Standing beside a steaming cauldron, 15-year-old Emma Caddick is making garlic beefburgers - 180 of them. She has been at work in the canteen at the Heinz food factory in Wigan since 8am. Which is surprising considering it is still the school holidays.
Emma, a pupil at nearby Pemberton community high school, is taking part in a pilot scheme to provide pre-16 work placements at key stage 4 as part of accreditation towards a national vocational qualification.
Pupils studying for an NVQ in food preparation and cooking spend a five-day placement at up to four companies. The Heinz training contributes towards the qualification's "baking unit". The aim is to make the introduction to the world of work as realistic as possible. The canteen serves 1,300 meals every 24 hours and while pupils are never left unsupervised, they are expected to be punctual and disciplined.
"Sometimes we get a child who has not got the right idea and it takes them a little while to realise the standard we want," says Alan Robinson, canteen production manager. "But by about lunchtime on the first day, they are part of the team."
Emma's enthusiasm is so great she has asked to stay on for another day to help serve the food she has prepared. She is already sure she wants to follow a career in the industry when she leaves school next year. Hotel work would be her favourite. "I just love cooking," she says.
Schoolmate Lee Round, also 15, recognises that the placement is "useful, because it will help me get a job".
Two hundred pupils from 15 schools in Wigan are taking part in the programme, working for companies such as Thistle Hotels, Whitbread, McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Janet Maguire, catering controller for Gardner Merchant, the contractors at Heinz, believes employers will gain in the long-term from developing a skilled workforce. "I find it very difficult in the Wigan area to recruit quality chefs," she says.
The initiative is co-ordinated by Able to Learn, a training organisation owned by former teachers Christine and Trevor Jones, on behalf of Wigan Education Business Partnership, part of the local Training and Enterprise Council, which has provided Pounds 60,000 towards the scheme.
Pupils study for the NVQ at school during time set aside for technology in the national curriculum. On a rota basis, a couple of students then spend a week with an industrial partner linked with the school.
"We see a lot of pupils who do not have much self-confidence but once they are given an opportunity to show what they can do, they come on such a long way," says Christine Jones.
"These are not students who are going to leave school with lots of qualifications, but this really raises their aspirations."
Tony Bradshaw, head of Pemberton, agrees: "When you put them in an adult situation, youngsters come to life."
Assessment is recorded in workbooks, which the pupils complete as they gain competences. As the scheme develops, Able to Learn hopes workplace supervisors will become qualified assessors.
Finding time for placements poses a difficulty but, once more curriculum time is made available, Christine Jones hopes pupils will be able to complete NVQs before leaving school.
The move towards a more vocational curriculum in place of traditional link courses, where pupils train in college-based simulated workplaces, is supported by the local education authority and Wigan Borough Partnership, an organisation comprising the Chamber of Commerce, Wigan and Leigh College, the training and enterprise council and large employers.
When the pilot started, Peter Hoddinott, a governor of Pemberton high, recalls that the idea of teaching competences instead of attainment "was flying in the face of conventional wisdom". Now, post-Dearing, the heresy is becoming orthodoxy.