Mind The Gap

This is not strictly a bookish subject, but it’s one I’ve been thinking about, partly because I’m planning to draw on my own gap-year experiences for my new novel.

For parents who spent their happy-go-lucky months between school and university working in wine bars and taking the Magic Bus to Greece, the rise of the gap-year industry is a baffling phenomenon. Though many companies have taken a battering from the prolonged economic winter and the rush to beat inflated university tuition fees, there are still scores of specialists in Britain competing to send teenagers out across the world. Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, the idea of a gap is finally catching on, with up to 8 per cent of students at Ivy League universities opting for one; while the newly created American Gap Association finds its feet, many are signing up with British organisations such as Projects Abroad and Global Vision International.

With schemes that offer instruction it’s relatively easy to see what you’re getting for your money. If your brain has any spare capacity after A-levels, you can spend eight weeks learning Spanish in Havana through Cactus Language for £2,296, or 12 weeks mugging up on Mandarin in Beijing through Cesa Languages Abroad for £5,718. (Prices tend to include accommodation but not flights.) More expensive still is Art History Abroad, which gives expert tuition to small groups in Italy; it’s highly recommended, but at £8,160 for a six-week course (including travel) it’s a major investment.

It’s when the words “community”, “volunteering” and “sponsorship” start to appear that things become more opaque. Anyone paying for the privilege of building a Guatemalan school beneath the baking sun is entitled to wonder where their money is going to. “A lot of companies are reluctant to tell you how the costs break down,” says Macca Sherifi of the advisory website gapyear.com, “but they will if you press them.”

Travellers Worldwide, whose monkey-rehabilitation programme in Argentina caught my eye (£1,795 for four weeks), were happy to send me a pie chart showing that 6% of this constituted their profit while the rest went towards running their operation and providing support for the volunteers. The Year Out Group, an association of established gap-year companies, stresses that a donation to the local community is not generally part of the deal: they’re being helped by your unpaid labour, and what you spend on food and accommodation.

But is the work you’re doing genuinely helpful? Responsibletravel.com recently announced that it was discontinuing ten volunteer programmes at orphanages, partly because the high turnover of helpers was unsettling for the children, and partly because many of the inmates had proved not to be orphans at all – their parents had simply handed them over so that they could benefit from a Western education. ‘The majority of volunteering placements are of an extremely high standard and are extremely beneficial to a community, says Macca Sherifi – but there are exceptions, generally in the form of firms run by locals who want to make a quick buck out of backpackers. Before signing up  you should insist on being put in touch with people who have recently returned.   

Even companies that follow the letter of the law may be little more than travel agencies with a fig-leaf of philanthropy. (The offer of a ‘cultural tour’ after your stint of work is often a giveaway.) If you want to cut out middlemen, Ecoteer will put you directly in touch with some communities, meaning that you could pay as little as £50 a week. You’ll have to organise the trip yourself, without professional back-up – but then, that’s exactly the kind of challenge that a gap year ought to involve: an experience which is handed to you on a plate is not going to make you more self-reliant.

The basic rule of packages is that the longer you stay, the better value for money you get, because the lion’s share of costs – such as training, administration, visas and insurance – are the same. Thus Oyster’s marine-conservation programme in Thailand costs £1,096 for two weeks or £1,496 for a month; working in a school, orphanages, medical centre or national park in Kenya through Outreach International costs £1,200 for one month or £2,100 for three.

Some gap-year schemes can be seen as financial investments, providing a qualification which will help you find jobs through university and beyond. The Tante Marie cookery school in Woking has a four-week certificate course costing £2,995; AllTracksAcademy offers a six-week course for would-be ski-instructors in Whistler from £4,950, and Flying Fish a ten-week dinghy-sailing and windsurfing equivalent in Greece for £5,990.

Many people, of course, cannot afford these prices. Voluntary Service Overseas caters for the less affluent through the International Citizen Service, encompassing countries such as Ghana and Bolivia: no contribution is necessary, though you are asked to try to raise at least £800. There are also scholarships available: Art History Abroad has one worth £3,400, while the Royal Geographical Society offers grants of up to £4,000. Paid work can be found through websites such as overseasjobcentre.co.uk.

 Some parents may be feeling rather envious by this point. If so, bear in mind that 160,000 career-breakers and “grey gappers” also set out each year. Hold that Magic Bus!