we take action to improve lives.

So, for example, to ensure there is no delay in affecting change, we are taking immediate steps such as guaranteeing bursaries for those going to university and exempting care leavers from paying council tax.

However the most important part of the review and the creation of the new system is the role young people have in shaping it.

One thing which really comes home to me when meeting care experience young people is how they feel that care is not something done for them. It is done to them.

That is always heart-breaking to hear and it cannot be how we go on.

So we have made giving care experienced children and young people a voice in the process our upmost priority.

That commitment has led to an incredible response to the review since its public launch last year - around 1500 children and young people have so far shared their stories.

I can’t overestimate how important this has been – it is giving our young people hope and our future system credibility.

Part of our commitment to listen to care experienced young people is the ‘1000 Voices’ campaign. Initiated by the campaign organisation Who Cares?Scotland, it is a pledge to listen to 1000 care experienced young people. The campaign had been so inspirational that it led to Who Cares?Scotland being awarded the coveted title of UK Charity of the Year.

I made a personal commitment to speak to 1000 young people with care experience. So far I’ve spoken to nearly 400, so I still have some way to go! But already I have been overwhelmed by just how special each voice has been. For me the experience has reinforced not only the duty but the potential we have to change the care system and build one which is truly transformational.

These young people are inspirational and they are role models for us all. I have been lucky enough to work very closely with some of them, including through mentoring, and the experience has changed me for good.

To me, nothing matters more than how we care for our young people and there is no greater responsibility than ensuring equal opportunities for each and every one of them.

So not just this week but every week let us remember that young people in the care system depend on all of us, not just government but society as a whole, to ensure they enjoy safe, fulfilling, secure and loving childhoods.

And to those young people who are either going through or have come through the care system I say this – you matter, you are loved and I promise we will do everything we can to ensure your future potential is limitless.