Rathbone CI, a national charity which runs work-based programmes for adults and people aged over 16 with special training needs, first thought four years ago that its projects could help disaffected children below the statutory school-leaving age who were at risk from exclusion. But when it tried to extend its programmes to 14 to 16-year-olds, it met staunch opposition from schools and educationists.
"There was much opposition from schools, local authorities and careers officers," recalls Rathbone CI national development manager Mary Carley. "They felt the national curriculum demanded young people should not spend time out of the classroom at all."
But there has been a marked change in attitude. By giving 14 to 16-year-olds at least one day a week in the workplace, the charity's Choices programme now helps about 500 teenagers a year to appreciate the value of training.
Eleanor Cartwright left Golborne High School near Wigan when she was 16 without taking any GCSEs. During her final year, she had frequently been absent from lessons. "I was getting bullied and didn't enjoy school at all," she says. "I just didn't get on with anybody."
Rathbone CI arranged for Eleanor, now 18, to spend one day a week at a Dorothy Perkins shop in Wigan. The branch eventually took her on as a trainee and, having gained national vocation qualifications in retailing at levels one and two, she was appointed commissioning manager in the jeans department, where she is in charge of merchandising and stocktaking.
"My teacher encouraged me to join Choices to get me out of school," says Eleanor "I much preferred the environment here because it felt a lot more grown up."
Mary Carley says young people with a history of truancy can find it difficult to cope with working five days a week once they leave school and it helps if they can be eased into work gently. Many come from families where unemployment is the norm. "They never saw themselves as going into the workplace," she says. "They were labelled at school as 'bad' and did not have any role models to talk to them about the world of work."
Everyone who enrols on a Choices scheme has an individual training plan. They are allocated a vocational adviser to help them consider career options and to assist with personal problems which may arise at school or in the workplace.
Rathbone CI, which runs 20 Choices programmes across the UK, emphasises that it is not trying to remove teenagers from full-time education and - where possible - wants excluded pupils to return to school. Where teenagers successfully combine studying with a work placement, teachers often comment on how much better they are doing at school.