Gordon Brown has called for an education system which values the individual talents of all - with the promise of more personalised learning.
Gordon Brown promises a more customised form of public service
Addressing Labour's annual conference, the prime minister promised a personal tutor for every secondary school pupil.
He said youngsters from low-income families would be funded from the age of 16 through to leaving university.
Mr Brown said there should be "no longer any ceiling on where your talents and hard work can take you".
The conference speech in Bournemouth emphasised Mr Brown's personal commitment to equal access to public services - and his belief that children's talents should not be wasted.
Although he did not say it, his commitments on education would apply only to England, given the devolved systems elsewhere in the UK.
'Accessible to all'
"As a teenager I saw close friends of mine who might have gone to college or an apprenticeship or to university who never did. I know some could not to afford to stay on at school," Mr Brown told his party.
"We need to unlock all the talent we have... In the last century, the question was: 'Can we afford to do this?' In this century, in the face of economic challenge, we cannot afford not to," said Mr Brown.
Public services must be "accessible to all, personal to all", he told the conference.
He reiterated his support for more "personalised" learning, in which pupils in England have a greater range of one-to-one lessons, customised teaching and individual care.
For primary pupils, he repeated the commitment to more individual catch-up lessons in literacy and numeracy for 300,000 pupils, aimed at those who had slipped behind.
"For every secondary pupil in future - a personal tutor throughout the school years. And starting with 600,000 pupils, small-group tuition too," said Mr Brown.
"Learning personal to each pupil - educational available to all, not one-size fits all, but responding to individual needs."
A personal tutor - of the kind already in some schools - would provide a continuous, individual point-of-contact throughout a pupil's years in secondary school.
Mr Brown also warned of the economic necessity to have a well-educated workforce - and to remove barriers to more people entering higher education.
At present, he said that only 10% of youngsters from low-income families went to university.
"It's wrong that anybody should be put off going to college or university by the fear it will cost too much," he told the conference.
"And so for 16 year olds from low-income families, who are staying on at school, we'll make a new five year offer. We will finance you through college or university right through to the age of 21."