HC Deb 10 May 2000 vol 349 cc221-41WH 10.59 am
Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

It gives me tremendous pleasure to start this debate. Often, in the House, we are accused of talking a lot and getting little done, because we are into adversarial politics. Today's debate is different: it marks an important event that has arisen from an Adjournment debate that took place nearly two years ago. Today sees the launch of the Year Out Group, which will promote a structured year out for school leavers before they go to university or start a job, and for those who choose to take the year out between university and a job.

In setting up the Year Out Group, we have had assistance from the Department for Education and Employment, including from the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge). We have also had support from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, which plays an important role in the decisions of school leavers. The purpose of our group is to encourage more school leavers to defer for a year their entry to university, or their commencement of whatever they choose to do with their lives. A year out can be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for people's personal development; it can enable them to contribute to society and help to ensure that they set the right course for the following few years.

Following our Adjournment debate, I formed a working party of the seven leading organisations that I could identify working in the sector. The advice and knowledge that they made available brought in others, and the Year Out Group now comprises 20 bodies, including voluntary organisations that offer work opportunities, principally overseas; organisations that offer teaching opportunities overseas and in this country; and organisations that enable self-development through adventure programmes, such as treks across the Sahara.

Eighteen-year-olds and 19-year-olds face a range of options when they leave school; different ones are appropriate to different individuals, but, in the end, the individual must choose. That is why the focus of our debate two years ago was on the need for guidelines. The sector is burgeoning: in the past two years, the number of organisations offering a year-out experience to school leavers has grown by 50 per cent., to nearly 200. However, little guidance has been available that might encourage and steer students, helped by their families and teachers, to make the right choices.

I want to make a distinction between those who take an unplanned year out and those who take a planned and structured one. We are talking not about years off, but about year-out programmes devised by organisations that are committed to providing the best once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for students and young people. After its launch, the Year Out Group will be open to other organisations that meet its criteria and aspire to its six aims.

The group's first aim is to promote the concept of the year out, about which I shall say more in a moment. The second is to provide accurate information that will become a focal point for those who want to find out about the different organisations and the range of opportunities available to school leavers.

Thirdly, it is increasingly evident that a quality framework should be applied to the provision of year-out opportunities; until recently, the sector has been self-regulating. The Year Out Group has not yet provided such a framework: its focus has been on providing guidelines to help people to choose between the many organisations that are available-I shall give examples of some of the very good organisations that are not yet members of the group later. However, people should know what they are looking for, and our group aims to provide a quality framework.

Fourthly, there was until recently a sense of rugged individualism about organisations in the sector-an attitude that may, to some extent, have been spawned by the nature of the people who set them up. The Year Out Group has proved that those working in the sector can co-operate and that their organisations have a mutual interest in working together. Fifthly, it was made clear on several occasions during the past few years that the Government and major organisations had not caught up with developments in the sector. There was a need for a voice to speak collectively for year-out organisations. To achieve that, the group's sixth aim is to represent the whole sector equally and impartially.

I have described the group's aims, which are very ambitious. The group has clearly set out what type of organisation should belong to it: it wants to attract organisations whose principal activities include the provision of high-quality, structured programmes in the United Kingdom or overseas for young people who take time out. Such programmes include cultural exchanges, educational courses, expeditions, volunteer work and structured work placements, but exclude ordinary paid employment and the au pair scheme. In addition, members of the Year Out Group should be required to aspire to all of its aims.

The sector is about to achieve an important landmark. So far, its main achievement has been to agree guidelines to which all of its members can sign up. Today, the Minister will today launch those guidelines—we are grateful for her support—and, at the same time, the Year Out Group's website will be launched. It should be available online this morning at www.yearoutgroup.org. The website contains guidelines which are also available in a leaflet that will be sent to schools around the country and can also be obtained from participating organisations.

Students who are considering taking a year out should first look long and hard at the way in which they will be selected: they should establish what sort of person the organisation wants, and whether they will be properly assessed. It is no good ending up on a project on the other side of the world if one is simply not suited to it, or if one has been insufficiently trained and prepared.

Secondly, it is a good idea to establish who will benefit from the activity. A prime purpose of a year out must be that students themselves will benefit, and the best organisations do all they can to ensure that, at the end of the programme, participants feel that they have made a real contribution to the scheme, project or programme with which they have been involved.

