Mind the gap Researching school leaver aspirations

					               Mind the gap: Researching school leaver aspirations
                                        Dr Tom Stehlik
                  Centre for Research in Education Equity & Work (CREEW)
                                 University of South Australia

Introduction
This paper arose from the conjunction of a number of events which sparked my interest in the
phenomenon of the „gap year‟ – a period of time between the end of school and the beginning of
further studies in which young people engage in a variety of activities. The events included my own
daughter deferring university studies for a year in 2006 after completing school; a pilot study into the
aspirations of a group of Year 12 students at an independent school in South Australia in 2007; and
the results of a survey of commencing students at the University of South Australia in 2008 which
contributed some initial data that is presented and discussed.

A scan of the available literature on the „gap year‟ showed that there was a significant trend in
Australia and overseas of young people deferring formal study, but that the reasons for doing so were
quite varied, as were the activities undertaken. In addition, a sizeable industry has grown up around
the gap year concept and many organisations and businesses are exploiting the willingness of young
people to travel and undertake paid or voluntary work placements. I was also particularly interested to
find out if there was any research into the informal learning occurring during the gap year experience,
or evidence of any direct benefit on academic performance compared to school leavers who went
straight into university or other further education. The paper therefore addresses the following
questions:

    •   „The gap year‟ – what does it mean and how can it be defined, theorised and problematised?
    •   Why do school leavers delay transition into further education and what do they do instead?
    •   Is the „gap year‟ phenomenon increasing?
    •   Does a break between school and further education improve retention and academic
        performance?
    •   What implications might this have for recognising work experience and informal learning?

Definitions and trends
The UK Department for Education and Skills defines a gap year as:

        Any period of time between 3 and 24 months which an individual takes “out” of formal
        education, training or the workplace, and where the time out sits in the context of a longer
        career trajectory. (Heath, 2007)

This definition could include post-university, career and study breaks as well as pre-university gap
years, however this paper is concerned only with pre-university time out, and so will refer to the gap
year as a break from formal study after completing school with activities including various
combinations of paid and unpaid work, leisure and travel

Trends indicate that the gap year phenomenon is definitely increasing. In the UK, it has been found
that the number of students deferring study doubled in the 10 years from 1994 to 7.5% of all
applicants to university in 2004 (Heath, 2007). In the USA during the ten-year period to 2000, a six-
fold increase was measured in the number of young people volunteering for programs run by
AmeriCorps, the government‟s volunteer service programs for 18-24 year olds (Hoover, 2001). In
Australia in 1974 around 4% of students were deferring university for a year, and by 2004 findings
from a decade of studies of the first-year university experience in Australia found this figure had
increased to around 11% (Birch & Miller, 2007).
A survey of first-year students commencing courses in 2008 in the Division of Education, Arts &
Social Sciences at the University of South Australia, administered by the university‟s Marketing
Science Centre, ascertained their entry path by asking whether they had just completed Year 12; taken
a gap year last year or deferred; transferred from another institution; taken the Special Tertiary
Admissions Test (Mature age entry) or „other‟.

The total number responding to the option „Took a gap year last year / deferred‟ was 14%, or 266 of a
total of 1,897 responses. Of those, 69% were female and 31% male, a proportion that is consistent
with the literature which indicates that more females than males are taking a gap year (Birch &
Miller, 2007; Hurt, 2008). However the response to the „Other entry path‟ option accounted for 15%,
and indicates that a large number of commencing students had also experienced various forms of time
out from formal study, as a sample of text responses included “Used my 2003 Tertiary Entrance
Rank” and “Mature age entry”.

Interestingly, the Marketing Science Centre‟s analysis of the survey aggregates gap year students and
school leavers into one cohort, with the rationale that „gap year / deferred students are very similar to
those who did just finish Year 12‟ (Dawes, 2008, p.2). However this paper questions whether both
groups can be considered „school leavers‟, and suggests that a linear pathway straight from twelve
years of formal schooling into a further three or four years of full-time study is a different experience
from a pathway that is interrupted by time out, travel, work or other non-institutional activities. The
common pathway in primary teacher education for example, is for young people to go straight from
school into a four year teaching degree then back into schools to teach, without much life experience
outside of formal educational institutions.

