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Gap years are getting more and more popular. For increasing numbers of students this post-A-level break is seen as an essential step on the road to university. In part, this is a reaction to the hard slog of modern school life with its SATs, GCSEs, AS and A2 exams. Who wouldn't want a break before signing up to another three or four years of study?

Gap years are getting more and more popular. For increasing numbers of students this post-A-level break is seen as an essential step on the road to university. In part, this is a reaction to the hard slog of modern school life with its SATs, GCSEs, AS and A2 exams. Who wouldn't want a break before signing up to another three or four years of study?

"More people seem to be taking gap years although numbers are notoriously difficult to pin down," says Birkbeck College's Dr Andrew Jones, who is researching the phenomenon for the Department for Education and Skills.

Richard Oliver of Year Out Group, which represents 30 gap year organisations that have signed up to a code of practice, reckons there could be up to 100,000 people leaving school every year with the intention of taking some form of gap year. "There are about 30,000 people who defer entry to university every year and there are another 30,000 who wait until they have their A-level grades before applying," he says. "Then there are possibly another 30,000 who are just dithering and are not even sure if they want to go to university at all."

Tom Griffith, founder of the gapper's online bible www.gapyear.com, reports that more people are using their gap year to earn money to fund their way through university or to gain real work experience. "There's also a big growth in people doing projects close to home," he says. "We're seeing more people helping out at the nearby old people's home or coaching local kids in football."

One thing is certain: there is no typical gap year. The Birkbeck research has found even the label is confusing, with a gap "year" ranging from three months to two years. Some use the time to work, some to travel, others to undertake altruistic projects or learn new skills.

"One of the big myths in the gap year market is that it's very public school, but in reality there are lots of state school kids doing things and they are driving some of the big growth trends," observes Griffith.

Most gappers are remarkably well organised and self-motivated. They are predominantly female - Oliver reckons the female/male ratio is 65/35 - perhaps reflecting the greater maturity and career focus of women at that age. And rather than embarking on grand tours financed by parental handouts, the vast majority work to fund their travel ambitions or altruistic instincts.

Harriet Martin, 18, who plans to study physiotherapy at Glasgow, is a case in point. "I'm going to work until December when I'm going to do a ski season, which is something I've wanted to do for years," she says. "Then when I get back in April, I'm going to work again to save up enough money to go to do a physiotherapy project in Nepal."

"People try to balance their time away with the time they need to spend working to earn money to pay for it," says Dr Jones. "Almost everyone I interviewed had worked to pay for the cost of their placement and some of them had been saving for years."

The present crop of gappers has been saved the burden of the incoming top-up fees because of a last-minute amendment to the Higher Education Bill. Students applying during 2004/2005 for a place at university but who wish to defer entry until 2006 will not have to pay top-up fees of £3,000 a year for the duration of their courses. Whether the increase in fees will impact on the ambitions of would-be gappers from 2006 onwards is less clear.

"People are beginning to realise that while the costs of university are mounting, it doesn't kick in until they are earning £15,000 and the rates are pretty good," says Oliver. "They see it as a manageable debt." Besides, the evidence appears to be that an investment in a gap year can pay dividends in the longer term.

"A degree on its own means much less now than it did 10 years ago and this trend will continue as more and more people are encouraged into university," says Sophie Green, operations manager of Milkround.com. "Graduates now must combine a degree with decent work experience and, increasingly, with extra-curricular activities or experiences that set them apart from the competition and a gap year seems the obvious way to add this potential CV fodder."

Some gap year placements are actively geared up to woo future employers. Year in Industry places about 700 A-level students in companies for a year of paid (£9,000-£12,000) work experience, and about a quarter of the students go on to be sponsored through university.

"We are getting more applications every year and expect that to continue because as the costs of going to university rise, then this option means you will befinancially better off before, during and after university," says Caroline Durbin of Year in Industry.

Less obviously career-orientated gap years, such as international travel or volunteering, are also popular with employers. Gary Argent, graduate recruitment manager for LogicaCMG UK, which takes on 200 graduates each year, says he's seeing more rounded, confident individuals coming through the selection process as a result of their year out experiences.

It's a message that's getting through to parents too. "Research shows that about 60 per cent of parents actually approve of their children taking a gap year," says Griffith. "There's been a definite move in the last five years from a negative view to a positive one."

It's a multiplier effect: the more students who take gap years and return unscathed with their university and career prospects intact, then the more willing parents are to loosen the apron strings. Even so, some gap year options are more popular with parents than others.

"Parents are very keen for their kids to do something constructive rather than just roam around with no purpose," says tutor Lucie Baird of Art History Abroad, which organises language lessons and tours of the cultural sights of Italy.

And if it's not art history, today's enterprising gappers are becoming gourmet chefs, gaining diving qualifications or training to become ski instructors.

Backpacking round the world remains as popular as ever, with Australia the number one destination. "A round-the-world flight now costs about £700, which means it's feasible for a lot more people to do it," says Louise Clark of student travel specialist STA Travel.

And despite media despair at the "me" generation, many young people are surprisingly altruistic. Community Service Volunteers, which places people in social care projects in the UK, sees a steady flow of gap year volunteers tackling projects ranging from helping a disabled student live independently or working with autistic children or young offenders.