To achieve that, the third thing that students need to examine is precisely how they will spend their time. It is no good going on a programme to an exciting and exotic country if too much time is spent performing menial tasks that do not exploit the potential that even 18 or 19 year-olds have to offer. Tapping that potential not only helps their self-development, but contributes to the development of the place in which they work.

Finally, with such a wide range of organisations—around 200—offering so many opportunities, students must look at the cost of the programme that they intend to go on, at any hidden extras and at the organisation itself. The group felt that it was worth emphasising the importance of the arrangements made before students set out on a programme, for example, they should ask who is responsible for getting them to the site of their designated programme.

Young people should also look at safety procedures and at the support that they will receive in the field. It may be the first time that some of them have left home for an extended period; for such people, an element of pastoral care adds a great deal of value to the programme, and they may wish to ensure that the organisation that they are going with can provide that. Others will welcome the chance to break away from parental ties, considering that they are old enough to look after themselves. Again, it is the student's choice, in consultation with family and school.

Last, but not least, and especially relevant to those who go on a longer placement lasting six months to a year, is the question of readjustment when they come back and start on their university course or long-term career. It is important that the right debriefing arrangements are in place. To have an extended period away from home can be an exciting and exhilarating experience, but students need to land on their feet and readjust to the world of home or work, or to the academic world that many of them intend to enter next.

It is a credit to the success of many organisations today that the attitude of universities to a year out has changed significantly. For a long time, a gap year between school and university was regarded as a bolt-on extra for middle-class kids who could afford it and who spent their time enjoying themselves. Their tutors hoped that, when they went up to university, they would remember enough of what they had learned at school and would have enough commitment to get through the course. Far be it from me to suggest that that applies to any Member of Parliament, although in the two debates that I have attended on this subject, I have learned that many hon. Members took advantage of a gap year.

More seriously, we now recognise that students who take structured and planned time out before they go to university are better equipped to focus on their course; they have the social skills needed to engage with other students, and they acclimatise well to an environment that is extremely difficult from what they have been used to at school. Indeed, a survey undertaken by the Year Out Group in February this year found that, although all universities noted a higher pre-course drop-out rate among students who take a year out, there is a great deal of evidence suggesting that students who have taken a year out and remain committed to their course have a much lower drop-out rate. The extra year to think about the course that they intend to follow makes it more likely that the majority who take up their place at university will complete it successfully. In the modern world, in which students have to pay so much of the cost of their course, it is important that they go up to university confident that they have made the right decision.

We asked the vice-chancellors of the 50 leading universities in a survey whether they agreed that a structured year out benefits the personal development of a typical undergraduate: 93 per cent. of those who responded—almost all did—agreed with that statement. As a member of the Select Committee on Education and Employment, I have had many opportunities to ask vice-chancellors for their views on the year out, and I have found near unanimity in their endorsement of the benefits of a planned year out. Last September, the Committee took evidence from UCAS, and I asked Mr. Tony Higgins, the head of UCAS, whether the drop-out rate among those who had taken a year out was higher than among the university population as a whole. He replied: No, the evidence is to the contrary…these are people who are going for their places when they are a little bit older, a bit more experienced and they have done what they really want to do. UCAS has also stated: Voluntary work is almost certainly worth an A-level grade or two in college selectors' eyes. Of course, the Year out Group is not only concerned with voluntary work, although that is an important dimension of the whole sector.

There has clearly been a change in attitude. Last year, 50,000 of those going up to university—that is 16 per cent. of those placed on university courses—did not have a place set aside for them before they took their A-level examinations. It would be preferable if as many such students as possible planned to defer their entry rather than, for example, on finding that their A-level results were better than expected, ringing UCAS—or, increasingly, contacting it through its website—to find out at a late stage what university opportunities were available.

A change in universities' attitude opens up a new dimension—a way ahead. The concept of widening access by taking advantage of the year out needs to be promoted. Many children from less well-off backgrounds have not even heard of taking a year out. As a member of the Education and Employment Committee, I visit many secondary schools; a typical comment from head teachers at such schools is that the children there would not appreciate or be able to cope with going abroad for an extended period. That is not nearly ambitious enough for those children. I am sure that, with the right support and development, most could make a great success of a year out.

Changes in attitude have led to Voluntary Service Overseas beginning, in a modest way, to take school leavers from disadvantaged backgrounds and put them in year-out programmes with support from the Department for International Development. At this stage, the programme is very small, involving only a handful of students—fewer than 50 or 100 a year—but it demonstrates the potential.

