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Should I have forced him to stay on?

Bridget Patterson thought she knew what was best for her son. Now she's not so sure...

Provide a good environment for studying at home," secondary schools advise parents. Well, we always tried to do that, with all those other virtues like not complaining about the collection of mould-infested coffee mugs and always being positive.

You would have thought that our youngest son had the perfect setting in which to succeed: a large house with his own room, lots of books and newspapers and the role models of his older brother and sister who had both got good O-levels (they are much older than him) and then successfully completed their A-levels.

Last year was GCSE year for Jake. He never appeared to do any homework and, as for coursework, you wouldn't have known it existed if you believed him. It wasn't that he was busy doing other constructive activities either: he gave up playing the saxophone, acting and sport at the beginning of Year 11.

We tried everything, from patient understanding, through ignoring him totally, to screaming despair. His teachers kept telling me how bright he was and how tragically he was wasting his time. And I felt guilty. Would this somehow have been avoided if we had paid for his education? Would he have met a more aspiring and ambitious group of students at a different school? Should I stop burdening him with my value judgments? Was there anything I could do?

He worked for the last two weeks. When the results came he had got A grades in the two subjects he enjoyed and Cs for the rest. Typically, it was just enough to get by. By now my daughter had joined the fray and persuaded him that staying on for A-levels was A Good Thing.

At the end of the day he came home insisting that school was not for him - it was crap.

More arguments, discussions, silences. In the end a deal was struck. If he went to the local FE college (where his friends were enrolled) he would do A-levels, indeed he was keen to do them but NOT at school. For a while we had peace.

Then his friends started to drop out. The line now was "I'm not academic, I'd be better off working and maybe go back to college later. Anyway, where does a degree get you? Loads of people with degrees can't find jobs and you can work your way up. ("Work your way up what?" I asked). What you don't understand, Mum, is that we are alienated and disaffected (sociology was one of his subjects) and it's not like when you were a student."

Perhaps I was wrong to think that in the end he knew what was right for him at 17. He now works as a waiter in a local pub and has applied to do a BTEC course this September. His group of friends seems to epitomise what we read about the young people of today: four out of 10 are still at college but six have left and have jobs ranging from pushing trolleys at Tesco's to junior clerical jobs.

Can it be that bad nationwide? Is it bad? And what can we do about it?

Should I have insisted that he stayed on and forced him to do what I still think would have been better? Or was I bound to lose in a malaise which seems to have the youth of this country in its grip?

Bridget Patterson lives in Suffolk and, from September, takes up a new post as a sixth-form careers adviser.

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