Deprived students to get free gap year

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The Independent Online

Gordon Brown is planning to offer to help fund "gap years" for poorer students as part of the creation of a new national volunteer corps.

Gordon Brown is planning to offer to help fund "gap years" for poorer students as part of the creation of a new national volunteer corps.

Students will be offered reductions in their tuition fees and, in some cases, cash payments to spend a year volunteering.

While a year spent backpacking has become a rite of passage for school leavers from middle-class families, those from poorer homes are often reluctant to delay higher education.

The Chancellor hopes to encourage students from all backgrounds to expand their horizons though voluntary work when he launches a "new form of national service" in the Budget next month.

Under a pilot scheme set up last year, poorer students are paid a weekly allowance of £45 and a completion award of £750 after nine months to do voluntary work. Mr Brown's aides say that he is likely to announce a similar, nation-wide scheme as part of efforts to attract one million new young volunteers over the next five years.

The launch follows a review under the chairmanship of Ian Russell, the chief executive of ScottishPower, into why so few young people enter voluntary work.

But while the hedonistic gap year spent trekking in Nepal may be under threat, the preceding teenage institution - the A level - will be officially saved from extinction by ministers this week.

Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools, had recommended scrapping both GCSE and A levels in an official report into the future of the education of 14- to 19-year-olds. He proposed instead a new diploma that would give equal status to vocational and academic courses. That set alarm bells ringing in Downing Street, however, and Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Education, will this week confirm that both exams are to stay.

Ms Kelly is expected to announce better opportunities for vocational training, and to promise that if Labour is re-elected they will make the ending of youth unemployment "irreversible".

But she is not expected to go the whole way towards ending what many regard as a class divide between students on vocational training and those undertaking academic courses.

"If she is only going to have a vocational diploma, it will harden the divide and play to that traditional part of the English curriculum which is the foundation of the class structure," Barry Sheerman, chairman of the Commons education sub-committee, said yesterday.

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