The YMCA in my constituency, Guildford, is involved in a project in Sri Lanka. It sends people from less well-off backgrounds out there for up to a year to assist in a home. In addition, that YMCA branch, along with others, has gap-year opportunities within its organisation, enabling those taking a year out to help to run its hostels. In addition, people who have problems can be helped by having someone of their own age to help them deal with them and set them on the road ahead. The Prince's Trust is also beginning to play a much bigger role in this field.

Enabling school leavers from less well-off backgrounds to maximise such opportunities raises the issue of funding. Many of the organisations that are part of our group help students to raise money. Some are charities and have long experience of helping those whom they sponsor to obtain additional sponsorship from the private sector; many large companies have an outstanding record of supporting students on year-out programmes. In the long term, however, an element of funding from Government sources is bound to be necessary if the year out is to become a fully recognised part of the strategy for widening access.

How will children benefit? First, those coming from families that are not accustomed to their children going to university will find it much easier to justify that important decision to those around them if they already have their qualifications under their arm before going to university. Secondly, during their year out, they will, no doubt, want to save up some money to help them on their way when they reach university. It is important that they do not do that by taking a job in McDonald's and spending a year as a workhorse: they should spend time doing work—perhaps teaching or social work—that enables them to achieve more in terms of personal development and gives them a certain amount of personal responsibility. The evidence shows that, when they go up to university, they will have a great deal more to offer and better social skills, and so will be able to make the best and most successful use of their chosen course of study.

The most important point is that children are undertaking post-qualification entry to courses. I am a great believer in post-qualification entry, and increasing numbers of universities share that view. For example, Surrey university, which is in my constituency, has told me that a move to a 100 per cent. post-A-level entry scheme would improve student choice and therefore retention, as well as reducing admission costs, tensions, and errors. Of course, that view is not universal—a significant number of universities are opposed to students on certain kinds of courses breaking their periods of study with a year out. However, there is a growing will for change. The length of the timetable proposed by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals for developing post-qualification entry disappointed many in the university world.

There is a case for saying that a target number of school leavers should be positively encouraged to take a year out, and that support for them to do so should be made available. The arrival of the Year Out Group, with its agenda of guidelines and a quality framework, will make such a policy shift much easier to achieve.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

I do not disagree with the merits of the year out, as explained by the hon. Gentleman in his fascinating presentation. However, post-qualification application for university could also be achieved by reforming the A-level System so that is more like the American system, which bases university applications on grade point averages, instead of all-or-nothing A-levels at the end of the sixth form. That would also achieve the hon. Gentleman's aims. Would he consider it, regardless of the merits of the year out?

Mr. St. Aubyn

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and hope that we shall hear more of his thoughts in the debate. Clearly, there are alternatives to A-levels. However, the point is that a break between school and university is a valuable addition to the development of individuals. It also gets around one of the key concerns about A-levels, without undermining their status as the gold standard of academic achievement. There may be students for whom an American-style gradation system is appropriate, but I should point out that a four-year course—not a three-year course—is the norm in the United States; and only by the end of their first university year have students attained in their chosen subject the same level of ability and knowledge that is attained by many A-level students in this country.

I move from the funding issue to the quality framework agenda. As I said, the Year Out Group aspires to build such a framework. We recognise that some very good organisations are not part of the group, and we hope that they will join in due course. We are not saying that those who form part of the group have adhered to a quality framework, although they were required to answer questions based on the guidelines that we are promoting today. Nevertheless, such a framework is a precondition for significant Government funding, and it would have to tackle the difficult question of health and safety.

Firms in this country know that health and safety issues can create difficulties. In respect of school leavers, particularly those on programmes abroad, such issues create major challenges for organisations. However, all those who have left school are at greater risk than when at school: they are safer in the school environment and in the protection of their families than when they first go out into the world and stand on their own two feet. We must accept that, at that point in our lives, we are all a little more at risk, so we should not overplay the occasional tragedy of the school leaver who has an accident overseas. Sad as such incidents are, they frequently involve those who chose not to go through an organisation and instead took a risk on their own. However, it is clear that, if we are to deliver a quality framework, the health and safety issue must be examined and the personal development of individual students properly addressed. Moreover, assessment in respect of the programme in which students participate and achievements arising from their experiences must be properly measured.

I am delighted by the interest that has been shown in this subject. Many hon. Members have told me that they are pleased with developments in the sector. There is broad support for those developments, which is reflected in the consensus that we appear to have achieved in the Chamber today.

