He hated going to school and left at 16 with no qualifications. "I picked up some work in demolition, lived in a squat. But I loved anything to do with the outdoors, rock climbing, canoeing, walking.
"I wanted to lead expeditions which meant I needed qualifications."
He studied outdoor pursuits at Thomas Danby College in Leeds and then took a degree in community studies, recreation and leisure at Bradford University.
Today he uses outdoor pursuits as a tool in his job as a learning mentor. "I use it to help young people achieve some personal success. Tomorrow I'm taking a couple rock climbing."
John is part of the Learning Mentor scheme which aims to take the "social work out of teaching". The 450 schools in the scheme are given a budget under the Excellence in Cities programme, and mentors are paid between pound;16,000 and pound;21,000.
Frank Sheils, 47, draws on his experience as a youth worker in the Falls Road area of Belfast, his seven or eight years as a builder in various parts of the UK and time he has spent as a community worker in Nottingham.
He was brought to Myrtle Springs comprehensive in Sheffield by its head, Ed Wydenbach.
"I've not been shocked after woring in the lower Falls by the problems I have seen in school," says Frank, "but I do feel sad.
"A lot of problems are family rooted, they have trouble with their parents, they have trouble in school, they have no expectations, they don't see the use of school."
In some cases Frank takes the children to school himself because they otherwise wouldn't attend. Other times he will take children and parents out to lunch to talk over their problems.
"It's a treat, we have a budget for it. It's normal to go for lunch to talk over a problem, I don't see why we shouldn't do the same."
Mike Morris, 33, who trained as a joiner, became a learning mentor at Anfield comprehensive in Liverpool because he wanted to help motivate young people and believes he can pass on his broad experiences in life. He had a troubled time at school when he was 14 and transferred to another before getting a job with his father's joinery business.
Later he became interested in community activities, supporting the striking Merseyside dockers in the mid-Nineties and eventually working on the script for Jimmy McGovern's TV drama Dockers.
The inner-city areas currently involved in the programme are Leeds and Bradford; inner London; Birmingham; Liverpool and Knowsley; Manchester and Salford; Sheffield and Rotherham.