Nicola Sturgeon launched a counter-attack against critics of her education record by dumping long-term ally Angela Constance and handing the brief to Deputy First Minister John Swinney.
In a cabinet reshuffle that threw up some surprises, former transport minister Derek Mackay was propelled into the SNP leader’s inner circle as he landed a new chancellor of the exchequer-style role.
Giving the education portfolio to Mr Swinney, who remains as deputy first minister and is widely-seen as a competent performer, supports her claim she will put cutting the attainment gap at the heart of her new government.
The move was welcomed by the National Union of Students and Educational Institute of Scotland as a “hopeful sign of intent and ambition” from the Scottish Government.
But one opposition party leader said her new cabinet is full of the “same old faces pushing the same old policies”.
Ms Sturgeon said: “The cabinet I have announced will ensure our priorities of education and the economy are given fresh impetus, our public services are reformed and improved and we are able to respond to challenges such as climate change in the years to come.
“The new Scottish Government team has the right mixture of experience and fresh ideas and maintains the gender balance that I believe is important. It is the best team to take Scotland forward.”
Fergus Ewing, thought to be at odds with Ms Sturgeon on fracking, has been moved away from energy and gets a promotion to the cabinet with the new position of rural economy and connectivity.
A new post of environment and climate change has been created, which is filled by Roseanna Cunningham and effectively splits the rural affairs brief.
There is no change for Shona Robison – who remains health secretary – Michael Matheson, the justice secretary and Fiona Hyslop, culture and external affairs secretary.
Earlier, Richard Lochhead, the rural affairs secretary, announced he was stepping down from the role after overseeing the botched CAP payments system and Alex Neil resigned as social justice secretary.
The latter is being taken up by Ms Constance, who was widely tipped to lose her education brief.
Her new role will include responsibility for welfare reform, which will see her play a key role over the new powers that are being transferred to Holyrood.
Responsibility for finance, which was previously carried out under a single portfolio held by Mr Swinney, has been split, with Mr Mackay taking finance and Keith Brown in charge of economy and jobs.
Humza Yousaf, who was Europe and International Minister, was snubbed for a cabinet post, but has been given Mr Mackay’s old role of transport and islands minister.
A new position of mental health minister has been created, which will be held by Maureen Watt, while Aberdeen MSPs Mark Macdonald and Kevin Stewart were both given ministerial positions, with the former taking on the childcare and early years portfolio and the latter local government and housing.
Willie Rennie, the Scottish Liberal Democrats leader, said the new cabinet is “made up of the same old faces pushing the same old polices”.
Scottish Labour deputy leader Alex Rowley said they will hold the new cabinet to account.
He added: “Ministers must be bold and use the powers of the Scottish Parliament to stop the cuts and invest in the future.”