This is shown in the following breakdown by school and discipline area of the responses to the
divisional first year survey where 7% of Education commencers had experienced a gap year
compared to 18% in Communication and International Studies:

                                   Gap year               Other entry path       Total responses

Communication                      18 %                   10%                    391
International studies              18%                    7%                     175
Architecture                       17%                    12%                    198
Psychology                         15%                    10%                    232
Australian / Indigenous Studies    14%                    20%                    344
Art                                10%                    17%                    121
Social Work                        8%                     17%                    175
Education                          7%                     35%                    295

2008 Survey of commencing students in Division of Education, Arts & Social Sciences at UniSA,
breakdown by schools

However, Education also shows the largest number of responses in the „Other entry path‟ category,
due to the number enrolled in graduate entry teaching programs which are required for secondary
teaching and are also popular with mature age students seeking a career change.

The trend for time out after school was also clearly shown in a pilot study undertaken with Year 12
students at a large independent Lutheran school located north of Adelaide South Australia, as part of a
project for the Association of Independent Schools to determine school leaver aspirations and trial a
process for tracking students and their post-school transitions (Stehlik, 2008).
The sample of 96 Year 12 students completed a written survey in October of their final school year to
determine their current subject choice and their plans for the following year, as well as other
information such as the amount of part-time paid or voluntary work they were undertaking. This was
followed up with two telephone surveys in March and October of the following year, to determine if
the cohort had achieved their Year 12 qualification (the South Australian Certificate of Education,
SACE), whether they were working, studying or taking time off, and if studying whether they had
gained entry to their preferred course. By tracking them through their first year out from school, the
aim was also to determine if their work or study patterns had changed between March and October.

The results showed that:

    •   100% had achieved their SACE
    •   50% were studying – of these 85% were at university, 15% at TAFE
    •   50% were not studying – almost half of these were having a gap year or had deferred study

Between the March and October surveys, the proportion between those studying or not stayed the
same, with a gap year at 44% remaining as the most frequent reason given for not studying in
October. Other reasons stated included:

        Waiting on God to tell me what to do
        Going overseas to work and study. Work as nanny and study as part of Visa

The first response is probably not at all facetious, given the strong religious ethos of Lutheran
Schools, and in fact around 18% of the respondents reported doing voluntary church, community and
youth work during Year 12. The second response, although listed under „Other‟ exactly describes the
kind of activity that many young people are undertaking in their gap year, as shown in the following
sample of responses to the year 12 survey question: ‘In your own words, briefly explain below what
you plan to do next year‟

    Defer studies and I plan to do a vintage at the beginning of next year then travel
    Either spend a year in a Japanese high school or start uni... I may also defer a year to do aid
    work or/and do TAFE/travel
    Either take a year off and travel or go to uni and study if I get into my course
    Get into a uni course, defer, work in town away from home
    I am leaving for NY in February to be an Au Pair with Cultural Care. I am applying for uni and
    might defer but not sure what I will do when I return
    I have been given a vintage job, then I intend to move to Byron Bay for 4-5 months. When that's
    finished then travel to Tuscany with family for Dad's vintage
    I plan to keep my job to earn some money for other training, mission trip (eg Philippines) and
    hopefully a car. That's my plan so far
    I would like to take a year off before continuing study to gain some industry knowledge and
    experience to hopefully become more attractive to employers when the time comes
    Plan to take a year off and find a job to earn some money
    Take a break from studies and travel, work and enjoy life
    Take a year off (unless I get an awesome uni course), do a vintage, earn enough money to receive
    government payout
The range of responses shows the choices that these young people are able to make in thinking about
their immediate future plans, literally in a global context. They also match the range of activities
normally undertaken in a gap year, ie paid or voluntary work, travel, cultural experiences, saving
money for study etc. However, the type of activities available (eg travel to Tuscany) also reinforce the
fact that this cohort came from a relatively advantaged socio-economic area and from a school that is
not necessarily prestigious, but still independent and exclusive in the sense of charging fees. The
economic realities of the gap year are taken up later in the paper, after a discussion of ways in which
the phenomenon can be problematised and theorised.

Problematising the gap year
The term „gap‟ is perhaps unfortunate as it implies something missing, ie a deficit view particularly in
relation to a study or career path. For example it is well known that a gap in one‟s CV is to be
avoided, and anecdotally it appears that people are prepared to fabricate something or gild the lily
rather than suggest they were not productive for a period of time. This is no doubt viewed differently
in different cultures, but:

        In our society [the US], people are suspicious of those who get off the train to success, even
        for a brief time. (Hoover, 2001)

In Australia, there is pressure on young people to be „learning or earning‟, with the South Australian
Strategic Plan for example aiming at a goal of 90% school retention by the year 2010. However, is
retention at school always desirable? Most educators would agree that engaging young people in
meaningful learning or work is preferable than simply staying at school, especially if TAFE or the
VET sector might better address their needs. There is also concern about dropping out of the system –
a „disconnect‟ from formal study that might never be re-connected.

