Barbie dolls and terrorists do not usually go together, but for Jason Colley the combination could be a smart career move. His idea for a short film in which terrorists force people to wear Barbie clothes and paint everything pink was inspired by a news item about the dolls being banned in Iran. The practical opportunity came from Sheffield Independent Film and Television (Shift), a charity working with young people interested in media.
At its Media Opportunities Base, youngsters can spend a day a week developing their skills and gaining level 2 and 3 qualifications from the Open College Network.
"All the tutors were industry professionals who spared time to come in with us," says Leon Lockley, now a freelance camera operator and film editor.
"They were real people doing a real job and knew what they were talking about. It was an inspiration - it bump-started my career."
The Government wants 80 per cent of 16 to 18-year-olds to be in education or training by 2004. And by 14, many young people are eager for some hands-on experience of the world beyond school, whether at a specialist group like Shift or at the local college through the Increased Flexibility Programme to boost vocational opportunities for 14 to 16-year-olds.
"It has real relevance to what they might do when they leave and is a more mature approach," says Karen Murray, the programme's manager at the Learning and Skills Council. "It's learning in practical ways that are different from school, and it's having a positive impact back at school."
Under the increased flexibility programme, students at Elmhirst School can follow hairdressing and sports and leisure courses at nearby Barnsley College. It is a chance to "see how people work outside of school", says Kaylee Cunningham. For Jamie Shaw it has dispelled apprehensions about going on to further education at 16. "I wasn't sure, but now it's convinced me to go. I thought there'd be lots of rich, smart people, but it's not like that - they treat you well." Elmhirst's assistant headteacher, Andy Tagger, is so impressed by the partnership between the college and the secondary schools in Barnsley that he wants to add more courses next year.
Feedback from this year's group has excited many others to want to take part, he said.
Bob Evans, director of South Yorkshire's learning and skills council, is enthusiastic about the power of the flexibility programme and apprenticeships to keep young people engaged in education and training after 16 in an area undergoing economic revival.
"There's been a huge shift in the attitudes of young people," he says.
"They can see from their parents there's no job for life so they want jobs with continuous training. They're prepared to keep their skills evergreen."
Mr Evans reckons that up to 15 per cent of the key stage 4 cohort have switched off from school and are ready for a change. But some have already dropped out for all sorts of social and educational reasons and need a way back that is not just more school.
"It seems very easy to drop off the planet in terms of your education," says Bridget Kelly, project manager at Sheffield's Media Opportunities Base. "For a lot of young people there seems to be a point where, if they miss something, the system doesn't let them back in."
As well as working with the career-minded, the base deals with socially excluded young people who have dropped out of school because of bullying or family problems. Work-related learning can give them a new, positive identity and a route out of a bad situation.
At 13, Luis Scales has already missed a lot of school. He arrived at the Darnall Music Factory (another Sheffield-based charity) with no confidence and hardly a word for anyone. Six months later he is building a computer and is full of enthusiasm for his new DJ skills in beat matching, tempos and using different amps and turntables. He is also getting on with English and maths in a very small group.
The link between the charities and the local education authority is the Single Regeneration Budget Youth Theme, an organisation that co-ordinates work with socially excluded young people between the ages of 14 and 25 in Sheffield. Its seven-year funding from Brussels is about to come to an end, but it will in future be supported by South Yorkshire LSC.
Organisations such as Shift and the Music Factory can re-engage such young people by "hooking in" to their interests says Shaz Ghalib, project manager at SRB Youth Theme.
By building skills and confidence that are relevant to a career, young people can begin to control their own future. "We use their initial interests and show what's available," says Ms Ghalib. "It's a genuine reality check, not to kill their dreams."
For South Yorkshire, the projects have been crucial to reaching three targets: widening participation in education and training at 16, and taking young people at 19 on to reach both the level 2 and level 3 targets.