Rosie Waterhouse reports how a link between education and business helps put undiscovered talent to work
At school, Rob Ingram always felt like a square peg in a round hole. He enjoyed practical subjects like woodwork but didn't fit the academic mould required by league tables.
But the moment he set bare foot on the sailboard of a windsurfer during a week's work experience at a lakeside water sports centre he knew he had found his niche.
Rob, now aged 17, from Church Lawton, near Alsager, Cheshire, found poor literacy skills left him trailing behind his classmates at Alsager high school.
Like other so-called under-achievers who become alienated and disaffected, Rob seemed destined to join the 20 per cent of pupils who leave school with no GCSEs and no prospects.
But that week's work experience two years ago, learning to windsurf, kayak and sail, while helping out at Astbury Sailsports in Congleton, Cheshire, changed the course of his life.
In his final year Rob was allowed out of school for two days a week to continue work experience on a "motivational placement" scheme run by Connexions, the government-funded support service for 13 to 19-year-olds.
The scheme proved so effective at motivating Rob he even began applying himself to his GCSEs and he achieved pass grades in woodwork and English.
Then when he left school in July 2002 he was given a full-time job at Astbury's, where he is considered a star employee, having passed Royal Yachting Association examinations to become a qualified instructor in kayaking, and dinghy sailing.
He has been awarded a National Vocational Qualification in activity leadership and as soon as he turns 18 next month, he plans to become a qualified windsurfing coach.
Rob's achievements are testimony to a remarkable record of success for Connexions' Cheshire and Warrington service and its motivational placement scheme which is funded by the Learning and Skills Council and the European Social Fund.
Connexions operates a bridge between education and local businesses under the banner of Education Business Plus. The link is maintained as Connexions advisers support the young people while Education Business Plus placement co-ordinators work with employers to ensure continuity.
Out of the 360 other Cheshire pupils given placements in 2002 - like Rob, all considered to be disaffected and many at risk of exclusion - 79 per cent went into further education, training or jobs. Michael Whitehurst, 15, who also lives in Church Lawton and attends Alsager high school, is following in Rob's footsteps.
He too has literacy problems, having been diagnosed with dyslexia and given a special needs statement, and he too discovered aquatic talents when he was given work experience at Astbury Sailsports last year. The company has now taken him on a motivational placement this term, working out of school one day a week.
Already he has passed exams in kayaking, windsurfing and first aid and has overcome his shyness to work with customers, answering the telephone, operating the till and assisting instructors.
Michael's mother Janet Whitehurst is very proud of his progress. "He has matured and grown in confidence," she said. "I have had positive feedback from his employer. They tell me that he is good with customers; and how patient he is with disabled children."
Michael, who has always been an outdoor type, a boy scout, into climbing and abseiling, has never been much interested in his studies. But since his work experience at Astbury's he is planning to go to college when he leaves school next summer to obtain qualifications on an outdoor adventure course.
"I enjoy school more since coming here," he said. "It gives me quite a lot of responsibility and I hope to get a job here eventually."
Alison Yates, who owns Astbury's made a conscious decision when she took over the company three years ago to take on work experience less advantaged youngsters whose families would not be able to afford to take up water sports as a hobby.
"They are full of enthusiasm and their confidence grows quickly," she said.
"And for me it's very rewarding to see kids like Rob and Michael do so well."
Bryony Davies, 20, from Chester, has also blossomed since being given work experience through a similar Connexions programme, targeted at young people with additional needs.
Bryony, who has been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism, has discovered a natural affinity working with small children in a nursery.
She has just completed 10 weeks on a Learning and Working project - part of the motivational work- experience programme - run with West Cheshire college, the charity SCOPE and local employers.
Bryony has just been taken on for a second 10-week term at a nursery called Treetops at Hopscotch in Chester and hopes eventually to get a full-time job there.
"Bryony had reached the end of the road as far as schooling was concerned," said her mother Shirley Moore. "She left with no GCSEs and was heading nowhere until this opportunity came along."
For the "lost generation" of pupils who gain little from traditional schooling, motivational placements appear to be just that. Great motivators.