* About 100,000 young people take a year out between school and university
* Twenty per cent of them go to Australia
* But destinations in the UK and Europe have grown in popularity since September 11, 2001, the war in Iraq and the growing threat from terrorism
* Up to 1,000 organisations plan, organise, sell or help people put together gap year-type activities
* More girls than boys have 'structured' gap years - boys opt more for 'sun, sex and sangria'
Your weekly guide to a whole-school issue
Gap years have become a phenomenon. Their popularity has soared in the past three years, ever since Prince William left Eton and headed off to South America with a posse of hungry photographers in pursuit. His brother, Harry, has followed suit and is now having a gap year before joining the army. The idea of taking "time out" after leaving school is not new, but it is becoming increasingly widespread among young people, and more acceptable among parents, universities and employers. Where once the notion of taking a year off from study or work to see the world was derided as "dropping out" - a relic of the 1960s, suitable only for those with rebellious spirits - now it's positively encouraged as an important step on the ever-extending ladder of "personal development".
What is a gap year?
Ten or 20 years ago, students who didn't go straight from school to university were said to be taking a "year out"; now they are on a "gap year". According to Susan Griffith, author of Taking a Gap Year (see resources), the phrase originated among Oxford and Cambridge students.
Coming from public schools, they often took their school exams in December, eight or nine months before the university term began - a "gap" that was filled with travel.
Nowadays, although it's usually still used to refer to the time between A-levels and college, the phrase has gained much wider use. A "gap year" can be virtually any period taken away from education or employment. And it is no longer taken only by globe-hopping, party-seeking 18 and 19-year-olds, but by postgraduates, professionals on career breaks and sabbaticals, and couples with children who fancy trying a different culture for a while.
As Tom Griffiths, founder of www.gapyear.com, told the Guardian in 2002:
"Life is almost becoming a series of gap years. We come across those who are going before they have bought a property and dived into a long-term relationship, those who are settled and want to take off before they have kids, those who have had young kids and want to travel while they are still portable and amenable, those who have left home, and those who are retired.
In short, a gap year is now an option for anyone who wants one."
What do people do on gap years, and where?
Almost anything, and almost anywhere, from backpacking in Australia to teaching in China; from coaching football in the United States to working with street children in Brazil. You could work for industry in the UK, or cycle for a year through eastern Europe. Whether the aim is to study, work, volunteer or simply travel, there's probably a company or organisation to help you do it. Indeed, there are now up to 1,000 groups that plan, organise, sell, or help people put together gap year-type activities of some sort.
According to Susannah Hecht, editor of The Gap-Year Guidebook (see resources), 20 per cent of young gappers go to Australia, largely because it's English-speaking and has acquired a word-of-mouth kudos. It's also a gateway to more exotic places in south-east Asia. But there are gap year projects in most countries, including Britain. In fact, since September 11, 2001, the invasion of Iraq, and the growing threat from terrorism, an increasing proportion of young people are choosing to spend their year in Europe or the UK.
How many people take gap years?
It's estimated that about 100,000 people take a year out between school and university, although no one really knows the true figure, because no proper research has been carried out (the Department for Education and Skills recently commissioned the first official study). According to Ucas, the university admissions agency, 37,000 pupils formally deferred entry to university in 2002 (7.9 per cent of university applicants), a rise of more than 50 per cent since 1997, when there were 20,000 (6.2 per cent of applicants).
Richard Oliver, chairman and chief executive of the Year Out Group, an umbrella organisation of 32 gap year companies, suggests another 30,000 pupils wait until they've received their A-level results before deciding to defer, and a further 30,000 to 40,000 don't get the grades for their course and take a gap year by default.
But people also take a year out between university and employment, between jobs, as part of their "corporate training", after leaving school at 16, before starting further education, or simply to have a break. It's estimated that as many as 250,000 people a year take some form of time out.
Why are they doing it?
Taking time to travel, work or study between school and university has become more acceptable and more affordable, while the range of options has grown enormously. Increasing affluence, especially among young people, and cheaper travel, has made the world a smaller place. In addition, the pressure to do well in exams has grown and more young people feel the need to take a breather before going on to higher education. Kate Simpson of Newcastle University, who is researching a PhD on gap years, says the growth of the phenomenon is partly due to an emerging "gap year industry", a specialist branch of tourism that has marketed itself on the "very British" belief that travel is good for young people - an idea that goes back to colonial times, she says.
