Big break grows in popularity

There's nothing like a well-planned gap year for toughening you up, says Anne McHardy

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The Independent Online

Talk to any parent of a student who took an adventurous gap year and a misty look will come into their eyes. It was always wonderful. Well, almost. There are some disasters and even the most motiv- ated, organised gap student does require family back-up, financial, emotional and physical.

Talk to any parent of a student who took an adventurous gap year and a misty look will come into their eyes. It was always wonderful. Well, almost. There are some disasters and even the most motiv- ated, organised gap student does require family back-up, financial, emotional and physical.

The kid who slogs with friends up and down St Thomas' Hospital Tower to raise the £3,000 needed for three months in Namibia needs footbaths, hot food and a signature on his or her sponsorship form. The one who writes to local firms needs a hand on the keyboard.

The parental mistiness is not just about the brilliant experience that has matured their offspring; it is vicarious living. We all wish pre-university gap years had been the fashion in our day. We can see how much tougher our kids become; how much more prepared to benefit from university or to decide positively that they are going to do something other than a degree.

Gap years are fashionable, as is reflected in the huge growth in the number of charities and private companies offering them. Pictures of Prince William toiling in Chile have helped, but the trend has been gathering steam for a decade. The range of gap packages starts with backpacking, includes working with charities, building hospitals and schools and, very commonly, working as a language assistant, teaching English.

With this trend, however, comes a danger. Once parents feel that a well-structured year is essential to their would-be undergraduate's progress to a better university, a good degree, an impressive CV and well paid employment, as the gap companies' blurbs suggest it might be, then parents will start organising – and paying for – the gaps.

Where there are disasters, according to Richard Oliver, director of the gap companies' umbrella organisation, the Year Out Group, it is usually because of poor planning. That can be the fault of the company or of the student, he says, but the best insurance is thoughtful preparation. "When people get it wrong, it is usually medical or, especially among girls, it is that they have not been away from home before or because expectation does not match reality."

The Year Out Group has a website showing a huge range of potential gaps offered by charities or commercial organisations, and holds stalls at student fairs and gives talks to schools and parents.

It was founded by a group of established organisations as a self-regulatory body. Members must have a charitable element – for example, helping poorer kids to raise the £2,000 to £6,000 they need.

Fundraising through sponsorship is used by gap organisations as an integral element of the development of the student. "We promote the benefits of a structured year out, providing neutral advice for young people. We advise people to ask what they want to get out of their gap year, to make sure that when they fork out, their expectations are going to match the reality," Oliver says.

The point of a gap year is that it should be the time when the school leaver gets to do the thing that he or she fancies. Kids don't mature if mum and dad decide how they are going to mature. If the 18-year-old's way of maturing is to slob out on Hampstead Heath soaking up sunshine or spending a year working with fishermen in Cornwall, then that's what will be productive for that person. The consensus, however, is that some structure is an advantage and that the prime mover needs to be the student.

The 18-year-old who was dispatched by his parents at two weeks' notice to Canada to learn to be a snowboarding instructor at a cost of £5,800, probably came back with little more than a hangover. The 18-year-old on the same package who worked for his fare and spent the rest of his year instructing in resorts from New Zealand to Switzerland, and came back to apply for university, is the positive counterbalance.

Some would-be gap takers start planning in their first year of sixth form, which is required by some organisations, like The Project Trust. The 40-year-old Trust expects its volunteers to spend a whole year abroad, raising the £3,800 cost themselves and going through aptitude tests. Teaching and Projects Abroad, which offers gaps ranging from teaching to archaeology, similarly aims to involve people in the first year of sixth form. Others start planning in the second year, still others do a mad post-A-levels rush.

The number who take a pre-degree gap is growing – 7 per cent, according to UCAS. That figure does not tell the full story, however, because it includes only those who hold a deferred university place on leaving their sixth form. Those who take A-levels, take time out and apply to university during their gap are not included, nor are those who drop out in a state of confusion, deliver pizzas for a while, then drop back in.

Martin Brady, an admissions tutor at London Guildhall University, says he can see the difference in the students. The self-knowing ones who not only have intelligent questions but go in search of answers are the gap veterans, he says. Others are not so certain. At Plymouth, Alex Brown, head of health, believes that more self-knowing are the working-class kids who have had to weigh the value of what they are doing and have not been cosseted as children.

Tony Higgins, chief executive of UCAS, believes a gap has many functions. Many take a year out to finance their degree – also a way of maturing, and valuing university.

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