Despite this, the gap year has not only become more popular as outlined above, but has also become
recognised and commodified to the point where a „gap-year industry‟ has emerged in response to
increasing demand from the large market of young people looking for post-school experiences before
„settling down‟ to study. There are hundreds of volunteer placement agencies, numerous websites,
guide books (eg The Lonely Planet Gap Year Book) and „time-off consultants‟ available to help
young people plan their gap year, often at significant cost (Hoover, 2001; Simpson, 2004). These
agencies and sites sell the gap year experience as an important aspect of career development, and
claims of benefits for participants include:
- acquiring „soft skills‟ needed in the modern world of work (eg communication, organisational,
team-working skills)
- self development and personal enrichment
- shaping social values and a sense of community spirit
- adapting better to university life, less likely to drop out
- becoming more attractive to employers, improving „employability‟ (Heath, 2007)

Although one can find anecdotal evidence and testimonials from gap year participants in the literature
to support these claims, they do not appear to be evidence-based or backed by any hard data, and
assume inter alia that soft skills are not acquired during schooling or tertiary study and that
qualifications alone will not prepare young people for the workplace. Furthermore, this view of the
gap year is based on the type of experience that has been termed „Voluntourism‟ (ABC Radio
National), where young people travel to a developing or third-world country and engage in voluntary
community work while experiencing the novelty of another country and culture which might „shape
their social values‟. This is seen as contributing to citizenship, social capital and development work,
and a perceived trend:

        In generations past, twenty-somethings would throw on a backpack and hit the beer and
        festival trail. Today‟s gap-year travellers are more socially and environmentally aware. (Hurt,
        2008, p19)
The need for some sort of „other‟ experience is reinforced by this statement from twenty year old
Hannah, who spent 5 weeks volunteering in Peru:

        I wanted to have a complete culture shock. I wanted to go somewhere very different. You
        don‟t get to experience a lot…in Adelaide…I just wanted to travel and see the world and do
        something meaningful. I‟m studying anthropology and it is almost impossible to study
        cultures when you‟ve never been anywhere. (Hurt, 2008, p19)

Regardless of whether there is no culture to study in Adelaide, or whether there is still a distinction
between studying „them‟ in anthropology compared with studying „us‟ in sociology, this kind of brief
voluntourist experience has been questioned as to whether it is really socially aware development
work, or just „seeing how the other half lives‟ and realising how lucky you are to live in a developed
country (Simpson, 2004). It‟s as though the experience has to occur in a poor country for it to be
valid, as marketed by voluntourist agency Travellers Worldwide on their website:

        It‟s a poor country, but rich in scenic splendour and cultural treasures. (Travellers
        Worldwide, 2003)

The salient questions that arise are: What do volunteer travellers learn about „the others‟ that can‟t be
learnt at home? Is this cultural imperialism? Does it actually take away from community and social
needs in so-called developed countries? In the UK, a government policy response has been to
introduce citizenship education in the National Schools Curriculum as well as financial incentives for
young people willing to volunteer locally (Heath, 2008), as there are many possibilities in the UK to
have a „complete culture shock‟ without going further than Manchester or Birmingham. In fact, Heath
suggests that if students remain in their home town and work in their gap year, this is „not as highly
rated as the experiences of students who can afford to volunteer or travel during their year out‟ (2008,
p 98).

This of course highlights another feature of the gap year – it is economically determined and limited
to those who can afford it, and generally an experience limited to those from socially advantaged
backgrounds. According to the literature, the gap year is associated with privilege – participants are
usually white, middle class, and there is a higher proportion of independent school students (Birch &
Miller, 2007; Cremin, 2007; Heath, 2008; Hurt, 2008).

        Gap years, often promoted by private schools, were more likely to be within reach of
        wealthier families. (Lane, 2008, p 23)

Some independent schools in the UK report over 60% of their students take a gap year (gapyear.com,
2001). In fact this brings into the discussion another aspect of the gap year – the way in which it is
being used to economic advantage.