Who goes on gap years?
Traditionally, gap years have been the preserve of the middle classes, restricted to those who could afford to pay for air tickets and accommodation - or whose parents could. This is still partly true, as a high proportion of gappers are people heading to university, a group still overwhelmingly from the more affluent sectors of society.
But things are changing. The Year Out Group says 65 to 70 per cent of the 18,000 gappers it placed in 2002 came from the state sector, "a dramatic change in the past five to six years", says Mr Oliver. This is partly a result of the broadening appeal and availability of gap year activities, and because some organisations now provide their own bursaries for less well-off students. For example, Gap Activity Projects (GAP), one of the oldest charitable organisations in the sector, provides grants of between pound;200 and pound;1,000 to help teenagers take up its placements (which can cost between pound;1,500 and pound;2,000).
The Year Out Group also says more girls than boys take structured gap years, because they are better at planning and thinking ahead about what will benefit them. "Boys are more for sun, sex and sangria," says Mr Oliver.
What do universities say?
Most say students who've taken gap years are likely to be more mature, more self-reliant and independent, more sure about what they want to do, more likely to last the course, and more likely to have developed useful skills, whether formal ones such as languages, teaching or coaching, or informal ones such as experience of the adult world, or the ability to solve problems and think on their feet. They're also more likely to be fresh and focused than those who have come straight from the toils of GCSEs and A-levels.
But some subjects do not lend themselves to gap years. Some maths, physics and engineering departments, for example, believe students need to maintain continuous study. Similarly, pupils who already know they want to go into highly competitive careers, such as law, medicine or the media, are advised to spend their gap year acquiring skills or experience that is relevant to those jobs.
What about employers?
Many employers now regard a gap year as a positive addition to an applicant's CV. The experiences and skills gained, especially in a structured work, study or volunteering placement, can help a candidate stand out from others who have merely studied hard through school and university.
Communication, problem-solving, time management and thinking skills are highly valued in the workplace, and few pupils have time to gain those at school now the pressure to do well in exams is so high. Indeed, some employers now send graduate trainees for a year out as part of their training.
Is it ever a bad idea?
Some 18-year-olds may simply be too immature to leave the institutional securities of family and education. Some may be unable to afford it, although many young people now work first to raise funds. And some may be insufficiently clear about what they want to achieve in their time.
As the industry has grown, it has inevitably become more commercial, so distinguishing between companies that are simply making a profit and those that are more worthy and reputable is important. As Susan Griffith puts it:
"There is a lot of hype and starry-eyed prose about gap years."
So how should young people decide what to do?
"They should shop around for the organisation or programme they feel most comfortable with," says Ms Griffith. And have a specific goal, country or activity. If not, she says, they must decide what they don't want to do, the places they don't want to go, and the things they can't do; there's no point in volunteering if they need to make money, for example. They should contact every organisation that offers the activities and places they're interested in; talk to people who've gone before (most companies have contacts and there are lots on the internet); and use internet message boards. Twelve months is a long time - and sometimes it's 14 or 15 from the end of exams to the start of college term - so it's possible to do two or three things. Ideally, says Susannah Hecht, they should think about "learning something", such as a skill or language; "going somewhere" to experience a new culture; and "working", whether voluntary or paid.
Most importantly, they need to start researching when they apply for university and make a decision before they get their A-level results; not only will they get more choice but they will have more time to raise funds and prepare. Alternatively, some companies run a gap year clearing service, offering activities to students who decide to defer at the last minute.
What are the dangers?
Young people on gap years face the same risks as any young travellers. Most guidebooks and websites offer reams of advice about safety, insurance, money, cultural sensitivities, health, dangerous areas, and so on. But there are also specialist organisations, such as Knowledge Gap and the Objective Team (see resources), which run courses to prepare students for risky and unexpected situations. In general, going under the umbrella of a legitimate organisation or programme is safer than travelling independently.
The received wisdom is that everyone does: the young person who gets the experience; the host country that gets the young person's labour and skills; and the institutions that ultimately will take advantage of the skills and knowledge learned. However, Kate Simpson says the educational benefits of gap years are "hit or miss". Many programmes are more like tourism, she says, and don't engage with the history, culture and politics of the host community. Young people "experience what they expect to experience", she says, especially in developing countries, where projects can reinforce simplistic and stereotypical ideas. The best projects, she says, are those that have a long-term relationship with the host country, and where people from that community are involved in running them.
