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."

Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
News
Winchester College Football (universally known as Winkies) is designed to make athletic skill all but irrelevant
Life...arcane public school games explained
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Junior Analyst - Graduate - 6 Month fixed term contract

£17000 - £20000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

Nursery Room Leader

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: JOB DESCRIPTION - NURSERY ROOM LEADER...

Recruitment Consultants - Banking & Finance

£20000 - £30000 per annum + OTE £40 - £50K first year: SThree: SThree Group an...

Nursery Room Leader

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: JOB DESCRIPTION - NURSERY ROOM LEADER...

Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone