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The Guardian: Make or break time

The Guardian: Make or break time

New research shows the skills learnt on gap years are a key to success in later life – if only those taking them realised before they made their plans.

Andrew Jones reports

Tuesday July 27, 2004

Gap years have been getting mixed reviews recently. Princes William and Harry have been filmed enjoying their breaks, but the press is full of stories about the dangers: last month, two gap-year students were shot in Tanzania. Some cast doubt as to whether gap years represent anything more than glorified tourism, affluent middle-class kids on expensive overseas trips. Yet my recent research, to be published by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) later this week, shows that the right kind of gap year can be a key to success in later life.

For the past year, I have been collecting data and interviewing various people involved in gap years: teachers, parents, expedition leaders, university admissions tutors, employers and young people themselves. What emerges is a very different picture from the popular image. Gap years are not the preserve of rich kids. What is more, the benefits of taking certain kinds of gap years appear to have been badly under-sold.

A gap year can mean almost anything to anyone. The term covers all manner of activities and periods of time. Over the past year I have met young people who swore blind they had had a gap year because they went to Australia for six weeks after leaving school.

At the other extreme, there are those who claim to be taking time out in perpetuity. One young man told me, without any irony, that he had been on a gap year for three years. He had travelled the world, worked in ski resorts, packed fruit in Essex and dived in Thailand. And he had no plans to stop.

After many interviews with those who work in the gap-year industry and the young people who take them, I now have a working definition of a gap year, that is, roughly, a period of time between three and 24 months that represents a break from a longer educational or career trajectory. The important point is that it’s a break – time out from education, training or employment. But the return is equally important. Less than three months, and you could be on a summer holiday; more than two years and the break is blurring into a long-term way of life.

What is also certain is that gap years are growing in popularity. The exact number is hard to measure. One indicator is the rise in the number of students who defer entry to university. That number has been increasing year on year for the past decade. In 2004 this figure is likely to exceed 30,000.

But that is only the tip of the iceberg. The research suggests at least as many young people again do not bother to defer. They apply to further or higher education during their gap year.

Harder to measure still are the thousands who take a gap before pursuing a training course, or simply as time out from paid employment. In total, the research estimates that between 100, 000 and 200, 000 young people aged 16 to 25 are undertaking some kind of gap year annually.

What research also reveals is that what you do in this period of time matters enormously. The evidence suggests that many young people drift into a gap year after missing exam grades, or due to a lack of ideas about what to do next. Others use the time simply to earn money, while some travel the world.

So what effect can a gap year have on a student’s life? This question took me last week to a village near Buxton, in Derbyshire. A small pub on an unseasonably wet and cold July evening seems an unlikely place to find those beginning their gap year. But this is where I came to talk to a group of 20 gappers, mostly between school and university, about to head off to Tanzania with World Challenge Expeditions.

Overseas placements to students volunteering to work for most of a year represent only a small fraction of the total national figure, but it is the focus of my ongoing study. The reason is that my research into various benefits of different activities suggests those who undertake this kind of gap year gain enormously from the experience in ways that have to date, at best, been documented only anecdotally.

In the pub I meet Kate, 19, who is just back from Tanzania, where she has been teaching English in a rural primary school for nine months. She is here to pass on her wisdom to the next group. “I guess it makes you more confident, more mature and able to cope with problems in the real world,” she says. Kate went to a comprehensive school in south Wales and wants to be a nurse. She’s emphatic that the skills she has learnt will stand her in good stead.

Others about to embark on placements have clear objectives. “I want to get more organised, get better at meeting new people,” says Dan, 18, who has worked for two years to save up funds for the trip. Louise, 18, from Newcastle, thinks it “will make me more organised and ready to study”.

I have certainly found evidence that gappers perform better when they return to education or employment. Extra “life experience” is often a good preparation for academic life. Having taught in several university geography departments, I have witnessed at first hand how students who begin their degrees after returning from a gap year are often more mature and more motivated than those who have come straight from school.

But now it seems the rest of the higher education sector is also waking up to this. There is growing evidence that universities look favourably on gappers across most subject areas. A cursory survey of websites reveals words of support from vice-chancellors and admissions tutors at Newcastle, Leeds, Sheffield Hallam and Aberdeen, to name but a few.

From the other side of the admissions fence, a group of students about to leave for Vietnam with Gap Activity Projects supports the line taken by the universities: “It pulls you out from the crowd, especially when there is so much competition to get on courses,” said one. The only exceptions seem to be maths and some sciences: “They think you need to start straight away,” said another student.

Not all gappers go away before university, however – more and more young people take a gap afterwards. And research suggests this is where there are hidden benefits. My study shows many employers are very keen on gappers. For those heading toward graduate jobs offered by large blue-chip or multinational firms, a gap year is looked upon with growing favour. Firms such as Accenture, Shell and HBOS offer or have offered sponsorship for those undertaking gap-year expeditions. Mark Johnson, head of human resources at HBOS, told me: “Individuals who have taken a gap year can add a lot to a role. During their gap year they would have no doubt found themselves in situations forcing them to go out of their ‘comfort zones’. A gap year can add tremendous weight to someone’s CV.”

The focus is on activities that employers see as improving “soft skills”: team-working, leadership and communication, organisational and interpersonal skills. These are all seen by employers as key skills that potential graduate recruits lack and which universities do not develop enough. In the words of Kristina, 24, who took a gap year and is now a trainee accountant at Deloitte Touche: “It made me ready for working life in so many ways. It gave me the confidence to deal with new people and new situations … real independence.”

Of course, these soft skills are not something one particularly acquires while surfing on an Australian beach, or diving off the coast of Thailand. This is where the type of activity becomes important. “Lying in bed and watching daytime TV for a year,” as one gapper observed, is not a useful way of spending your time.

The key to a successful gap year is advance planning and a significant element in a structured work placement. It may be paid, it may be voluntary. And it does not necessarily have to be abroad, although there are added benefits in experiencing different cultures and places.

It can be organised independently, although the advantage of using organisations such as Gap Activity or World Challenge is the extra security, knowledge and back-up they provide. One of the conclusions I have reached is that such experiences add vastly to an individual’s skill-base and thus to their likelihood of future educational or career success.

Yet the majority of the thousands who take a gap year appear to be unaware of these issues, at least until it is too late. Those I have spoken to are full of stories of friends or peers who simply drifted into an unplanned gap year. What needs to be impressed upon more young people is how much of a missed opportunity that can be.

· Andrew Jones lectures in geography at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is author of Review of Gap Year Provision, published by the DfES on July 29 (available at,,1269361,00.html

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