Helen Liddell, Labour's spokeswoman on education, promised a 10-year investment programme but no quick fix. Elizabeth Maginnis, education convener in Labour-run Edinburgh and the local authorities' figurehead, warned that the spending boom of the 1960s was unlikely to recur.
Mrs Liddell said that Labour's early years' strategy, to be published shortly, would spell out how the party intends to transfer resources to nursery and primary education. Pressed from the floor, she said nursery education was likely to be made statutory.
A promise to focus on the basics in the early years won enthusiastic support. Asked whether heads should be taken out of calculations for primary staffing complements, Mrs Liddell replied: "You cannot ask a headteacher to fulfil a management role and the multiplicity of pastoral roles and always be part of the staffing ratio."
But "the cruellest con of all" would be to promise to meet demands when the party had yet to see the books. It was a time for realism and "hard-headed analysis". Mrs Liddell invited heads to submit their arguments and help shape Labour policy in the "window of opportunity" prior to the general election.
Mrs Maginnis said heads were in a position to wield significant influence in the new local authorities and would be well placed to argue for more resources. A transfer of resources to the primary sector could include the release of heads for management duties.
But she warned: "It is clear and obvious that Scottish education, in its bid to develop and expand, must make far better use of the resources to hand, as well as a better prioritisation of targets.
"Each curricular development which has come and gone in the last 15 years, Standard grade, Revised Higher, 5-14, Scotvec and now Higher Still, is resource greedy and sitting alongside teaching union demands for more teachers, lower class sizes and more resources, creates an expectation gap that can never be filled."
Mrs Maginnis argued that curricular change should not be met by demands for more and more staff, and said the answer lay in "machines rather than people". That was why she backed computer networks to sustain Higher Still choices. Small classes in the upper secondary were unsustainable and neighbourhood arrangements had not proved successful.
Turning to emphasis on early years education, she said that the Pilton literacy study in Edinburgh had revealed "enormous complacency and collusion". Teachers had too readily accepted that children in disadvantaged communities could not make educational progress.
"The challenge to Scotland's educational establishment is to learn the lessons of Pilton, that with resources judicially channelled to the early stages of infant education, a real difference can be made to the achievement, performance and life chances of some of our very poorest and most vulnerable children, " Mrs Maginnis stated.
"We have a duty, now that we know the problems and answers, to a do a great deal about it."
Judith Gillespie, convener of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, concurred. "Every child who is not being made a competent reader in primary is being short-changed," Mrs Gillespie said.
Malcolm Green, education convener in Glasgow, said that the city was committed to a review of the Pounds 7.2 million allocated to schools in areas of priority treatment to boost provision.
"I would be surprised if we did not tip the balance towards the primary school," Dr Green predicted. "I do know some secondary heads who would agree with that. There is a recognition that if the problems are not tackled effectively at primary it is very difficult for them to work with pupils who are inadequately prepared for secondary education."
Keir Bloomer, director of education and community services in Clackmannan, said that for every Pounds 3 spent on secondary pupils only Pounds 2 was spent on primary pupils.