'JUST before A-levels, I suddenly thought, shit, if I don't get these, I won't get out of this dump,' said Susie Eldridge, 19. 'I just hope to God I didn't leave it too late.'

Sitting in a pub in central Doncaster, Susie and her friend, Ginevra Branaghan, 18, were having a lager or two and anticipating, with some anxiety, their A-level results. Outside the rain was blanketing down, making this part of south Yorkshire look like the flooded US Midwest.

'I was brought up in Australia, lived there for 13 years,' said Susie, pulling a lighter from the top of her Doc Martens and sparking off another Marlboro. 'When we were in Oz my dad just went on and on about Donny - how proud he was his dad was a miner, how great this place was. When we got here I took one look and thought what the hell's he on about? I thought he was kidding. Even the rave scene here's amateurish.'

Doncaster has always been a butt- of-a-joke town: the Likely Lads once raised a laugh sneering about the attractions of its Latin Quarter. And if the rest of the country thought of it as a gag, it was nothing compared to the derision with which it was held in Leeds, Sheffield and other more successful parts of Yorkshire. Dirty old Doncaster, where the mines are, it was the pits.

But Susie and Ginevra and their generation have emerged from school into a town which, in the course of their education, has changed irrevocably and now bears no relation to its old music hall image. In the last decade, the industrial menopause has moved through Doncaster with brutal speed. Ten years ago there were 15 pits in the borough, now there is one. At the railway works, the Flying Scotsman, Sir Nigel Gresley and the mighty Deltics were once constructed by an army of craftsmen; now a handful of workers staple carpets into electric commuter units. Traces of old Doncaster have all but disappeared, just a few scrub-covered bumps in the landscape remain, like Iron Age barrows, where scrappy ponies graze.

In the past, industrial apprenticeships would absorb all the town's school-leavers, requiring from them no greater qualifications than a hearty set of muscles. This year, however, only 8 per cent of Doncaster's 16-year- olds will be offered jobs, 22 per cent of them will take a YTS course and 15 per cent, ineligible for the dole, will just drift and disappear from any registers. The remainder will go back to school to the sixth form and attempt to pass some GCSEs and A-levels, qualifications which, they hope, will give them some options.

'Up to a couple of years ago it used to be really cool to leave at 16, after year 11, to go out and earn while everyone else was carrying schoolbags,' said Ginevra, who was hoping to go to drama school. 'Now we reckon only the real no-hopers leave early. I think if you fail your exams in Doncaster, you've had it, basically, for the rest of your life.'

From the dust of its past, the town is trying to cast a new identity. 'The Jewel of the North' is the idea; leisure city, the fun centre of South Yorkshire. The future lies across the road from the town's racecourse. Here, on land next door to Doncaster Rovers FC, the council has an ambitious long-term plan to create a leisure park the size of EuroDisney. The first stage was the Dome, a grey steel swimming- pool-ice-rink-and-gym complex that looks like something from the reject pile at Richard Rogers's office. Behind the Dome, a multiplex cinema, a supermarket, a pizza restaurant and a bowling alley have appeared in the last couple of years; a boating lake is promised.

'To be fair, they are trying to make the town look better,' said Ginevra. 'It's not just the Dome. One thing that's really improved are the roundabouts, they've planted loads of flowers there. And they've put up nice new bus stops.'

Jobs have been created in the leisure park - pool attendants, popcorn sellers, shelf-stackers - but the hope is that the facility will act as a catalyst, bringing to the town hi-tech firms that will employ a highly skilled, highly qualified workforce.

'You get a real sense that this is a place really trying to modernise itself,' said Jonathan Hick, 29, managing director of Colbear Dickson, a local advertising agency that handles the Dome account. 'It seems to be working. Of the people I was at school with, I'd say 60 to 70 per cent went down to London after university, attracted by the Eighties boom. Three- quarters of them are back now. Doncaster's really turned itself into a much more attractive place for a professional than it was 10 years ago.'

This kind of talk does not impress Susie and Ginevra. They know the Dome, they spent much of their teenage years there, skating and watching lads, before they discovered pubs. But they see nothing there that would make them want to stay in Doncaster.

