The gap year: Good idea or bad?

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There’s been much discussion in my household recently about a rather random subject: Is there value in young people taking a gap year before going into further or higher education?

Gap year photo
Mind the gap: Is a gap year a good idea…or something to be discouraged? (Pic credit: Suad Karmadeen on Unsplash)

Our eldest child, Helen, while only 13, has been asking probing questions about what she should do when she leaves school. Mrs Adams and I know this will come around very quickly so we’re open to having these conversations now.

We’ve come to the conclusion a gap year might be a good thing. There are a few years to go and everything could change in the meantime, but I think it’s an excellent idea and not something to be feared.

When I completed my A-Levels, the idea you should take a year out was discouraged by education advisers. The fear was that if you took one year out, you may never return. The concept of lifelong learning didn’t really seem to exist.

Once you left education, the doors would be shut and bolted and steel window shutters would come down. Your only option might be to do an access course at the local further education college or study with the Open University, getting up at 5am to watch men with beards and polyester trousers deliver lectures on BBC2.  

I took a gamble and decided to have a gap year after my A-Levels. My mother and stepfather were not impressed by this decision. In fairness to them, I had accepted a place at a university in the Midlands to study a four-year long degree…but made the decision not to go just a few weeks before the course started.

In those circumstances, I think any parent would be justified in feeling a touch annoyed. In my case it created quite the hullabaloo and so I took the decision to leave home.

To cut a long story short, my ‘year out’ turned into four years. I did dead end jobs, I travelled overseas and I grew up (just a little bit). I eventually returned to the family home with my tail between my legs and decided to study a Higher National Diploma (HND) in my early twenties.

By the time I decided to return to education, I wasn’t interested in studying for a degree. As I was already in my twenties (so young!) my peers were a few years ahead of me. I wanted to qualify and get into the workplace as soon as humanly possible. An HND was two years of study at a similar level to a degree. It suited my life choices at the time and that qualification served me supremely well for the next couple of decades.   

I had no desire to return to the dead end jobs I previously had so I was a very committed student. I went out of my way to get industry experience while I studied and walked out of college and straight into a job (in fact I had two job offers).

Interestingly, my wife also took a gap year…that lasted for a decade. Like me, when she returned to education she was focused and engaged. On completion of her studies she walked straight into employment with a very prestigious organisation. I do wonder if this is why we’re a family with liberal views of the gap year: Both mum and dad went down this route and bounced back from the experience.

When I dropped the bombshell to my parents that I wasn’t going to university, they were concerned I was going to drift and would be a slacker. It was a very natural concern and to be honest, that’s exactly what I did for a couple of years.

That said, the mentality was very different back then. As I’ve said, a gap year was seen as the road out of education. In reality, that time in the workforce dodging the career ladder was giving me a very valuable life lesson and the time I spent travelling gave me the opportunity to have fun and experience other cultures.

It all worked out in the end. Some people just need time to find their direction. I eventually found my feet, gained a superb qualification and had a great career in the media, one that continues to the present day with this blog.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know I have just returned to higher education. For the second time in my life I am a mature student, this time around I am planning to qualify with a degree, but only because the time is right. I am planning a major career change, one that requires me to be a graduate, and so that’s what I’m working towards. Again, I know what I want to do and I know what I’ve got to do to achieve it and I am incredibly focused on achieving that goal. I know the drop-out rate for mature students is higher, but those who stay the course are often very committed.

Added to this, the education system has changed. It’s been opened up to market forces. This isn’t without its controversies and there are perfectly justified questions to be asked about a higher education system driven by profit. Nonetheless, universities and colleges are much more flexible than they once were. Courses often have several start dates so you’re not beholden to studies starting in September. Degrees and qualifications can be studied part time or even studied at greater speed. You can study remotely and courses can be financed a number of different ways. Basically, there are more opportunities for the aspiring student and lifelong learning is a concept that is much more readily recognised.  

The days when the doors were locked and the shutters came down if you left education at the age of 18 are long gone. That is a good thing. It also means there is less to fear if you want to take a year out from education because it’s easier to return to study.

The gap year? It doesn’t suit every student or everyone’s circumstances, but personally, I’m all for it. In fact, I’d encourage my kids to take a year out before starting higher education.

Sure, I’d want to sit down and establish what they wanted to do: Work, travel, do voluntary work etc. but I wouldn’t stop them. I think taking a break from study can make you a better student. It can give you greater focus as you have a little maturity and life experience and a better idea of what you want to study and why.

Did you take a gap year? How would you respond if your children said they wanted to take time out before doing a degree or some other qualification? Would you be happy or do you think it is a bad idea?

2 thoughts on “The gap year: Good idea or bad?”

  1. We’ll, you know my stance on University John. We both agree 18 is too young to be going at life alone.

    However, although my daughter has chose to go to university, part of me wishes she would take a gap year. Without going into too much detail, she can’t even do her own laundry. I do think a gap year would help with certain life skills. Utilising the year to prepare themselves for independence, maybe find their own accommodation and get those important independent skills.

    Schools /colleges don’t seem to teach basic skills, it’s all academia. It’s all well and good being a genius in mathematics, but if you can’t boil an egg or use a washing machine, what’s the point!?

  2. I think a gap year could be a good idea, it allows the sense of freedom and like you John to grow up a little. We are miles away from these discussions with our girls but I wouldn’t deny them of the choice.

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