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Solihull School

Solihull School

Taking a Gap Year

I’ve been meaning to put ‘pen to paper’ on this topic for some time and it’s the debate around taking a gap year between school and university, or between university and work, in order to do something out of the ordinary like working, travelling and volunteering in far off places around the globe.  Is it a good idea?

Thinking back to my own school days, I was in an incredible rush to leave school and get to university and then to leave university and get into investment banking in the City, which I was fortunate enough to achieve.  I then made a career switch into teaching Economics (via a PGCE and a brief interlude back at university) and due to finding myself in the right place at the right time, was fortunate to move up the teaching promotion ladder fairly quickly.  On becoming a Headmaster at 42 years old (and enjoying it very much, most of the time), I began to reflect on how some time out might have impacted negatively upon my career, quickly coming to the conclusion that the likelihood is that it would have made very little difference at all.  Or would it have made a positive difference?

Putting the whole gap year experience, finding oneself and broadening of horizons to one side for a moment, if I had become a Deputy Headmaster or a Headmaster a year or two later, particularly given the upwardly mobile retirement age, then the ‘setback’ feels quite insignificant in the grand scheme of things.   Indeed, looking ahead to my 50s, 60s and possibly 70s, a sabbatical, and there’s still time yet, may actually preserve my zest for the job longer than without one!  It is for these reasons that I have encouraged my own daughters to at least consider a gap year and is why I am writing on this particular topic.

So what did I miss out on by sprinting from school and university to a job, with a brief spell back at university?

Let’s be glum for a moment: gap years can be very expensive, you will be a year behind, they can be wasted and there is risk involved.

Before moving on to the advantages, let’s deal with these issues first.  The easy, dare I say lazy way to have a gap year is to pay a gap firm thousands of pounds to swim with dolphins on a tropical island.  However, this is not the only way to do it and it is possible is to plan trips independently and to work and travel at the same time.  As to being a year behind, does it really matter?  I suppose it’s a little like having a boyfriend or girlfriend at school who is in the year above or below.  This can seem very odd to others and not ‘the done thing’, but get into adulthood when partners are often several years in age apart and nobody gives it a second thought – it’s unimportant.  So, don’t worry about being 19 or 20 when starting university, there will more than likely be fellow students on your course in their 20s, 30s or 40s who are returning to education or changing their career.  With regard to wasting a gap year: the goal posts have shifted a lot with the advent of university fees, but if you do plan to have a gap year do your best to avoid working in your home town and use the time to get away and sample different cultures and lifestyles.  However, I do appreciate that working close to home and saving money for university is increasingly necessary, sadly.

Now, what about risk?  Of course there is some risk, but isn’t that true of most things in life? Risk can be minimised by careful planning and common sense. For example, I would never advocate travelling alone and some countries should be avoided at all costs.  There is a balance to be achieved between protecting our children from the ills of the world and preparing them for life beyond home and the school gates.  Attempting to infantilise teenagers and denying their maturity is a risk in itself.  

I once heard someone ask the question “Won’t taking a gap year break the learning habit and make it more difficult to get back into study?”  I couldn’t disagree more.  Schools should work hard to instil a passion for lifelong learning, in and out of the classroom and examination hall, and the maturity one gains through independence, travel, dealing with homesickness and experience is immeasurable.  It may be that you are not 100% sure of your intended university course and a year out may help you to make the decision between a History and Economics degree.  Those returning from a gap year are often told that ‘they’ve changed’, and they most certainly have and usually for the better.  Learning about ourselves, exploiting previously untapped potential, appreciating and understanding freedom and diversity, applying academic study to real world scenarios and meeting and interacting with rich and poor from all walks of life are all invaluable lessons and cannot be learned in school.   In addition, and depending on the nature of the gap year, it may help develop much needed linguistic skills and let’s face it; our nation is not renowned for its willingness and ability to learn other languages.

It’s a long time away, it can be costly (but not necessarily) and it can be stressful, but taking a gap year can be life changing: you’ll have lots of fun, see the most amazing things, come home with many stories and lots of new friends and contacts and it will increase your employability whilst looking great on your CV.  If I could relive my life again, I wouldn’t be in so much of a rush to grow up!