Many of the 1,750 S3 and S4 pupils involved across 25 Scottish authorities are said to be "loners" who lack basic confidence and do not get on well with others.
But the programme is changing attitudes and lifting aspirations, researchers state. Much of that is down to the in-depth relationship between the advisers - a teacher and youth worker - who work with them over two years.
Pupils told researchers that their teachers in the past did not get to know them as individuals, whereas the xlerate staff spent time with them, listened and showed respect. "You come from another class that you hate and you come in here and relax," one student said.
Most liked to feel part of a group although they did not wish to be seen as being in a club. Only two per cent of students surveyed said they did not get on with their adviser, which the researchers say is an "impressive"
The xlerate with xl programme involves a package of skills-building and enterprising initiatives from a school base and offers an alternative for pupils lacking confidence and self-esteem.
Overall, the researchers say, the programme is "very effective" and has a "significant impact on the young people". It is the relatively long-term commitment of youth workers and particularly teachers that appears to make the difference. In many cases, the teacher will have known pupils for longer. One experienced principal teacher commented that, in 25 years of teaching, being a programme adviser was the hardest job he had done, far removed from the "cocoa and biscuit" image which tended to prevail in some staffrooms.
Most felt it was important to have other roles in the school.
A second key factor in making a difference is the voluntary commitment of students, the study finds. The vast majority want to be in school.
The researchers believe the programme may help cut the numbers not in education, employment or training when they leave school. Many of the students' parents are in this NEET group.
National Evaluation of xlerate with xl, by Durham University, is on www.tes.co.ukscotland.