Economic reasons for taking a gap year
A recent article in the national press in Australia was headlined: ‘Gaps show failings of Youth
Allowance’ (Australian, May 7, 2008, p 23). The Youth Allowance scheme administered by the
Commonwealth Government enables tertiary students to claim a living allowance while studying,
either on the basis of economic disadvantage (ie parents with low incomes) or on the basis of
qualifying for independent living status by earning a minimum income of $18,500 between school
and university. The article noted that the number of students qualifying as „independent‟ rose by
27.7% from 2001 – 2007, while the number of dependent students with low family income fell by
21.7% in the same period – that in fact independent students now exceed the number of dependents
for whom the scheme was established. Further, it seems that the system is being rorted by students
from affluent families:
        A postcode study of Sydney-based students receiving Youth Allowance while still at home
        showed that independents lived in the more affluent suburbs. (Lane, 2008)

However while it is acknowledged that the independent category provides a loophole, it also provides
one of the only opportunities for equitable access to tertiary education. For gap year students, it may
well be a choice between an enriching personal experience or an experience to become richer. My
own daughter‟s decision to spend time overseas during her gap year meant she did not spend enough
time earning and working to qualify for independent youth allowance; she is living at home, working
on weekends and we are supporting her. However, she thinks the trade-off was worth it, as some of
her school mates who went straight to university from school did not survive first year and have
dropped out.

UK figures show that around 25% students defer university to raise finances for the cost of further
study (gapyear.com, 2002), so there is definitely an economic reason for taking the gap year. In fact
some analysts would go so far as to say that:

        The gap is an enterprising one. The activity is related to the needs of capital. (Cremin, 2007)

This is no better exemplified than by the Australia Defence Forces, who have capitalised on the gap
year trend as a marketing and recruitment ploy, with „The Gap Year Challenge‟:

        ADF Gap Year is a new Australian Defence Force (ADF) program for students or recent
        school leavers. Individual programs run across the three Services of Navy, Army and Air
        Force and are designed to give you detailed insight into how the ADF operates. Think of it as
        a „try before you buy' taste of the ADF. (http://www.defencejobs.gov.au/education/gapYear/)

The fact that a 17 year old school leaver will earn „at least $30,000 per year‟ is a big selling point,
and buys in to the enterprising argument - a very attractive proposition to spend a year playing war
games while qualifying for independent Youth Allowance, with no requirement to actually join up
when finished. The ADF have also cleverly identified the possible educational benefits of a gap year,
by posing the question: „What do I learn?‟

        When undertaking Basic Training you'll be introduced to a variety of military equipment,
        learn general Service skills, eat the same food and use similar recreational facilities as our
        regular members. (http://www.defencejobs.gov.au/education/gapYear/)

This doesn‟t really sound like a deep learning process, but in those countries where military service is
still compulsory, eg Scandinavia for example, young people do in fact report the experience to be
character building and valuable. However, it appears that the ADF is not really concerned with the
possible learning in the Gap Year Challenge, but the fact that an 18 year old might get used to the
idea of earning money rather than being a starving student and stay in the (work)force.

Educational reasons for taking a gap year
As the gap year has been defined as „time out from formal study‟, what about any informal learning
that might take place during gap year experiences? This seems harder to quantify or even qualify,
although as mentioned above, it is claimed that „soft skills‟ are better learnt outside of formal study
programs or school in the „real world‟, ideally in another country or culture.

However it is also clear that in the post-industrial knowledge society there is not necessarily a
seamless pathway in a chronological sequence from School to Further Education to Work. Working
life is not only „beyond school‟ – according to ACER up to 70% of Australian high school students in
Years 10 -12 are in paid part-time work (ACER LSAY Research reports). This trend is reinforced by
the data from the independent school pilot study, which found that 56% of the cohort was working
part-time while completing Year 12. In fact, some were working two or even three jobs, up to fifteen
hours per week. The fact that all still managed to complete Year 12 means that young people are
already learning about managing the work-life balance well before finishing school.

However the job areas include the predictable ones for teenagers - retail, supermarket, waiting,
kitchen hand, farm hand etc. National data suggest there is little correlation between paid part-time
work at school and eventual work destinations (ACER), yet it is valuable for socialisation into the
world of work and for developing employability skills through authentic work experiences. In fact it
has been suggested that paid part-time work should be validated as not only vocational preparation
but as a recognised aspect of the senior secondary curriculum (Billet & Ovens, 2007).

