Launched at the beginning of this session, a North Lanarkshire initiative that provides college and outdoors alternatives to classroom teaching is already turning young people's lives around. "Early intervention works," says Karen Walker, the authority's inclusion manager. "You can't put a price on that."
Maybe not, but it is instructive to compare the pound;12,500 annual cost of delivering the programme to each of 40 Secondary 4 pupils with the costs of other public provision for people with problems. Keeping one young person in a secure unit for a year costs pound;213,000. Each new place in Britain's bulging prisons - two-fifths of whose occupants left school illiterate - is estimated to set the taxpayer back pound;180,000.
Even higher prices can be paid by the young people whose relationship with school has broken down. "My son took an overdose in January and was in hospital for seven weeks," says the mother of one young participant. "He couldn't cope. He was being bullied at school. His reading wasn't good. He couldn't concentrate. The educational psychologist said he might have dyslexia. But after he tried to end his life, he got a lot of attention and I was told he had Asperger's. We were really worried about him. Then they got him on activities over the summer".
These were part of a programme of sports and leisure aimed at starting to get troubled young people re-engaged, says Karen Walker. "At the beginning of term we got him into the flexible learning initiative."
It took a little time to get used to coming to Coatbridge College for courses, she says. "But he's so happy now. They found he is gifted in music, art and drama. They treat him differently here, more like an individual. At school, he used to get shouted at and he didn't understand why."
In trying to explain their improved attendance - often from below 50 per cent at school to over 80 per cent on the new programme - many of the youngsters mention how people speak to them. "College teachers treat you with respect," says Charlene Grant. "They don't shout at you, so that makes you confident. You feel like you can learn what they're telling you."
This perception arises partly from the time the programme provides for teachers to talk to youngsters, says Lorraine Togneri - one of four "coaches" who are each responsible for 10 programme participants. "I'm a learning support teacher and I think the difference is a lot to do with smaller groups. You've time to get to know them better, to talk things through if something happens."
Tailored activities, individual attention and college ethos seem to be making the difference. But the last is not always easy to share with schoolchildren - even for an institution like Coatbridge College, which was already delivering vocational courses to more than 1,000. "But those young people didn't need the kind of wrap-around support - coaching, self-esteem, confidence building - that our young people do," says Ms Walker.
The inclusion base has, therefore, been working closely with Coatbridge and Motherwell colleges, to help them deal with youngsters who are not just younger but also more difficult than many lecturers are used to. "We're providing training in things like restorative practices, in which North Lanarkshire has quite a lot of experience."
Everyone involved in the new initiative is still learning, says Arlene Byrne, Coatbridge College's schools development manager. "We have a programme of classroom management for under-16s for our lecturers. But, in general, we try not to treat these young people differently from mainstream students."
Regular feedback has shown that long sessions don't work well. "Even just a change of lecturer half-way through can help," says Ms Byrne. "It gives a bit of variety, keeps them interested. An afternoon ice-skating was too long for a different reason - by the end their legs were about falling off."
For the participants, this kind of activity is the other key difference between school and the initiative. "You do more things physically," says William McVey. "You're not just sitting in a class for 50 minutes."
William is a talented footballer and is learning football coaching as part of his programme. But his long-term ambitions lie elsewhere. "I want to be a financial adviser," he says. "I got on this programme because of my behaviour in class. It was hard to concentrate, especially when your pals were having a laugh."
Agnes Guy, William's carer, has noticed a change in him. "He used to be nervous. He is more confident now. He's clever but struggled at school. William can't sit still for long. He is good at things like maths and computing, that don't need much writing. The programme came at just the right time for him. It stopped him having to go to an EBD school (for emotional and behavioural difficulties), which wouldn't have been right for him at all."
This kinaesthetic preference is thought to be part of the reason for the widespread tendency of boys to perform worse than girls at school. But on the flexible learning initiative, at least, the girls share William's liking for physical activities, they say.
The different locations and variety of activities keep things interesting, says Pauline Fraser, whose attendance has been 100 per cent. "I am really enjoying it. I like the work experience I'm doing at Glencryan, which is a special school. I'm also doing hairdressing, beauty and hospitality. I want to be a chef."
Helping young people learn what they really want to do, and guiding them towards it, is what the flexible learning initiative is all about. And it's not only the programme that has to be flexible, says Douglas Barclay, depute principal of Coatbridge College. "These young people are not just one group with one type of problem. They are all individuals. Going back to the discussion about what it is that makes the difference - for me, it's not so much about working in small groups. It is about finding the key that unlocks each young person's potential."
The flexible learning initiative had its origins in a proposal to provide customised education packages for 20 looked-after and accommodated young people. When this bid to the then Scottish Executive was successful, North Lanarkshire matched the pound;250,000 funding, allowing 40, mostly Secondary 4 pupils, to be included in the one-year pilot programme.
"Young people are drawn from all our secondary schools," says Karen Walker, inclusion manager. "Around 60 per cent are looked after, and the remainder have been identified by schools as disengaged and underachieving. Rather than trying to fit them into our ideas - which wasn't working for them at school - we interviewed each of them and asked about their career aspirations and the kind of things they wanted to do, then built the programme around those."
Students gain a variety of qualifications, including Standard grades, Asdan awards and certification for specific activities. A mix of external and internal providers has been enlisted to provide a wide range of courses and activities: Coatbridge College provides beauty, hairdressing, healthy living, motor vehicle, crime scene investigation and several others. Motherwell College delivers hospitality; land-scaping from the Scottish Training Foundation, construction from HB Training and electronic auto diagnostics from Lagta Ltd.
Careers Scotland is a key partner. Peter McGregor, who used to manage the authority's expanded learning opportunities programme, is seconded to the initiative, along with two "coaches", who, together with two teachers, oversee the education of 10 students each.
Mountain biking and film-making are popular internal courses. "We've found that mountain-biking, in particular, with its mix of group and individual work, appeals to young people who find it hard to get engaged."
Cementing individual programmes and disparate activities together are regular coaching sessions, during which inclusion staff deliver core skills to students who are not receiving these at school.
"Further bits of cement are one-to-one time with their coaches and counselling sessions for those who want them," says Mr McGregor. "Then there is work experience for many. Every student is on an individual programme."
That is what makes the difference, says Karen Walker. "The initiative will be evaluated externally, but at this stage we can see from the attendance figures that we are doing something right. The young people are voting with their feet."
SPIRIT OF COATBRIDGE
In long white robes and a green, smiling face, the spirit of Coatbridge takes time out from rehearsing the Christmas panto to explain how his life has changed since he started on the flexible learning initiative. "I get up and look forward to the day. It's exciting."
Corey Davidson (right) always struggled at school and had a hard time last year, during which his attendance was zero and his family were concerned about his health and safety.
But last month Corey's attendance on the programme was 100 per cent. "I love drama and singing, and I've discovered I'm good at them. It was hard at first to learn my lines. I wasn't confident. But you get confidence after you've done one performance.
"I want to go higher with my acting and I would like to write a play. I'd also like to design my own house. When I was at school, people didn't have much hope for me. I'm going to prove them wrong."