We live in a fast-changing world. I have yet to mention the internet, which will play an important role in this area. Hon. Members may know that, within the next two years, school leavers will apply for university places almost exclusively through the UCAS website. The heavy document through which some of us remember wading many years ago is disappearing. Through the website, students will be able to discover where a particular course is available and where other students on their course come from. Indeed, a wide range of other information will also be available.

We hope that the link between UCAS and the Year Out Group websites will enable students to discover the benefits of a year out. Should they choose to take a year out before going to university, they will able to keep in touch with their family and prospective university through the web. As a result of the web revolution, the world is shrinking. Increasing numbers of students can say, "Although I will be on the other side of the world if I take this opportunity, I will be able to keep in touch with mum and dad by exchanging e-mails every day of the week, if we feel like it." In the modern world, we can take the big step away from our home environment, yet stay in closer touch than ever.

Given that students are now made to pay so much more of the cost of their period at university, more of them will choose to go to a university near to their home. The chance to take a year out before doing that would offer such students the breadth of experience and opportunity to mature that a previous generation got from going to a university on the other side of the country. There are many advantages in the traditional British system, in which students are encouraged to go to a university far away from home. However, as the Dearing report made clear, it is not the function of Government to use taxpayers' money to promote that. Students who choose, for financial reasons, to go to their local university or to follow a remote learning course will ask themselves, "How can I show that I am growing up, now that I have left school?" The opportunity to take a year out on a structured programme, with its responsibilities and challenges, will appeal to a wide range of school leavers. The developments that I have mentioned, which have been so well supported by all those with an interest in the matter, are exciting opportunities that will be available to to all future school leavers.

11.31 am
Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

My hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) said that we were acting in a non-adversarial capacity. I hope that you cannot see it, Mr. Cook, but I have brought my mackintosh.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Frank Cook)

Order. It might be helpful to all right hon. and hon. Members if I remind them that, in its decision to establish proceedings in the Chamber, the House deemed that it was not a Committee and insisted that the Chair be addressed as Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Brooke

I do apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have spoken twice in this Chamber, but the circumstances surrounding my presence today—which I shall, in a moment, reveal—are in part responsible for my being perhaps not totally in control of my conduct. I hope, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you cannot see it, but, partly due to those circumstances, I have brought into the Chamber a mackintosh that would be more suitable for a county cricket ground than a legislative chamber. I hope that it is invisible.

I was in Northern Ireland yesterday and was invited to participate in today's debate only one hour before it began. That is why I am still in the process of collecting myself. My speech will, necessarily, draw more on personal insight than on the results of burning the midnight oil. With apologies to the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) I shall cite again the case of the Liberal peer, the publication of whose memoirs was held up for three weeks because the printers had run out of the letter "I". My speech, too, will draw heavily on the first person singular.

I suspect, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you, like me, did national service. That particular form of gap year—indeed, gap two years—had a significant influence on my later life, but it has not been available since the late 1950s. Dr. Alec Dickson—and, in the United States, the Peace Corps—introduced the concept of a gap year into the lives of young people. My own links with Dr. Dickson came about through the legendary Launcelot Fleming, chaplain and dean at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, then Bishop of Portsmouth, Bishop of Norwich and Dean of Windsor.

Fleming took a first-class degree in geology at Cambridge and a Master's degree at Yale. His Fellowship at Yale obliged him to travel throughout the United States, at which time he had the sort of experiences that we are discussing. However, his most formative experience occurred in a rather late gap year—an expedition to Graham Land in 1934. For almost two years, he was both geologist and chaplain to the expedition. He said that there was no greater test for a clergyman than to be shut up with his contemporaries for six months each winter, during which time they could test to destruction his faith and the arguments that lay behind it. Because of his background, he was a massive supporter of Outward Bound, which was a national forerunner of the organisations that we are discussing. He was also involved in the World College movement, and took a leading part in the developments mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate—despite the circumstances in which I entered it—and on initiating the process two years ago.

My younger sister was doing VSO in Nigeria when the Biafran war broke out. She was in Onitsha, which was at one end of the bridge that separated the warring parties, but got out through Port Harcourt. She and the people she was with had to get out, just as people now have to get out of Sierra Leone. She appeared at the home of the economic counsellor in the American embassy, whom she had visited on her way out. He said, "The Americans have a strong tradition of sanctuary, but there is a price. I have to write a telegram to Washington tonight on the subject of the economic situation in the war zone. If you can tell me the price of bread in Onitsha on the day you left, I can construct an entire telegram about that." She said that that would be easy, and was admitted into sanctuary. To her credit, my sister went to Jamaica with VSO after she got her university degree here. She married a Canadian who taught in the same establishment and they have spent their entire adult life working in third-world universities. That stems directly from her original work for VSO.

