A scheme for the disaffected is catching talent that slipped the mainstream net, writes Andrew Mourant
John Savage knows all about being written off as a teenager. His damning school report still scorches the soul. "This boy will count for nothing," it said.
At his London grammar, where teaching aids included the cane, he struggled and left without any qualifications. But freed from those who thought so little of him, he made his own way.
He has since been the chairman of several companies and has received an honorary doctorate from the University of the West of England. And now he is heading up his local learning and skills council, where he wants to help others who have been written off.
He has managed to sell his idea, Education Unlimited, to the skills minister Ivan Lewis. The scheme aims to rescue the hopes of disaffected young people.
As the chief executive of Bristol's chamber of commerce, he knew that most employers wanted more than bits of paper. He recalls: "'Forget qualifications - give us young people with attitude,' they would say."
Using the Connexions service, the scheme has trawled Bristol to find those who don't fit in but who have "attitude" and potential.
At its core is a network of paid "buddies" - one to every four participants - who have practical and mentoring skills.
"I see it as an alternative college where the average course term will be two years and we borrow classrooms from the people who are delivering," says Mr Savage.
"People may go off and do a job and then come back and pick up more skills."
The LSC has given the scheme funding till March 2005. With 25 paid buddies and plenty of recruits - currently around 250 - it's not cheap. "We reckon it will cost around pound;20,000 a year for each student," he says.
In terms of securing long-term funding, he fears the conventional thinking of civil servants. "One said that for pound;20,000 you could send them to Eton - I thought that was outrageous," he says.
Mr Savage discovered his own ability in his second job after leaving school, in which he worked as a production planner for the biscuit manufacturer Chiltonian in south-east London. He climbed the ladder to become general manager of a firm with 1,000 employees and discovered organisational skills that would have shocked his former headteacher.
Mr Savage's sales pitch to the participants is that joining the Education Unlimited project is a lot better than being isolated and fed up.
"We'll bring them to the point where employers will want to buy their skills," he says. "There should be an NVQ in attitude."
Certainly, he has found potential in some unlikely candidates.
"We took one young person to do bricklaying," he says. "For some time he showed no interest until he laid a course of bricks. He wondered how you calculated the amount of material needed. There was a computer program, so we sat him down in front of that."
That was the moment which set off an interest in maths and computer technology. Now this once-reluctant student rides to college on a bike paid for by the LSC.
"We need innovative ideas," says Mr Savage. "We need to trick them into learning."
Others have discovered skills by working with electricians and set-builders at the Bristol Old Vic.
"The chance to do something on stage brings out their confidence," he says. "I don't accept that we won't find a spark in these young people. I didn't have any particular skills - but I reckon if I can achieve things, anyone can."
Noel Goodwin joined the scheme last November after working with the long-term unemployed and helping to get them into modern apprenticeships.
"The good thing about this work is the flexibility," he says. "And you can work intensively."
Mr Goodwin has been seconded to Bristol's Watershed arts centre to help to run a course in animation. The students include Tanya Ridgeway, 18, who discovered an interest in creative arts and computing when she joined the programme.
"Shes trying out different options and we've built up a good relationship," says Mr Goodwin.
John Savage hopes that the Education Unlimited project will eventually embrace 1,500 young people in the Bristol area. Numerous organisations and employers - among them Marks amp; Spencer - have now signed up to help.
Participants are recruited to the project through a variety of sources - training and voluntary organisations, youth clubs, or sometimes just by word of mouth.
Simon Howlett, who came to Education Unlimited from the Connexions service and now leads a team of buddies, says participants are drawn to the project for all kinds of social, emotional or academic reasons.
"I've seen a young woman who hasn't been in school for two years - but she's keen to be a chamber maid, so we'll be putting things into place," he says. "We must ensure there are enough training places for people - but we don't want to push up expectations and be unable to meet them."
Mr Howlett believes the project's success must be judged against "softer" targets. For example, young people who are withdrawn might aim to mix with others. All participants will have a "passport" to log achievements.
John Savage says: "We would like to see a level 2 qualification coming out of this.
"If anyone goes to the manager of an organisation with their log, saying they are ready to work, then it will count. That will be their passport with attitude."