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An encounter with Her Royal Highness the Princess of Wales in a village in the mountains above Katmandu in Nepal was one of the stranger events that befell Fleur Wainhouse during her gap year between school and university.

Fleur was working as a school teacher in Panauti, a small village tucked away from the main trekking routes. "The villagers kept saying to me, 'Your German Princess is coming'. They didn't seem to know who she was and I didn't know who they were talking about until all these journalists and television crews started turning up in buses and then she arrived with two helicopters. The villagers were totally bemused. They wanted me to talk to her because they didn't feel their English was good enough. It was terrible really."

When peace returned to Fleur's village she was relieved to carry on with the job she had gone out to do, helping to teach the junior class in the village school. Fleur wore native dress during her six-month stay and lived with a family in a basic three-roomed house, closely guarded by her Nepali "sisters''. She said: "I got really close to them and they would tell me off if I did anything wrong. For example, I spoke to a man when everybody was looking and I offended an old woman by smoking a cigarette in front her. Actually, I was in my own room, but the old women of the village used to open my shutters in the morning to have a look at me and one of them caught me smoking."

Once she had overcome the "intense loneliness" of the first month Fleur loved her job and her host community. A former pupil of Marlborough College, she now reads human sciences at University College, London, but believes her gap year was invaluable, taught her to be independent, and gave her "time out to see what I really wanted to do."

Fleur had gained an A and two Cs at A-level in biology, chemistry and maths and had worked hard at school but she was tired of academic study and needed a break. She went to Nepal through Schools Partnership Worldwide (SPW), set up 10 years ago by Jim Cogan, an English teacher at Westminster School, who wished to involve young people in sustainable development in Africa and India.

SPW sends out about 300 young people each year between school and universities not the cheapest option for a gap year as each student has to raise a minimum of pounds 1,800 to pounds l,200 to cover travel, insurance, training and supervisory costs and pounds 600 development capital towards the project or institution they will be working for; but it is one of the more structured and educational packages with the idea of service at its heart.

"This is not solely an adventure trip," Robin Hill, SPW's director, said. "It is intended to develop young people's altruistic spirit and to provide them with a meaningful experience so they can come back as educators, having direct knowledge of the great divide between the world's rich and poor nations." Some pupils, he said, went in for serious fund-raising, notching up as much as pounds 4,000 to take out to their allotted project. Fleur raised cash by working in a department store for six months after leaving school. Although she worked alone in Nepal, students through SPW are usually, posted in pairs, with several pairs within easy reach of each other. The organisation also has its own field staff resident in each country. Fleur first spent a month in Katmandu with other "SPWs'' undertaking three hours of Nepali language training in the morning, learning about culture and health care in the afternoon. Following guidelines she remained healthy, loved the village food and put on weight.

To overcome her initial loneliness Fleur made regular visits to Katmandu where she met other SPWs for "silly things like steak and chips and cocktails" but also to visit temples and festivals in the region. She now shares student accommodation in London with three of the SPWs she met out in Nepal, she remains passionateabout travelling and last year returned to her village.

She said: "I've wanted to be an explorer since I was seven, and I didn't want to go straight to university. Originally I wanted to go across India on my bicycle, but I was advised at school to stay in one place rather than travelling around."

Lucy Haynes, a former pupil of Rugby School, who starts a degree course in European Studies with French at Leeds University this October, was glad that she lived in a community during her gap year before she began her travelling. Through Schools Partnership Worldwide she worked in the occupational therapy unit of a hospital in Velloure, a "typically Indian town; dusty, busy, not touristy" about three hours' journey from Madras. She worked for four months and travelled for three. She said: "Having a year out was the best thing I ever did. It has broadened my outlook, I've experienced so much. I'm really ready to study now, which I wouldn't have been if I'd gone straight to university from school."

Nicholas Strong, who goes to Aberdeen to read biology in October, agreed. He went to teach in an international school in Bangalore in India with another gap year charity, GAP Activity Projects, which annually sends 1,500 18-year-olds to schemes in more than 30 different countries. A pupil at St Peter's School in York and "young for his years" he too had not felt ready to go straight to university.

He originally applied with GAP to go to Canada or Australia, but is now glad he was only offered work in a developing country. He said: "It made me grow up very quickly. I have a lot more confidence now."

Some students realise during their year out, free from school pressures, that they have applied for the wrong degree course and would be happier studying another subject. Although this can be messy, many feel that is better to sort this out from the beginning than to embark on a course they cannot commit themselves to. If reasons for change are sound then universities and colleges are usually sympathetic.

Although taking a gap year has become increasingly common among students, and is now programmed into the UCAS entry form, university and college departments are usually keen to ensure that the year will be spent constructively. Competition among medical students is too great for medical schools to be prepared to defer entry, but for the most part, admissions officers treat applications for deferred entry with some enthusiasm, believing a year out will produce a more mature and therefore more motivated student.

However, it is best to check that departments are happy to grant a gap year. Oversubscribed departments apart from medicine may also be more reluctant to defer entry. Rosamund McDougall, who publishes The Gap Year Guidebook, believes student indebtedness could become another factor in discouraging pupils to take a year out and that the number of students doing so, which has risen dramatically over the last 10 years, may begin to level off. With grant support reducing by the equivalent of about 10 per cent per annum, a survey has revealed that many students leave university or college with debts of around pounds 2,500. Ms McDougall fears more may be reluctant to undertake any project that could exacerbate financial hardship.

Although GAP and SPW have been used largely by the independent sector, Robin Hill hopes this will change as SPW has targeted more than 3,500 schools this year in its biggest promotions campaign so far. If all goes well the benefits of a gap year can be overwhelming. "You may never get the chance to do anything like this again,'' Nicholas Strong said. "I think it is much easier to do before you go to university than at the end when you will probably be more concerned about getting a job."

Students considering a gap year should start to make plans at the beginning of their final year of sixth- form, and make an early UCAS application. They should also be fairly confident that they will make the grades required for their future degree course.