THE summer holidays have absolutely flown by, and it’s hard to believe that kids in Glasgow are already back at school.

They return for the new term on the back of some very impressive exam results, which were published earlier this month. For the third year in the row, we have seen more than 150,000 Higher passes - and more than double the level of skills-based awards than five years ago.

This is testament to the hard work of our young people and their teachers.

For us MSPs, Parliament returns in a couple of weeks, and we are busy finalising our plans for this year’s Programme for Government.

A key strand of that work are the plans we published around improving education, so this is perhaps a good point to reflect a bit on where we are with our education system.

As the exams showed, our schools are good – but we want them to be better.

We also have more of the world’s top universities, per head of the population, than any other nation on earth apart from Luxembourg.

In fact, by some measures we are the most educated country in Europe.

The recent university admission figures, which came out on the same day as the exam results, underline some of the progress we are making.

Not only did they show a record number of Scottish students gaining places at Scottish universities, but there has also been a large increase in the number of people from disadvantaged areas being accepted to uni.

All of this is helping to ensure that – overall - record levels of our young people are leaving school and entering work, training or further study.

We shouldn’t downplay the significance of this. Go back a few years, and we had big problems with youth unemployment – and while there are still challenges, we now have one of the lowest youth unemployment rates in Europe.

Now, it’s fair to say there has been a lot said in recent months about the challenges we face – particularly around literacy and numeracy.

And while it is right that we look at the areas where we need to do better, we shouldn’t accept the incessant negativity some people spout about our education system.

But nor should the recent positive news be an excuse to row back on our ambitious programme of reforms.

As you know, we have made major reforms to our school curriculum in recent years, making it fit for the 21st century.

The Curriculum for Excellence is delivering a modern approach to teaching – one which delivers the skills employers want as well as the knowledge pupils need.

In amongst all of this, we mustn’t lose sight of the basics.

Last year I launched the First Minister’s Reading Challenge – available to all P4-P7 children across Scotland. Whether it’s logging their reading through their Reading Passports, bringing authors to schools through fully funded visits, registering their classes to take part in challenges and make use of book suggestions – this scheme is designed to foster a love of reading for pleasure.

It’s been so popular that we are extending it to all primary school years - and just this week I had the pleasure of visiting St Andrew’s and St Bride’s High Schools in East Kilbride, to announce that the Reading Challenge will be piloted in six high schools across Scotland.

As we work to improve literacy, we can’t get away from the fact that there are deep-seated inequalities in our society, which cause such big gaps in attainment among our young people.

If we want everyone to get the best possible start in life, we need to start putting significantly more resources directly into the schools that need it most.

We’ve already started in this process – our Scottish Attainment Challenge is injecting substantial extra resources into schools in the most disadvantaged areas. Schools in Glasgow are receiving over £7.5m in extra funding.

Importantly, it is headteachers who choose how to spend that extra resource. Whether it is recruiting extra support staff, or investing in extra equipment, they are best-placed to decide how it will improve education in their schools.

Indeed, giving schools a much greater say over the education they provide will be a major theme in this year’s Programme for Government

Under our reforms, decisions that shape the education of young people will be made in classrooms, by people working with those young people, their parents and communities.

In short, we will free teachers to teach.

When I became First Minister, I said that raising the standard of our education system was one of the things on which I wanted my time in office to be judged.

You will hear a lot about our education reforms over the next few months. They are certainly bold, and for some they are controversial - but we will not shy away from taking the tough decisions to make sure our education system is truly world class.