Paul Rhodes left school at 15. Now, he's got a place at Rada. Caitlin Davies hears how he did it

When Paul Rhodes dropped out of school aged 15 his mother wasn't too pleased. But her son had a dream. He had wanted to work in the theatre for as long as he could remember - and now he has won a place at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. "I just had this feeling," says Rhodes, "that I wanted to do theatre. In Year 10 I begged mum, please let me go to college. I just didn't get on with school."

Rhodes is originally from Yorkshire and when the family moved to Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, he thought his attitude towards school might get better. Instead, after just three months, he dropped out of school. As a child, trips to the theatre were rare, and Rhodes had never met anyone working backstage, but he still knew he wanted to be a stage manager.

The problem was he believed he couldn't go to college until he was 16. Then his sister Lisa suggested he try for the Way to Work programme at Bedford College. "Paul came to me as a grunter," laughs John Evans, Way to Work's project officer. "He had been out of education for a while and no one wanted him. Now he's a very articulate lad." The Bedfordshire college began its Way to Work programme in association with the LEA in 1998. The idea was to help 14 to 16-year-olds who had "outgrown" what school had to offer and wanted to work or study in a more adult environment.

Some of the Way to Work youngsters have been excluded from school, others like Rhodes excluded themselves. At Bedford they are given the chance to learn vocational job skills by combining college training and work placements. They can choose courses the college offers, such as carpentry, construction or childcare, and each student has their own timetable for the year. This includes one day in school learning maths, English and science, and the rest of the week divided between college and work. At the end the students get a certificate and part qualification for an NVQ.

Evans says many of the students are maladjusted and see no real reason for education. "Students at school have little self-esteem. They've been told they are thick and stupid. Here they find something they can do." The Way to Work students are referred to Evans by the nine local state secondary schools. The schools use part of their LEA allowance to pay the college a set fee, which covers equipment for the year. The college pays for the students' bus passes, which is a major financial undertaking. Evans says most are from poorer backgrounds, with many from the Mile Road area described as the third most depressed area in Britain.

There are about 50 students on the programme each year, with the majority boys. Around 70 per cent complete the course and of the current graduates, 20 are heading off to full-time jobs. "It's a very simple programme," says Evans, "and it seems to work." Bedford was last month presented with a Beacon Award in recognition of its overall work with 14 to 19-year-olds. Apart from Way to Work, the college has "Flexibility" projects, which enable 14-year-olds to train in non-school subjects like hairdressing, and "Set Up" programmes for those struggling with the school curriculum.

One benefit of the Way to Work programme is that the college gets prospective students who know what they want to do. Once Rhodes finished his Way to Work year he decided to stay at Bedford to complete his national diploma in technical theatre. "When Paul realised he could do this five days a week - and not have to do geography or anything like that - he jumped at the chance," says Phil Meredith, course leader for performing arts. "He's an exceptional case. He started off at ground zero and now he's progressed to the best theatre school in the world."

Rhodes says he loved the course at Bedford because "it's all live, if anything goes wrong it's quite a task. There's such a buzz in being a stage manager." He recently applied to do a BA at university but decided it was too classroom-based. The Rada course, a graduate diploma in technical theatre arts, is more hands on. "My attitude is, let's get it done, let's get the show up and running." says Rhodes. "My mum is over the moon because it's all paid off, leaving school, coming to college, everything."

One month into the Way to Work programme, Rhodes became involved backstage in a college show, mainly fetching props. Almost two years later and he's lighting designer for three college shows. On first impressions, Rhodes seems a rather embarrassed 18-year-old, as he leads the way through the college to the theatre studio. Here, in a former church hall, first-year diploma students are rehearsing for the summer festival.

Suddenly Rhodes becomes very efficient, dragging out a stepladder and drawing the black curtains against the door. He circles the eight students who sit resting on wooden boards, attaching filters, rigging up lights, focusing and angling the equipment. Rhodes became interested in lighting because Bedford had a professional lighting designer teaching on the course. Now he can barely keep himself from adjusting lighting everywhere he goes. "I see shadows in a room and I think 'hmmm, I could do something with that'. My mum got new kitchen lights and I just had to have a play around with them."

Now Rhodes wants to be a pop artist's lighting designer and he has set his sights high. "Christina [Aguilera], Britney [Spears], any of them. When they go on tour I want to be their lighting designer. It's my dream goal - and I will get there."

The lights ready, the Bedford students begin to perform while Rhodes constantly watches and adjusts. The music is cranked up and funnily enough it's a song by pop princess Britney Spears - which means Rhodes has just become her lighting designer after all.