Go Higher: A gap year is not a year 'off'

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I have often observed that when I talk to a group of students, with or without their parents, in schools in the independent sector about preparing for higher education, almost always the first question relates to the gap year. On the other hand, if I talk to a group of students and their parents in schools in the state sector, the question is hardly ever raised. Even if it is raised it is usually called the year out or even the year off.

If you decide to take a break between your studies at school or college and university, try not to make it a year "off". It will surely benefit you in general, and your application for higher education in particular, if your year is not some kind of drop-out period but is a time when you do something constructive which is likely to help you in later life, perhaps in particular your studies in higher education.

Those who take a year out, and apply for university or college during that year, have the best of all worlds. In particular, they have the advantage of applying for higher education in the knowledge of what their examination results are and also probably surer in the knowledge of what they want to do at university or college.

Although most people who use the UCAS scheme agree that it works well, it does have its drawbacks.

Applicants have to make up their minds too early as to what they want to study at university or college. Prospectuses and the UCAS handbook arrive in schools and colleges in the May some 17 months before the academic year to which they refer. Potential applicants are pressurised into making decisions about what they wish to study when they are not even halfway through a typical A-level course. They have to apply by 15 December, some nine months before their potential course is due to begin when they may still be unsure of what they want to do.

The literature which they will be perusing to help make up their minds, will have been drafted perhaps as much as 20 months before the academic year to which it relates.

Another problem with the current system is that admissions tutors look at the potential examination performance of applicants as predicted by their referees. Research has shown that predictions of A-level grades are wrong in 65 per cent of cases. In 52 per cent of cases, predictions are for a grade higher than the applicant achieves and in 26 per cent of cases, predictions are for grades two higher than the applicant actually achieves. This is not meant to criticise teachers for inaccuracy. How can they have a real assessment of their students' ability when they are only halfway through their A-level course?

This inaccuracy of predictions can work against the applicant in a number of ways. For example, if the student asks the teacher "what grades do you think I'll get?" and the teacher says, "well keep on working at this pace and you should get three Bs" the student then plans an application strategy for institutions which might be looking for three Bs. But the student may never get three Bs and then becomes a disappointed applicant and has to go into clearing.

Virtually all of the problems in the current applications process would be solved if students could apply after they have their results, ie the so-called post-qualification applications system, or PQA for short. I first proposed PQA in February 1993 and last year the Dearing Commission into higher education also recommended PQA. The Government has accepted the Dearing recommendation and the committee of vice-chancellors and principals will be issuing a consultative document on PQA in the next few weeks.

If students apply for entry to higher education after they have their results, they have a basic understanding of what their academic performance is; they are more up-to-date in what they would like to study at university or college; they would be applying on the basis of up-to-date information on course availability and it would also be easier for universities and colleges to hit their admissions targets.

It is interesting to note that there is no greater drop-out rate amongst students accepted in Clearing than from among those students who were admitted during the long drawn out process of application pre-examinations. This surprises many who assume that those accepted in Clearing have been panicking and grasping at a last minute place. In fact, they are possibly the lucky ones. They have been able to choose what they want to do much later in their lives, after having reviewed an assessment of their academic abilities. Gap year students enjoy the same privilege.