But with hi-tech factories replacing the traditional coal and steel industries throughout South Wales, education is now the key to employment, says Mal Davies, head teacher at the Willows High School in Tremorfa, one of the Cardiff's workaday suburbs.
He was immediately aware of the need for a culture change when he arrived at the school three years ago.
"Youngsters hadn't accepted that there was something in education for them," he said. "They weren't motivated in any way towards educational achievement. It was more important to know someone who could get you a job at the steel mill."
He and his staff set about a programme of change to promote the value of education among pupils and, just as important, their parents. This year they have seen the fruits of their efforts, with the number of pupils gaining five or more top GCSE grades shooting up from 6 per cent last year to 23 per cent this year. It is the biggest improvement by any school in Wales, and one of the biggest in the country.
The attempt to change attitudes at the Willows started in the school library, previously a cramped, dingy room offering a limited range of books. Now it is a modern, carpeted "resources centre" with rows of computers as well as books, and open to pupils during breaks and after school.
Then came after-school revision sessions for Year 11 pupils, offering extra tuition in key examination subjects.
But the most radical new venture was the offer of study weekends at Cardiff's National Sports Centre, taken up by 35 pupils last year. The latest weekend, earlier this month, was attended by 48 youngsters.
"I went because I knew all the teachers would be there and I could get help from them," said 15-year-old Emma Porch. "I got all the things I never knew sorted out. I learnt a lot about how to study."
Pupils confirm that views towards education have changed. "When I first came here you only did your homework because you knew you might get a detention if you didn't," said Liam Dutton, 15. "Now we work because we want to get qualified. I know people who have tried to get a job around here without qualifications and it's not easy."
Leanne Bridgeman, 15, said: "People are starting to get their act together. They want to get a job and a place of their own. They realise that to get that they need an education."
Teachers accept that there was a problem of low expectations not only among pupils but in the staffroom, too. They also accept, reluctantly, that the exam league tables were one of the spurs to action.
But all say the change of approach has benefited all round with better relationships between staff and pupils and higher achievements in all fields - including sport and drama, one of the school's strong areas. A new specialist performance arts block is being built with a Pounds 500,000 National Lottery grant.
Another initiative aimed at raising pupils' aspirations was an exchange scheme with two prestigious public schools - Millfield and Monmouth School for Girls.
"They just couldn't get over the fact that the pupils there worked so hard in the evenings doing prep, as they called it," said one of the staff.
But despite its improving examination results, a serious problem of truancy remains, with 9.4 per cent of half-days missed through unauthorised absence - the highest for any school in Wales.
A rigorous system of contacting parents immediately by telephone and then letter, followed up by a visit from the educational welfare officer, is aimed at tackling the problem.
Nevertheless, the atmosphere at the Willows is optimistic. "There was an overwhelming feeling that we were getting somewhere," said head of geography Andrew Cole, recalling this year's GCSE results. "It gave everyone involved a buzz."