'It's all right for the likes of us to take part-time jobs selling popcorn during the holidays, because we can leave whenever we want,' said Ginevra. 'But it's not a proper job.'

'But there's enough people in Donny without any ambition who'd be happy with a job like that,' said Susie. 'Loads of people here haven't any ambition, that's why they look down on students. When I was in Oz this girl came to our school from London. Everyone was all over her, desperate to know all about her. When I arrived here from Oz, they just ignored me. Then one day someone said: 'Why'd you put on that stupid accent?'. I was so depressed. I think Doncaster people are just scared of something different, I think they're suspicious of those who try to better themselves.'

Richard Smith, a contemporary of Susie and Ginevra's at the town's well- regarded Hallcross Comprehensive, sensed the same thing as he pursued five A-levels.

'I got a bit of attitude because I was a swot,' said Richard, who requires two Es to take up his place at Oxford to read maths. 'I did feel sort of pressurised to look as though I wasn't trying too hard, as though it came naturally to me. But I think that might have happened anywhere.'

Despite his hair and heavy-metal gait (he used to play guitar in a teenage band called Tranquil Disposition - 'we split up because we fell out'), Richard never encountered physical resentment as he grew up.

'You just learn how to avoid people who will give you a hard time. We don't have much to do with the other side of town. A couple of friends of mine went to London to protest about the pit closures. But I didn't go because it was on a Saturday, when I play chess. I'll almost certainly not come back to Doncaster after university. Not because I don't like it, but because there's really no employment here for the likes of me. To be honest, I think those who succeed in Doncaster tend to come from the same orbit as me.'

Andrew, Philip, Ross and Steven are not in the same orbit as Richard, Susie or Ginevra. These lads are to be found most days in the Frenchgate shopping centre. But rather than behaving as shopping-centre youths generally do - gobbing and trying to stamp on pigeons - they are usually laden down with supermarket bags, filled with groceries. None of the four - they are 16 or 17 - has a job.

'I were doing warehouse YTS,' said Andrew. 'Gave it in after three days. I were supposed to get pounds 30 a week. Now I'll get nothing. I prefer to get nothing than to work there. I'll bodge off me mum.'

All the boys' fathers were, according to Steven, 'on the sick, they'll never work again'. But all of their mothers work, part-time, in the new Doncaster, as cleaners or superstore check-out operators. They live in Armthorpe, one of the pit villages geographically isolated from Doncaster and, now the mine has shut down, cast adrift. These were the lads whose like used to find work down the pit, work that would finance Friday nights in the city-centre pubs, where they could measure their manhood in pints and have a scrap in the taxi queue afterwards. Now they go shopping for their working mums by day, and by night hang around the Dome - 'Because it's free and that's where t'birds go,' according to Andrew.

Did they never think that school might give them the opportunity to escape that life?

'I got nothing out of school. Nothing at all,' said Steven. 'I twagged it since I were 12. Anyhow, what's the point? Even them what's got qualifications are on't dole.'

This is Doncaster's challenge: how to move Andrew and his mates, the 15 per cent of 16-year-olds who disappear from view the moment they leave school into, if not the same orbit as achievers such as Richard, Susie and Ginevra, then at least the same solar system.

'We can do that only by guaranteeing that anyone who wants to stay on at school and take the opportunities available is able to do so,' said Alf Taylor, the borough council's director of education. 'Now the unskilled work isn't there, it's up to us to change an entire mind-set and make people realise that jobs come from education. And, almost as important, we have to make sure that there are top-level jobs available for those who pursue excellence, to encourage them to stay in the town. Education really is our future here.'

It may be too late for this generation of school-leavers. For Susie, Ginevra and Richard and their ambitions, which cannot be fulfilled in the town; and for Andrew, Philip, Steven and Ross, whose attitude was formed at a time when jobs were something men could expect.

Oddly, Andrew did not seem too concerned about his future. Exhibiting the endearing Yorkshire quality that assumes that all things Yorkshire are the best in the world - a claim generally unencumbered by empirical evidence - he said he had never thought of trying to look for a job in another part of the country.

'Yer might as well spend the rest of yer life on't dole in Donny as anywhere,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)