Kim Howells, the minister for lifelong learning, said he did not see the need for regulations that would put such companies into a straitjacket. He said: "The way forward lies in a voluntary code of self-regulation for organisations arranging gap year projects, but that has to be a genuine exercise in drawing up a code that has some teeth and that can be effective when organisations step out of line."
Dr Howells was responding to a debate initiated by Nick St Aubyn, Conservative MP for Guildford. He was told 20,000 to 30,000 school leavers who intend to go to university take a gap year. "However, an unknown number of school leavers, who may not be going to university nevertheless want the gap experience. They are being sent overseas without appropriate assessment, training or back-up, and thus run the risks which tragically led to the case involving Louise Woodward in the United States," said Mr St Aubyn.
He said a recent survey showed that more than 50 per cent of employers are more likely to choose a candidate who has had a gap year.
Mr St Aubyn proposes that the code should require companies to offer an assessment of a school leaver to ensure they are provided with suitable work or volunteer work. They should offer training, pastoral care especially if the placement is abroad, and debrief students on their return. The companies should also fully check the job offered.
He quoted the Project Trust which charges volunteers Pounds 3,500 for their year's experience abroad and Gap Activity which charges Pounds 1,500 for six months. He added that while there were 70 such businesses, the programmes were entirely unregulated.
Phil Willis, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said the introduction of tuition fees and abolition of the maintenance grant meant some students would need to take a job to raise money for their time at university. He said the Government should allow all students who take a gap year to have their fees paid at the level at which they would have entered higher education in the first place.
Dr Howells said the Government was committed to a national programme of citizen's service for young people, through a the millennium volunteers programme. He said the Government was sympathetic to encouraging volunteering overseas, but was still consulting on the issue.