Scotland could be within striking distance of the best education system in the world if it can crack the problems of disaffection among a minority of youngsters.
Jack McConnell, First Minister, told the Scottish Labour conference in Aviemore that it was not "an unrealistic or an unachievable ambition" to help lift many youngsters out of poverty by improving school achievement.
"If ever there was a mission for Scottish Labour then surely it is that,"
he told delegates.
Mr McConnell, who taught maths at Lornshill Academy in Clackmannanshire in the early 1980s, said he was motivated to enter politics by the frustration and anger he felt at the lack of success among many.
"I felt it teaching in the 1980s. Scottish schools were at breaking point, youngsters had little ambition, and mass unemployment gave them little hope for the future. But I knew it was politicians and government that had the power to make schools better for all youngsters. In 1985, when I was teaching, one in four boys left school at 16 with no qualifications. Now just one in 20 leaves without a qualification," he said.
Scotland, as the inspectorate pointed out in its report last week, was among the top-performing education systems internationally.
"But there are still too many youngsters who are completely disengaged.
They are in trouble most of the time. Their teachers spend more time disciplining than teaching. And bad behaviour disrupts the learning for the rest of the class," the First Minister continued.
"In the end, we all lose out. The youngsters leave school with nothing.
They disappear into the black economy, or worse, embark on a career of crime or a life on drugs. What a waste."
Mr McConnell stressed that was why Labour was giving priority to the NEET group - those not in education, employment or training.
The Schools of Ambition programme was transforming comprehensive education; leadership programmes rivalled the best in the world; and vocational education was keeping young people interested, engaged and motivated for longer.
Mr McConnell said Labour's results spoke for themselves. "There are more teachers, smaller class sizes, quality pre-school education, new school buildings, and higher expectations for excellence in the classroom.
"The result is that attainment in Scottish schools is rising, our schools are top performing internationally and exam results are going up," he told the conference.
In a separate part of his speech, the First Minister pledged to tighten child-protection measures and later this year he will introduce legislation to ensure professionals share information about children at risk.
Government had a duty to protect "innocent children with the same potential as every other child" whose parents were addicted to drink and drugs.