Gap years: disaster or trip of a lifetime?

Students may like the idea of a year out, but not all are happy with the experience, says Robert Nurden

Martha Sedgwick had taken a number of jobs to finance her three-month stint working with deprived children in Lima. With a place secured at York to read history, she signed up with Gap Challenge, one of many organisations offering pre-college students and career-breakers the chance to work in a developing country.

She was told she'd be staying with a family, enabling her to practise Spanish. And she reckoned the work at the children's refuge would stretch her in new and exciting ways.

But, as her mother Carole explains, it turned out to be a "disastrous" experience, so much so that she is warning other parents against sending their children on gap-year schemes. "Martha's placement was badly organised and she was unclear what she was supposed to be doing," she says. "There was little supervision from the organisers. We allowed her to go because we were led to believe she would be staying with a family, but she lived in a hostel in a seedy part of the city where volunteers were continually getting mugged.

"If we had known what lay ahead we would not have let her go. Many gap-year organisations charge a lot of money for not very much in return, and I believe thousands of students are being ripped off. The gap year is just not worth it."

In response, Gap Challenge says: "The feedback received from the majority of participants on the [Peru] programme was that they had a very worthwhile experience. We are sorry to hear that Martha did not feel this way."

The gap-year industry is booming. According to the Year Out Group, a trade association for 38 gap-year companies, the availability of cheap travel means that up to 200,000 British people of all ages now take time out each year. Most of those are school leavers, 40,000 of whom have a university place but choose to defer; another 40,000 are waiting for their A-level grades before applying; while another 50,000 leave school not knowing what to do.

Gap-year placements fall into four categories. The first group incorporates short language or specialist courses and cultural exchanges. These include expeditions, conservation, trekking and personal development programmes for up to three months, led by such groups as Raleigh International, Quest Overseas and Trekforce Expeditions.

Specialist science projects and NGOs in need of research assistants make up the second category. Students choose a placement related to their area of study, with marine biology and the associated diving activities proving one of the most popular choices.

The largest category - which includes Project Trust, Teaching & Projects Abroad (TPA) and i-to-i - offer voluntary work for between two weeks and 12 months. Those on a career break make up a growing number of the volunteers.

Lastly, the Year in Industry group, based in Britain, offer full-time structured work placements in companies directly related to the student's area of study.

Intense competition among graduates means that CVs have become more of a shop window than ever before. A school leaver who has, say, taught kids from a Cambodian slum is going to impress a potential employer more than someone who has gone straight from school to university.

But are "gappers" getting value for money? While a large number undoubtedly have a positive experience, it is clear that there are thousands more, like Martha Sedgwick, who do not. And because most volunteers are paying many thousands of pounds to join a conservation project, teach English or do humanitarian work, value for money has become a growing source of concern.

In Mongolia this summer, volunteers with TPA frequently expressed dissatisfaction with their placements and with the lack of back-up administration. Significantly, at the beginning of August a member of the administrative team in Ulan Bator was sacked for incompetence. Volunteers' requests for information often went unheeded and appointments were missed, while some placements were unstructured, even to the point of collapse.

Robert Mak, 26, had paid more than £2,000 upfront to work for five months as a business adviser with a cashmere production company, but quit in despair after two months. "The placement has been really boring, yet at the same time quite frustrating as there was so much potential," says Mak. "I have very little to do most days and the people that I work closest with don't speak very good English, which makes it very difficult to achieve work-related tasks."

On two other occasions newcomers were not met on arrival. For Trish Sexton, this meant being harassed by local men in the middle of the night, and being forced to take refuge in the airport toilet. She eventually found hotel accommodation, which TPA later paid for. "Of course, no one truly expects everything to run like clockwork," says Sexton. "This is a Third World country and we come here to experience the difference. But the point is that volunteers pay Western prices and expect a Western standard of service."

While TPA acknowledges that it has slipped up in some areas, it claims that the majority of volunteers in Mongolia have had successful placements. It points out that "volunteers pay a good deal of money to join programmes ... The reason why they are good value is that it would be extremely difficult for the thousands of young people that we send around the world every year ... to organise efficiently and legally voluntary work in developing countries such as Mongolia."

Richard Oliver, director of the Year Out Group, admits there are some poor operators. "When providing placements in several continents, it is inevitable that things will go wrong. Prospective volunteers should get under the skin of an organisation. They should shop around and talk to former volunteers. They should list everything they wish to achieve and then match that to the right company. They should also be aware that whatever they do, they will experience problems."

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