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Case study: Gap years in Gloucestershire and Uganda

Separated by thousands of miles, three very different 18-year-olds have just finished their gap years. Bonnie Stanway from New Zealand and Kirsty McIntosh from Australia spent a year at my school, Rendcomb college, a small rural independent school near Cirencester in Gloucestershire. After finishing his A-levels, my godson, Nigel Riley, former head boy at Bristol Cathedral school, spent six months teaching at St James school in Jinja, Uganda. Although these three young people came from different backgrounds, their expectations at the start of their gap placements were the same: they all wanted to do something challenging and they all wanted a break from the exam rollercoaster that dominates the final years of so many students' secondary education.

Nigel received a small travel bursary from his school, which he supplemented with earnings from temporary jobs. He also paid for his inoculations. Bonnie and Kirsty "negotiated" their terms and conditions under the auspices of Tutors Worldwide, an agency led by Robin Finney, who visited Rendcomb to check that we were honouring our side of the agreement.

The students say they felt fully prepared for their adventures but that, in retrospect, nothing really prepares you for the tearful farewell to mum and dad, and being transported to a completely alien environment 36 hours later.

Nigel taught English and history to classes of 60. He also spent some time at Lords Meade college, a boarding school near Jinja that opened in 2002 for children whose parents have died of Aids. "The rooms that serve as laboratories during the day double up as dormitories for girls at night," he says. "But the pupils' enjoyment of learning something new and their sheer enthusiasm is, at times, overwhelming." Another Bristol pupil went with him and together they introduced their young charges to the delights of cricket and football. They also umpired volleyball - St James's rules, of course, with 20 players on each side of the net.

Sport also figured prominently in Bonnie and Kirsty's time at Rendcomb. "It wasn't easy being an Australian at a rugby-mad school," says Kirsty, "but I was able to teach the students the finer points of netball and hockey."

Bonnie, who combined her sporting prowess with a talent for drama, introduced a new "sport" to the college: theatre sports, an improvised, drama evening similar to Whose Line Is It Anyway? Bonnie's leaving present to the Rendcomb's students is a "luvvies' cup" to be presented to the winning team each year.

But there was more to the three students' gap years than their school placements. Nigel travelled across Uganda, getting to know the country and "feel its pulse - something I've never been able to do on accompanied school trips". Bonnie visited Stratford and Oxford, and even accepted an invitation from a Rendcomb family to act as "nanny" when they travelled to the United States. Kirsty backpacked in Europe with other Antipodeans during her long summer break, another essential feature of the "gapper's annual cycle".

In an exit interview with Bonnie before she left, she said: "This year has given me unprecedented opportunities, including the chance to co-direct the senior school play. If someone had told me last January that this would have been possible, I would have laughed at them." Similarly, Kirsty felt that, as a tutor in a boarding house, she'd been able to develop her pastoral skills. It also converted her to the idea that teaching might be for her. Nigel, who is now reading history at Birmingham University, says that after his gap year he no longer takes formal learning for granted. "My six months in Uganda have helped me to appreciate that learning is a privilege, not a God-ordained right."

What do I think? These three people embarked upon their year abroad as sixth-formers. By the end of their year, they had become young adults.

Gerry Holden is headmaster of Rendcomb college. Tutors Worldwide:

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