What can schools do?
Teachers can encourage young people to think about why they want to go somewhere, and to learn about that country before they go, says Ms Simpson.
They can help pupils identify questions to ask of the organisations, and encourage them not to see other countries in "easily definable, simplistic terms", but understand them as "diverse and different". Some companies, such as GAP, visit schools to give talks and provide literature, and some schools hold gap year fairs for pupils.
How will tuition fees affect gap years?
It remains to be seen, but some in the industry are worried that as the cost of university education rises, potential students - and their parents - will choose to save the funds that might otherwise have gone towards a gap year. The Year Out Group argues that school-leavers in 2005 who choose to take a gap year should be exempt from top-up fees, to be introduced in 2006, otherwise the numbers of gappers may fall dramatically that year, and the numbers intending to start university in autumn 2005 will rise by up to 60,000.
What about gap years for teachers?
Career breaks and sabbaticals are increasingly popular, especially among teachers. According to Richard Oliver, there are two "break points": the first between the ages of 29 and 35, when people are deciding whether they want to continue in their chosen career; and the second about 10 years later, when they decide they need a break. There's also a growing acceptance among employers that career breaks can contribute to professional development.
There are many teaching opportunities abroad, and many non-teaching options for people who have teaching skills. Research by the Institute of Education in 2002 found that 73 per cent of UK teachers who teach abroad with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) return to education in the UK, and often bring back a wide range of skills and understanding and a renewed enthusiasm for teaching.
VSO reports a 34 per cent increase in the number of education professionals it is sending overseas this year, although the demand for teachers is still not satisfied as developing countries struggle to meet the United Nations' Education for All development goal to give all children access to primary education by 2015. From this month, VSO is introducing one-year placements for UK primary teachers, and it recently published a guide for teachers considering a sabbatical.
Next week: School grounds
* The Year Out Group (www.yearoutgroup.org). All 32 member companies agree to a code of conduct and operating standards. Tel: 07980 395789, firstname.lastname@example.org.
* GAP (Gap Activity Projects. www.gap.org.uk). A not-for-profit organisation, specialising in voluntary work placements overseas for 17 to 20-year-olds. Does 900 school presentations a year. Bursary scheme available. Education liaison officer: Jane Turner, 0118 956 2918; email@example.com. General tel: 0118 959 4914; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Voluntary Services Overseas (www.vso.org.uk). New one-year scheme for primary teachers starts this month. Enquires, tel: 020 8780 7200.
* Knowledge Gap (www.kgap.co.uk). "Risk awareness" courses on Exmoor for young travellers run by former SAS soldier.
* The Objective Team (www.objective gapyear.com). Courses on preparing and planning, also run by ex-services personnel.
* i-to-i (www.i-to-i.com). Volunteer travel and TEFL training organisation based in Leeds, Denver and Ireland.
* www.gap-year.com. Information on hundreds of companies and opportunities, plus message boards and an email enquiry service to email@example.com.
* www.gapyear.com. Not to be confused with the above. Commercial site with advice on gap years and all things to do with independent travel, plus a gap year clearing section.
* www.teaching-abroad.co.uk. One of the oldest and largest gap year companies, specialising in arranging teaching placements. l www.gapwork.com. Special section for teachers and careers advisers.
Publishes careers pack and arranges school talks. Tel: 0113 274 0252; firstname.lastname@example.org.
* www.payaway.co.uk. Information on all kinds of work abroad and who can help you get it.
Books * The Gap-Year Guidebook 200304, edited by Susannah Hecht (John Catt Educational pound;11.95. Tel: 01728 663666).
* Taking a Gap Year, by Susan Griffith (www.vacationwork.co.uk. pound;11.95. Tel: 01865 241978).
* Taking a Career Break, by Joshua White (www.vacationwork.co.uk. pound;11.95).
* Before You Go: the ultimate guide to planning your gap year, by Tom Griffiths (Bloomsbury pound;7).
Government * Foreign Office Travel Advice Unit, tel: 020 7238 4503; www.fco.gov.uk.
For a full list of resources, see www.tes.co.uk