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House of Commons

Wednesday 1 July 1998

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Gap Year Students

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Dowd.]

9.34 am

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): I am grateful for the opportunity to debate gap year students. One of the great advantages of being a Member of Parliament is that one can occasionally highlight an issue that is not always in the public mind, and this is certainly one such issue. I congratulate those hon. Members who have survived the tribulations of last night on making it here this morning in one piece. I hope that we can score a few goals on behalf of students, but that is in the hands of the Minister.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Dr. Kim Howells): I am a rugby player.

Mr. St. Aubyn: That sounds ominous. Perhaps the hand of Government will be as effective as the hand of God was on another occasion.

First, I shall define gap year students. This month, if their A-level results are good enough, many students will make plans to go on to the university of their choice in the autumn. Every year, some school leavers decide to take a year out from their education programme to widen their experience and find out more about the world. Those are predominantly gap year students.

I have tried hard to get exact figures on the number of such students, but there are little data in this area. Most estimates show that 20,000 to 30,000 school leavers who intend to go to university take a gap year. However, as I shall show, a greater number may fall into that category. We should also consider students who enter university and meet students who took a gap year. They may put a gap year in their plans between leaving university and starting a full-time career.

I should declare an interest because I was a gap year student a few years ago. It was a tremendous experience, thanks to the organisation Project Trust. It was first in the field, following the decision by Voluntary Service Overseas to concentrate only on graduates. The trust started 30 years ago, and has developed programmes throughout the world specifically to enable school leavers to spend nine months to a year on structured projects that they had identified. In those 30 years, the trust has sent more than 4,000 school leavers abroad, and it has had great success. Those who go abroad for a year take on a big commitment, and the success rate says a great deal for the assessment, back-up, training and knowledge that the trust has developed.

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One way in which gap year students gain experience is by self-selection. Perhaps that is why relatively few examples of poor experiences by gap year students come to light in the media. For students, it is a self-selecting experience, because the Project Trust base is on the island of Coll: applicants have to go from Glasgow to Oban to catch the island ferry early in the morning. If my memory is correct, it leaves before 7 o'clock. Anyone who faces those rigours must be willing to spend a year abroad.

The image of gap year students has perhaps limited the number who come forward. When I was applying for a project, I had in mind working on a sheep farm in Australia, on a ranch in South America with racehorses, or some such idea that one has at that stage. It was only when I was on the training and induction programme that I became interested in doing volunteer work, and I ended up as a care worker in a children's home.

In many ways, that was a life-determining opportunity for me. The striking fact--as the evidence of the Project Trust and other organisations suggests--is that that experience, if it is well structured and successful, does make a difference to the rest of volunteers' lives. Therefore, although we may be talking about only a small proportion of school leavers--the Universities and Colleges Admission Service estimates that only 6 per cent. of university applicants currently decide to take a gap year--the ones who do stand to benefit tremendously if the experience is right.

The other factor to bear in mind is that the nature of students taking gap year opportunities has changed. Seventy per cent. of the Project Trust's volunteers come from the state sector, and only 30 per cent. from the independent sector. The idea of the year off as the rich kid's luxury has gone. It is an opportunity that is and should remain open to all school leavers. However, there are problems.

The grandfather of overseas volunteering is Voluntary Service Overseas. Earlier this year, it reported that the number of its projects has had to be reduced by 10 per cent. because of a fall in applications. It sends about 2,000 people abroad on projects. That is at a time when, in the United States, with a $50 million grant from the United States Government, the number of Peace Corps volunteers--Peace Corps is a programme that was directly inspired by the example of VSO--has doubled to 10,000 a year.

There is other evidence that there has been a change in attitudes in our country, which we must do something to address. There is evidence that the number of people aged between 18 and 24 who are involved in any volunteering activity in this country has fallen in recent years. In 1991, 55 per cent. of those in that age group were involved in volunteering. Last year, that fell to 43 per cent., a drop of 1.4 million volunteers.

