Additional funding to a school can have a big impact even before a penny has been spent. "When Mr Ross (our headteacher) heard we were in the top 20, he stopped everything and called a whole-school assembly to tell us," says 14-year-old Sean McKluckie, a third-year pupil at Kirkland High School and Community College in Fife.
High unemployment and low expectations had previously created a poor platform for launching young lives. "This is an area where people expected nothing and got nothing," says depute head Derek McWhirter. "There was a feeling that there was no point in trying. That has changed. I remember one young lad who missed the announcement coming up and saying, 'We're a school of ambition, aren't we sir?' "
There is a bit of bounce now about Kirkland High, but with a free-meal entitlement twice the national average, the choice of drama as the focus for transformation seems surprising.
"We have won awards for enterprise and have good links with local businesses, so that didn't need to be our focus," says Ronnie Ross, the head.
"We also had strong music and art departments but no drama teacher. I've seen the difference at other schools that drama can make. It brings kids out of themselves, gives them confidence, stretches their boundaries.
Youngsters who are shy and unable to present themselves just flourish. All that has a knock-on effect right across the curriculum."
Being a school of ambition has acted as a powerful catalyst, says Mr Ross, bringing new opportunities to the school.
"The National Theatre of Scotland is here all this week, working with the pupils. That wouldn't have happened before.
"When the 20 schools of ambition were announced, we got a stack of emails and letters from people wanting to work with us - and to help us spend the money. We even had consultants offering to come in and motivate staff and pupils for pound;2,500 a day. But that's my job."
Kirkland High has now recruited a full-time drama teacher. Pupils will study the subject from first year.
"At the moment it's mostly girls who are working with the National Theatre," says Mr Ross. "But, once the subject is timetabled and everybody's taking it, the boys will become every bit as keen as the girls - I've seen it before."
Work has begun on a purpose-built drama and recording studio. The school assembly hall is going to be transformed into a first-class performance venue. Responsibility for managing the project is shared by the school's business manager and the new drama teacher.
"We made the point when interviewing that this was the focus of our school of ambition. It was more than just being a principal teacher of drama - it was also about having a high profile across the curriculum and the community," explains Mr Ross.
The feeling that maybe there is something special about the school has been enhanced among pupils and parents by a glossy and attractive school pack and CD-Rom, designed in the school.
The drama teacher and some of the pupils will work with associated primary schools on lessons and events, such as the Kirkland Fringe, a festival of music and drama planned for springtime.
Young Sean, a keen singer who enjoys dancing, has already been asked to go into the primaries with the National Theatre, he says, and has enthusiastically accepted.
"I really like music, but I'm not keen on old fogey stuff like Elvis Presley," he says. "I don't know much about drama yet, but I fancy working with younger kids. It's good experience because I'd like to be a primary teacher."
Emma Urquhart, 15, also volunteered to work with the National Theatre. She is looking forward to timetabled drama.
"A lot of us are really interested in dance and drama. I like it because it helps my confidence," she says. "I don't like speaking in front of people - like if I have to do a talk in English. I want to be a doctor or a music teacher, though, so I would need to be able to do that.
"Dancing and performing help make you more confident, because they encourage you and everybody around you is doing the same thing."
Besides improving self-esteem, drama helps broaden the outlook of youngsters whose experience has been quite restricted, says Carole Tricker, principal teacher of guidance.
"They are put into somebody else's shoes, and have to feel what that other person is feeling, take on their point of view," she explains.
"I believe it's a subject that should be taught in every school. If you look at kids when they come out of drama, you can see just how good they are feeling."