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British Students Take Time to Broaden Their Horizons in 'the Gap'

A year off between high school and university is increasingly seen as a desirable path to maturity.


LONDON — British students are proud of the gap in their education--the gap year, that is.

Concerned that the classroom has left them book smart but street unwise, growing numbers of high school graduates here are opting to take a year off from their formal studies to learn to make their way in the world.

Or around the world. They backpack in India, teach in Africa and travel Thailand in search of exotic and enriching adventures--often encountering unanticipated risks--before taking their places in universities back home.

This year, tens of thousands of Britons are expected to take a so-called gap year, among them 18-year-old Prince William, heir to the British throne, who will work on an as-yet-undisclosed "educational project," according to royal press officers, before entering the University of St. Andrews in 2001 to study art history.

"At university, you can really tell the difference between those who have taken a gap year and those that haven't," said Kate Arbuthnott, a student at St. Martin's School of Art in London who taught at a girls school in New Zealand for a year before college. "The people who have taken a gap year are much more experienced and responsible."

British universities are more than happy to reserve places for gap-year students. Rather than regarding the time off as a frivolous holiday, university officials tend to view students who have worked or traveled abroad as less pampered and more mature and, therefore, potentially better students in the long run.

Cambridge University says one in five of its students has taken a gap year before embarking on his or her studies. Administrators strongly encourage students to broaden their horizons before holing up in the library, although they say a gap year is not a factor in being accepted at Cambridge.

"The ones who take a gap year see it as a very positive experience. A lot of people who didn't take one wish they had," said Anne Newbold, administrative secretary for admissions at Cambridge.

At Oxford University, about 10% of students take a gap year, and the number is rising, according to Jane Minto, head of undergraduate admissions.

In 1998, nearly 22,000 British students deferred their university entrance--6.6% of those accepted--compared with about 14,500 four years earlier, according to the University and Colleges Admissions Service.

The number continues to rise, and organizations to help students plan a gap year say business is booming. When Reading-based GAP Activity Projects was founded in 1972, fewer than 30 people signed up. Today, the group helps more than 1,300 British students find work abroad during a gap year.

The basic ingredient of a gap year is total immersion in a foreign land. A hundred years ago, young Brits were dispatched across the globe as missionaries of British culture to the colonies; today, they leave Britain to be converted to a wider world view.

After backpacking through Australia and New Zealand during his gap year, Andrew Bartlett made his way to Fiji and Southeast Asia. He says he learned more about those cultures and new points of view than he ever could have sitting in a classroom.

"You start to vaguely understand that your system of government is not the only way that governments exist," Bartlett said.

Bartlett said he also learned to use his judgment and trust his instincts. On arriving in Bangkok, the Thai capital, he was approached at the airport by an Indian "student" wanting him to take a package of "books" out of the country for him. Bartlett recognized it as a drug scam and refused.

Such narrow escapes give some parents pause about the adventure-seeking of children who have had little experience in managing their own money, time and safety.

So do media accounts of tragedies on distant shores. Last month, British newspapers widely reported the slaying of a British student at a guest house in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Kirsty Jones checked into the $3-a-night hotel and never left. Her cries for help were ignored, and she was strangled to death by an unidentified assailant. Her parents, who were vacationing in Spain at the time, saw the news on their hotel television.

Jones' death followed a June 21 fire in a cut-rate hostel in Childers, Australia, that claimed the lives of 15 young backpackers, most of them British.

If physical perils aren't enough, psychological ones abound as well. A number of British gap-year students have been drawn into foreign cults, abandoning home and school altogether.

Arbuthnott says the gap-year experience stretches a student's limits.

"The first two weeks are the worst, and then after that you think, well, I'm here and I'm going to make the most of it," she said. "If you're sensible and you're not silly, it's really a great thing to do."

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