The new Government came to power promising the giving age, but for that age group it has become the taking age. One of the most worrying aspects of the current situation is the great increase in the burden on 18 to 24-year-olds implied by the Government's new proposals for tuition fees and for taking away the maintenance grant. I have seen correspondence between the Minister and some of the organisations in this sector making the case that those from less well-off backgrounds will not have to pay tuition fees, but, as we all know, that is only part of the package. The other part is that the maintenance grant

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will be abolished, so, when they leave university, those from less well-off backgrounds will find that the debt on their shoulders will be higher than the debt of those from well-off backgrounds.

Therefore, across the board, members of that important, in many ways idealistic, age group who may want to take part in community activities, will find that the burden imposed by the Government deters them. Instead of spending a year doing voluntary activity, whether in this country or abroad, they feel that they must spend that time building their savings to help them to pay for their tuition at university.

That has clear consequences. One is that, if school leavers want to enjoy the benefits of a gap year, it is now more important than ever that they do so in a structured way, through an organisation that provides a well-founded experience. Not only will that be their best chance of ensuring that they gain the most from that experience, but, when they come on to the job market, it will be a plus with their prospective employers.

A recent survey showed that more than 50 per cent. of employers are more likely to choose a candidate who has had gap year experience; I am grateful to The Guardian of 12 August for that survey. Community Service Volunteers--the domestic equivalent of VSO--which in any year has 1,200 volunteers on its programmes, has done its own survey, which found that more than 50 per cent. of human resource directors in companies it questioned would prefer to take on an employee who had been involved in voluntary work, compared with one who had just been on a backpacking holiday of their own design.

Therefore, it is important that those programmes have a structure. There are five key issues that students and potential students should be looking for when they go on a programme. First, they should be on a programme that provides for assessment of the school leaver. That assessment will guide the school leaver into the right sort of project to suit them.

Secondly, a well-grounded programme will ensure that the projects to which the school leavers go have a correct and well-prepared specification. Thirdly, the organisation will provide sufficient training for school leavers, so that, when they go on their project, they genuinely deliver benefits to their host country and to the charity or school where they may be working, rather than becoming involved in an experience that may, for want of a better word, be nothing more than aid tourism.

Fourthly, when school leavers are on a project, that will be their first experience of being away from home for an extended period. It is important that pastoral care is available to school leavers in the country where they work. Again, the organisation should not only be able to show that it provides pastoral care, but, if the political situation becomes threatening--in many of these countries, there is often political instability--it should be aware of that and able to take school leavers out of a country as a last resort, in good time and with minimum fuss.

Lastly--in many ways, this is almost as important as all the rest--there should be proper debriefing for school leavers when they return home. There is an element of culture shock in going abroad. There is more than an element of reverse culture shock when school leavers come back to this country, particularly if they have been on a posting lasting between six months and a year.

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That is why the cost of the best programmes is not cheap. Project Trust charges its volunteers £3,500 for their year's experience abroad. Gap Activity, which has been going for 25 years, is another well-established provider in the sector; it sends around 1,200 school leavers abroad a year and charges, all told, about £1,500 typically for a six-month experience abroad. Those figures sound high, but, in the case of those organisations and the other better organisations in the sector, that money is raised through sponsorship.

The organisations not only help school leavers to find sponsors, but give them some training in how to win sponsorship. The training is a part of the programmes' development of the individual, from which school leavers benefit. School leavers are successful, and achieve their sponsorship. Moreover, major British companies greatly value the results produced by the programmes, which provide volunteers with a leadership development programme as they are maturing as individuals. The required money is therefore forthcoming.

As the numbers of those going into higher education increases, and as awareness of the gap year experience and opportunity have grown, so organisations offering programmes have proliferated. It is estimated that more than 70 organisations now offer some gap year experience. However, the programmes are entirely unregulated. I shall deal with that point in more detail later.

I came across one company, for example, that employs in the United Kingdom only eight staff, who are responsible each year for almost 800 postings, lasting less than three months, for which they charge a total of about £2,000. Such programmes clearly do not provide the same value for money as those provided by the other, good organisations that I have mentioned.

The worst organisations do not provide training, or even an assessment of the school leaver and his or her suitability for a post. The image of the United Kingdom in countries where gap year students are sent will be tarnished if they show up for a few months, do not know why they are there, and perhaps return to the United Kingdom confused in their own minds, whereas people in the country involved simply think, "That's just another aid tourist who has been through our patch." That is not the image we want to project abroad.

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