A close friend’s daughter spent her gap year teaching in a charity school for primary-age children in Mexico. “The children thought I had travelled there by donkey. I had done Spanish GCSE alongside my A-levels but I ended up teaching them Spanish as literacy levels were so low.” She lived with a local family. “Their plumbing was a bit down to earth but their generosity was amazing.”
Her younger brother spent his year teaching at a Church of England mission school in Zimbabwe. Afterwards he raised money to finance further education for pupils who have gone on to build successful careers. Another brother worked on a conservation project in Belize.
Each year some 50,000 young people do work placements abroad. Numbers have been growing since National Service ended in the late Fifties, as has the number of companies which organise gap years. One of the first was Lattitude Global Volunteering, founded in 1972.
“Rather than being an extended holiday our placements involve learning to take responsibility for others,” says Nick Adie of Lattitude Global Volunteering. “Young people should push themselves out of their comfort zones and do something productive with their time out.”
Lattitude’s programmes involve helping in schools, hospitals, care homes and conservation projects. They are not without dangers and difficulties. “I learnt how to deal with things myself and I am a much stronger person than I was before,” says one volunteer who taught at an Aboriginal school in Australia.
Callum Kennedy, director of BUNAC, which specialises in overseas work, says that competition for jobs is making work overseas placements more popular than ever.
“With unemployment at a very high rate, a work placement - particularly one that is relevant to a career - will add value to CVs, helping young people to stand out from the crowd in the job market.”
Using a gap year to learn another language at partner schools abroad is also considered a useful activity. This method offers total immersion, the most effective way to progress.
But while gap year organisations suggest skills acquired abroad will do wonders for your CV, how do universities and employers view it?
“A minority of gap year experiences are truly admirable,” says Robert Swannell, chairman of Marks & Spencer. “They require skill and determination, a sense of structure and of selflessness, for instance in such things as teaching in Third World countries.”
“That can be a useful, sensible way of spending an invaluable period,” says Giles Henderson, master of Pembroke College, Oxford. All three of Henderson’s children took a year out: his son, Simon, taught in South Africa, caught the teaching bug and is now headmaster of Bradfield College.
Robert Hingley, a senior adviser to the investment bank Lazard, explains: “In a shrinking job market, when you have 300 applications for every place, some 100 of them will be stunning but few will stand out. Almost all will have first-class degrees. Those who have taken an interesting gap year will have had the opportunity to progress beyond merely achieving things. At interview they may well come across as personalities. They will have grown up.”
But there are many companies selling risk-free excitement rather than the less comfortable virtues of service. “Often a gap year looks like a six-month jolly – and with a privileged person all the more so,” says Mr Swannell.
“Sometimes it looks like an extended holiday,” agrees Sir Michael Rake, chairman of BT. “A gap year carries no particular magic: employers look for technical skills and qualities of leadership, though time out may help you come across as a broader, more experienced person.” In a technical world like that of BT, with 7,500 applicants for 200 places on the BT Graduate Scheme, the gap year plays a relatively small part on your CV.
Mr Henderson reckons about 15 per cent of those going up to Pembroke College take a year out beforehand. Among these, there are distinct successes. But gap year plans have little effect on the admissions process and some science dons worry that successful candidates can forget some of the science and maths they knew when they came for interview. There’s a danger, too, that they will forget how to work.
A spokesman for Exeter University says: “We recognise that many students benefit from the experience of a gap year – whether it involves work experience, travel or employment.” He encourages applicants to explain in their Personal Statements “how their experiences will make them a better student in their subject of choice”.
Peter Frankopan, who teaches Byzantine and medieval history at Worcester College, Oxford, is cautious: “Gap year applicants can look like the finished product on paper, particularly if they come from the independent sector, but often the gap year is the latest of a string of achievements and activities undertaken to meet the expectations of teachers and parents. Part of the problem is that gap years have become professionalised: preset itineraries, trusted partners and “safe” locations might put parents’ minds at rest, but they also prevent the umbilical cord being cut.
“A gap year works if you leave home with an open mind and go off to find out more about the world – in other words, to grow up. But I’d much rather find that someone has done something genuinely useful,” says Mr Frankopan. Shouldn’t all 19 year-olds who can afford to take a gap year learn how to change a flat tyre, rewire a plug or cook a three-course meal? Or arrive at university with a command of one, or ideally two foreign languages?”
Foreign languages really do look good on a CV – in this country, at least.