My eldest son went to Zimbabwe—another country in the headlines—under the auspices of the Project Trust. That organisation is run from a castle on the island of Coll, which, remarkably, it uses as a kind of proxy for the third world—I mean no disrespect to Coll. If you send people out at considerable expense to the four corners of the earth, it is sensible to test whether they have the self-reliance to cope. Those who want to go out with the Project Trust go to the island for a week; they are housed in a croft and perform tasks such as sorting seaweed—at least, that is what happened when my son was there. At the end of the exercise, it is perfectly clear whether somebody will be able to cope with a year in the third world. As 20 per cent. of entrants fail, a great deal of money is saved by that testing process. I have to say that my son greatly enjoyed his year in Zimbabwe.

One of my nephews joined an organisation called GAP, which, as its name implies, operates in the gap-year sector—although it competes with a clothing company. He went out to Paraguay and, somewhat unpredictably, shifted his academic focus from history to Arabic as a result of the experience. He has been in Egypt and Yemen, and would have gone to Iran, had there not been prolonged visa difficulties. His twin brother also intended to read history at university but, after going to Japan, he devoted his career to reading Japanese. I cite those two anecdotes because of the German ambassador's observations on the "Today" programme this morning: he said that the British were not learning languages as they should. I can tell him that the gap-year process has altered the careers of people close to me in an immensely productive way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Guildford spoke about a structured programme and guidelines that could be universally applied to participants. I will not spend a lot of time on that subject, not least because of the circumstances in which I entered the debate. Suffice it to say, an 18th-century Member of Parliament, after a long speech by Edmund Burke, got up and said, "Ditto to Mr. Burke." Like that hon. Member, I support the views expressed by my hon. Friend. I am delighted that the programme will be launched—perhaps later today, or in the near future—at the Greycoat Hospital school in the heart of my constituency; I can think of no better location.

Organisations such as Project Trust, GAP and the former Operation Raleigh, on which I worked with Colonel Blashford-Snell when I was a Minister, place a heavy obligation on participants to raise the money themselves. The pattern is that half the participants come from the maintained sector and half from the independent sector. Under the previous Government—I do not address this remark to the Minister—anxiety was expressed about offering VSO experience to people before university, rather than, as had previously been the case, to people who already had qualifications and were fully trained. In providing financial assistance for younger students, the Government might disadvantage people who participate on an entirely voluntary basis and have to raise all the money themselves. It would be helpful if the Minister could comment on the financial assistance that the Government give to VSO and other schemes.

You have been extremely indulgent, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise for having addressed you incorrectly, and am delighted that you brought me up so short.

11.41 am
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

We all enjoyed that brief speech by the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke). I note his point about the dangers of dwelling on personal experience and I shall resist the temptation to do so.

The hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) made an interesting speech. I congratulate him on his persistence in requesting a debate and, in the Education and Employment Committee, promoting at every opportunity today's launch and the concept of the gap year. He made several interesting points, with many of which I agree. To save time, I shall concentrate on four aspects in which there is room to explore.

The first aspect is equity between people from less well-off backgrounds and, to use the stereotypical term, "rich kids". That term is unfair to them, but it is understood by many to mean those who can take advantage of opportunities such as gap years. The second aspect is whether the gap year should be used as a substitute for good early careers guidance. One of the advantages cited is that taking a gap year tends to reduce drop-out rates when people finally reach university; however, it is an unintended advantage and I question whether it is the most efficient way of reducing drop-out rates. The third aspect I want to explore is that of post-qualification application to university, which is often a consequence of taking a gap year; again, I wonder whether there are better ways of encouraging that. The fourth aspect is universities' attitude to gap year students. The hon. Member for Guildford has already spoken about other aspects, including the importance of structure.

Before I discuss those issues, I should like to make it clear that, for all the reasons given by the hon. Gentleman, I believe that a gap year can be very valuable. It can improve socialisation skills and provide a useful breadth of experience before people move on to higher education and intense academic study.