There is also a disconnect in the experiences of senior secondary students who are often in positions
of adult responsibility at work, eg supervising staff, being responsible for stock, dealing with
customers etc, yet still being treated like „kids‟ at school. The gap year sits somewhere between
being a „schoolkid‟ and an „adult‟ and may provide a defining marker for this important transition
stage of a young person‟s life.

If the gap year provides a sort of safety valve between school and the serious business of vocational
study or work, and a process of „maturing‟ and putting things in perspective, should it be officially
validated as a recognised part of the post-school transition, or would this only serve to spoil the very
spirit of the gap year as „time-out‟ from institutional interference?

Finally, does a gap year or time out from formal study improve academic performance? Birch and
Miller (2007) in a study of academic performance in first year at the University of Western Australia
suggest the answer is „yes‟, with some limitations. These are that their research was limited to the first
year university experience and to one university, and that while there was across the board
improvement for females; with males there is a correlation with improved grades for those who were
lower achievers on entry to university (ie lower entry scores). However there is limited wider research
in this area, and even less on the informal learning and the development of those „soft skills‟ which
are harder to measure than university grades, despite the claim by some that „quite simply experience
complements education‟ (yearoutgroup).

However the kind of temporal and spatial disorientation caused by the voluntourism experience for
example may have a transformative learning effect and make an impression that is carried through to
formal studies, as in the student quoted above who „wanted to have a complete culture shock‟. There
is even the view that „ “Constructive time out” and “basking on a beach” are not a contradiction, they
show…that the subject is able to balance their work/life commitments‟ (Cremin, 2007).

My daughter noted that:
        Other experiences during the gap year help cope with uni, put things in perspective, give a
        wider world view, an idea of what employment means and how your studies can relate to a
        job not just in the abstract. It‟s different to just pocket money jobs, and reinforces the
        importance of qualifications and what sort of work not to end up doing forever. (Kelly, 2008)

However there appears to be no data that correlates gap year experiences with completion rates in
further or higher education courses, which is possibly a more useful indicator of success. The
conclusion is that a number of questions in relation to the gap year remain to be answered, and the
recommendation is that further research is undertaken to address them:

    •   Is time out from formal study a good idea?
    •   Should it be a recognised as part of the transition from school to work and/or higher
        education?
    •   If so how could it be more equitable - should it be funded or subsidised?
    •   Are some gap year activities and programs better than others?
    •   How could their effectiveness be measured?
References

ABC Radio National, Life matters, April 28, 2008

ACER, Longitudinal Studies of Australian Youth, http://www.acer.edu.au/lsay/research.html

ADF Gap Year, http://www.defencejobs.gov.au/education/gapYear/

Billett, S., & Ovens, C. 2007, „Learning about work, working life and post school options: Guiding
students' reflecting on paid part-time work‟, Journal of Education and Work, Vol 20, No 2, pp.75-90

Birch, Elisa Rose & Miller, Paul, 2007, „The characteristics of „Gap-Year‟ students and their tertiary
academic outcomes‟, The Economic Record, Vol 83, No 262, September, pp. 329-344

Cremin, Colin, 2007, „Living and really living: The gap year and the commodification of the
contingent‟, Ephemera, Vol 7, No 4, pp. 526-542

Dawes, John, 2008, Understanding commencing students in the Division of Education, Arts and
Social Sciences: Analysis of 2008 commencement surveys, University of South Australia

Gapyear.com, http://www.gapyear.com/

Heath, Sue, 2007, „Widening the gap: pre-university gap years and the economy of experience‟,
British Journal of Sociology of Education, Vol 28, No 1, pp. 89-103

Hoover, Eric, 2001, „More students decide that college can wait‟, Chronicle of Higher Education, Vol
48, No 2

Hurt, Jessica, 2008, „Backpackers off to save the world‟, The Advertiser, June 21, p. 19

Kelly, Eleanor, 2008, Personal communication

Lane, Bernard, 2008, „Gaps show failings of youth allowance‟, The Australian, May 7, p. 23

Simpson, Kate, 2004, „Doing development: The gap year, volunteer-tourists and a popular practice of
development‟, Journal of International Development, 16, pp. 681-692

Stehlik, 2008, Future Pathways - Aspirations and Destinations Study, Association of Independent
Schools SA

Travellers Worldwide, 2003, Make a Difference

Yearoutgroup, http://yearoutgroup.org/

				
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