Late-morning thuds on their front doors say it all for Clive and Jane. They've skived off college and their tutor Dave Pinnington wants to know why.
They had given up on school, and Clive had received no education for almost two years. Still only 15, both were hardened recidivists so far as truancy went.
But Halton College's new Route 15 scheme to rescue young people before they become permanently disaffected has had a remarkable track record in the first 12 months of the pilot.
Dave knows he has to consider more than the teenagers' feelings. Some schools need to be treated with kid gloves, since every college success could reinforce the notion of a school failure.
What the colleges can offer, he says, is a more mature atmosphere. Then there's the syllabus: the national curriculum is suspended for a work-related taster programme which covers anything from car maintenance to business admin.
However, if tutors such as Dave and his colleague Tony had any fears of resistance from school teachers, they were soon dispelled.
Seven of nine schools around Widnes and Runcorn have been visited by Halton staff, and teachers willingly refer pupils for the largely college-based Route 15 programme.
Moreover, several of the schools are planning similar tactics using their new flexibility to suspend the national curriculum for selected pupils.
This is good news for Dave and education welfare officer Tony Crane who would otherwise face an impossible task. "We could easily have 180 referrals. Demand is sky-high as word gets round that college is great through Route 15."
The students say they quickly mature and become more responsible. One said:
"I used to think school teachers were being awkward with me. But, when I look back, I realise that them not liking me was partly my fault as I had lots of fights and misbehaved in lessons."
The student response is impressive. Average attendance is 76 per cent. More than a quarter have never missed a class, with 17 of the 21 first-year intake still on the course. A partnership of the college and education welfare staff, backed by voluntary and community agencies, has helped sustain a good track record.
The aims of Route 15 are straightforward: to raise self-esteem and improve achievement and job prospects. Small classes with learning-support assistants make this possible.
Similar patterns of intervention and gentle persuasion are found on a range of courses for disaffected young people as well as those "disappointed" with early education.
Tony Crane said: "The point is to go in to schools early and identify those pupils who are vulnerable. We ask heads of department to identify those at risk of exclusion and work on programmes to suit them."
Other staff are developing similar courses for adults such as free summer schools in basic skills, weekend and evening computer courses, a First Steps to FE course for students with learning difficulties and disabilities and family education programmes.
The demand for computer and Internet skills is so great that staff take the lessons, and the laptops, out to schools.
Parents who are keen to assist their own children come along in droves. On one new programme Halton has put 300 adults through training courses since last October.