LECTURER David Martin was struggling to teach disruptive 16 and 17-year-olds who had all had difficulty at school.
He and colleagues teaching a vehicle maintenance course were confronted with students who had poor basic skills and who were very aggressive. There was a high drop-out rate on the pre-national vocational qualification course.
In 1999-2000, all of the 69 students had poor basic skills, 55 had poor communication skills and 27 had behavioural difficulties. All students had little or no previous academic achievement, some had previously been excluded from school, others had low numeracy and literacy skills and some were dyslexic.
"The students had very little regard for teachers or anyone in authority," David Martin said. "No matter how exciting you tried to make the programme, no matter how nice and friendly and approachable you tried to make yourself, it didn't seem to even scratch the surface."
Four years on, there has been a complete turnaround - thanks to counselling techniques Mr Martin acquired, which taught him how to listen and understand the pre-foundation level students at Stoke-on-Trent College.
A year after his reforms, student retention on the course had risen from 34 to 95 per cent. Achievement rose from 34 to 89 per cent.
City amp; Guilds has praised his work, while inspectors from the Office for Standards in Education called it "exceptional".
Mr Martin began his career as an apprentice mechanic in a garage before becoming a workshop technician in FE. He has been a full-time lecturer for 12 years.
He says the pre-foundation course had always had challenging students. But in 1999-2000 the intake were so disruptive that staff could no longer cope:
"The students couldn't conform to the structured learning environment. It caused a lot of stress. For example, two of my students were verbally abusing each other - one stormed out of the workshop and the other threw a hammer after him, which fortunately missed.
"The strange thing was that we were signing their education maintenance allowance. You felt, what am I doing here? I've been abused, they've done the opposite of what I've asked them. And now I've got to sign a form saying they'll get pound;30 a week for the privilege. Something's wrong here.
"I made notes to try and make sense of what was happening, of what the needs were and how we could meet those needs."
He wanted to be able to understand and communicate with his students, so he took a four-year part-time degree in professional studies in education at Manchester Metropolitan University.
He also enrolled on courses in behaviour management, counselling and motivational interviewing techniques.
As part of his new approach, he took to greeting new students at college reception. He introduced an in-depth one-to-one interview at the start of the programme, designed to win their trust and explore their learning needs.
The letter inviting students for interview was designed to motivate them.
"I made sure the letter went to the student, not their parents. Some said it was the first time they'd had a letter.
"At the interview I said, 'I will look after you, but if you mess about I will tell you straight - we don't do bad behaviour'. I told them, 'forget the past - this is an opportunity for you to make a fresh start'."
He motivated the students by praising them and getting them to take responsibility. He also kept in close contact with parents. "I would know about what had gone on at home, I'd know about people who had hit their teachers or were on medication. Prior to this we would never have known that."
Meanwhile, posters went up on workshop walls reminding students of rules and responsibilities for the programme, and sanctions for any breach of those rules.
Staff were given extra training to help them manage problem students. This has reduced teacher stress and is now being extended to other courses.
Mr Martin also conducted a research programme on the changes for his degree, in which he got a first. He is now an advanced skills teacher. "We have this relationship now. You understand what you're working with, why they're shouting, not complying, why they're being silly."
Stoke-on-Trent College was recently praised by Ofsted for the support offered to students.
Graham Moore, the principal, says the college has extended David Martin's approach to other programmes. "The staff were almost terrified by this group the first time round. They didn't quite know which way to turn," he said.
"With the psychological understanding and counselling skills David had acquired, he was able to demonstrate how it could be done. Other staff were able to follow suit, and he then supported them and helped them to develop skills."