"Our projects can be just as challenging as building a well in Africa," says CSV spokesman Jason Tanner. "They really opens people's eyes."

The traditional image of a gap year project - well digging in Africa or conservation work in Chile à la Prince William - still holds true for many gappers, however. There is a vast range of projects to choose from, although the price tags can be hefty (£2,000-£5,000 depending on length and location). The internet hosts hundreds of organisations offering structured volunteer projects in exotic locations, from surveying coral reefs off Tanzania, to rainforest conservation in Cambodia, to working with street children in Mexico.

"Ask yourself what you want to achieve, set some goals and then plan accordingly," says Griffith. "There are as many amazing things to do as you can think of."

Happy gapping...

Gap news

Divers wanted for conservation project

Snorkellers and scuba divers are being called on to join up to Earthdive, an initiative supported by the UN's Environment Programme (UNEP) and gap year organiser Coral Cay Conservation. Earthdive aims to record the health of the marine environment including coral reefs, mangrove swamps and coastal waters. Earthdive members are asked to record findings from their dives on the website, www.earthdive.com.

Fifty per cent of all membership fees will go directly to marine conservation projects.

Project opportunities in Kenya and Mexico

Itching to get away quickly? Gap year project organiser Africa & Asia Venture still has a few vacancies on its community/conservation scheme in Kenya (departing 18 October 2004), as well as opportunities in Mexico, helping schools and villages (departing 22 October 2004). The projects provide a balance between encouraging English speaking, helping in cultural/community activities and teaching in primary and secondary schools. For more information, see www.aventure.co.uk

Sweetener for gappers who stay in the UK

The Government is considering offering gap year students a discount on their university debt to encourage them to work on community projects in the UK rather than overseas. Under the proposed plans, the growing pool of willing gap year volunteers would be offered a sweetener to enroll on approved volunteering schemes helping the elderly, disabled and the environment in Britain. The idea may be included in Labour's manifesto before the next general election.

Volunteering beats obesity - and improves your sex life

Volunteering isn't all self-sacrifice. In addition to the feel-good factor, new research commissioned by CSV shows that helping others is actually good for your waistline. Almost half (47 per cent) of the 600 volunteers surveyed said volunteering had improved their physical health and fitness, 20 per cent said it had helped them lose weight and, of those aged 18-24, 17 per cent said it had improved their sex life.

Photography training for gappers

Gap year project organiser i-to-i has launched a weekend travel photography course. The £245 two-day programme covers all the basics, such as lighting and composition, as well as publishing. Run by experienced travel photographers and photojournalists, the course is designed for snappers of all levels. Visit www.weekendtravelphotography.com for further details.

Travel Egypt by bus, felucca and train

On The Go tours has launched a new three-month travel pass that takes in all of Egypt's ancient wonders - via bus, felucca and train. The GoBus pass can be bought from the company's London offices or their rep in Egypt, from £79 to £129 depending on itinerary. Major stops include Cairo, Sharm El Sheik, Alexandria, Abu Simbel, Luxor, Hurgada. Contact the company at www.onthegotours.com

Australia still number one

A recent survey of 5,000 students and young people has found that 65 per cent have taken, or plan to take, a gap year over the next year. The research, conducted by STA Travel, found Australia remains the number one destination with 41 per cent heading Down Under, with 29 per cent heading for Asia and 28 per cent to the USA.

STA Travel has set up a dedicated Gap Year Hotline manned by experienced travellers to offer advice and helpful tips on planning and preparing for a gap year.

The Gap Year Hotline (0870 160 5522) is open from 9am-8pm (Mon-Weds), 9am-7pm (Thurs-Fri), 10am-6pm (Sat) and 11am-5pm (Sun).

Gap year advice online

GETTING STARTED

www.gapyear.com

Everything you ever wanted to know about gap years

www.yearoutgroup.org

Has links to 30 gap year organisations that have signed up to a code of practice plus helpful advice on getting started

www.findagap.com

Includes a one-stop shop for budget backpackers

www.gap-year.com

From the publishers of The Gap-Year Guidebook

www.shu.ac.uk/gapyear/links

Useful links for gappers, hosted by Sheffield Hallam University

www.lonelyplanet.com

Essential reading plus travel services

NEED TO KNOW

www.fco.gov.uk

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office's travel section is a must-read if you plan to travel overseas

www.fitfortravel.scot.nhs.uk

Travel health advice

www.dh.gov.uk

Department of Health website with advice for travellers

www.brookes.ac.uk/worldwise

Practical tips on health, safety, visas, currencies, attire

FLIGHTS, ACCOMMODATION AND INSURANCE

www.sta-travel.com

Specialists in student and gap year travel; site includes useful tips and advice for travellers

www.internationalstudent.com/travel/

From flights to car rental to trains

www.studentflights.co.uk

Low cost flights for young people (based within Keele University student union)

www.globetrekkers.com

Online insurance for backpackers

www.insureandgo.com

More online insurance options

FUNDRAISING

www.funderfinder.org.uk/advice_pack.php

Fundraising tips

www.i-to-i.com

Comprehensive fundraising guide in the FAQ section

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