However, in some ways, some of those advantages resulting from gap-year schemes reflect the disappointing results of school education. It is unfortunate if a gap year is necessary to obtain the socialisation skills that are necessary for higher education or employment but that cannot now be obtained—if, indeed, they ever could—from secondary schooling. In employment and higher education, there may be a marked difference between people who have taken a gap year and those who have not in terms of their ability to socialise and get on with things. However, while that points to the advantage of a gap year, it raises questions about the pressures on school staff and students, particularly given the seemingly ever-expanding schools curriculum.

I feel strongly that we do not do as much as we should in terms of foreign language education, although I am wary of recommending that we add more to the curriculum. The right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster hinted that one advantage of a gap year is that it stimulates the necessary interest in foreign languages, but is that the right approach to take? Some people do not take a gap year because they cannot or do not wish to do so; they should not miss out on something so fundamental to a basic secondary school education as developing an interest, if not skill, in foreign languages.

As the hon. Member for Guildford said, equity is connected to the way in which such programmes are funded. I believe that, if we were to consider the number of young people who take a gap year—some students, others about to enter employment—we would see great inequity in terms of the ability of those from less well-off backgrounds to gain access to that opportunity. The profile would be similar, if not worse, than that of those entering higher education. I should be interested to know whether the relevant statistics exist.

Mr. St. Aubyn

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the real inequality is found in the lack of access to higher education for those from disadvantaged backgrounds? Those who take a year out are not taking the year off; they are putting something back in. Many of them are giving up their time and resources for the purposes of self-development, but that costs them something: they will start their career a year after they would have otherwise have done. The inequality arises, not from finances, but from the education system, and it illustrates precisely the need to widen access to such groups.

Dr. Harris

I think that I understand the hon. Gentleman's argument. If he believes that a gap year is good idea, generally speaking, it should be accessible to all people on an equitable basis. Given the advantages of a gap year, there should be no reason why it should appeal more to people of one social background than to those of another. If we accept that it is a good thing, we should expect proportionate numbers of people from the maintained schools sector, the independent schools sector, social groups ABC1 and other socio-economic groups to take advantage of it.

However, I am sure that that does not happen. The problem is not unique to those taking a gap year and it relates to funding because the courses are self-funded, or sponsorship has to be obtained—unless one is fortunate enough to participate in a scholarship-type arrangement that pays the bulk of the expenses. Therefore, raising the necessary funds will be difficult and daunting for those without access to parental support.

My gap year was based around an English Speaking Union scholarship, granted following an entrance examination, to study at an American high school for the last two terms of that year. It was fully funded and worth a huge amount of money, given the costs of that high school place in the private sector. It was available to me as a student in a state school, but most of the students on the scheme came from independent schools. If funding is to be directed at gap-year schemes, it should be student based—enabling people to be selected according to their access, or lack of access to resources—rather than provided through block grants made to organisations or general subsidies given to everyone on the scheme. That is the way to increase access.

I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Guildford make a plea for more Government funding. I am sure that the Minister will tell us what the Government are doing now and what more they can do. However, if, to an increasing extent, students have to pay their way through university, there will be implications for their access to a gap year. It will be another year in which they do not earn money, but go further into debt—a year in which they might have to spend their savings or the money that their parents gave them to support them through college. Current funding arrangements have been criticised on the grounds of equitability, especially after the loss of the means-tested grant. Therefore, it is incumbent on hon. Members and Ministers who think the gap year a good idea to say how they would ensure that access to the gap year is improved. They must deal with the fact that new student support arrangements, whatever their advantages, will act as a disincentive to spending another year not earning. Broadening the gap-year experience will be difficult, given those arrangements.

In passing, it is worth noting that our discussion has covered the gap year taken before entering higher education or employment. The hon. Member for Guildford and I have both been guilty of talking only about students; we should also mention those young people who may not be deferring entry to university or employment. We have also failed to mention the group of people who take a gap year between higher education and entering employment. I suspect that that group, whatever the figures are historically, will come to represent a dwindling proportion of the total number of people who take gap years. If gap-year schemes increase, the actual number of people in that group may not fall, but their proportion of the total number taking gap years might fall because of the level of debt that students have at the end of their course. Proposals from all parties suggest similar levels of debt, and naturally people will want to clear it by earning money. Therefore, to an increasing extent, gap years will be taken between school and university or employment.

I want to touch on the issue of careers guidance. Taking a year out to reflect on whether one has made the right choice of studies gives one the opportunity to change that choice. However, I would hate us to recommend taking a gap year because those who are unable or do not want to take a year out have a higher drop-out rate, instead of offering proper careers guidance for higher education courses,. The hon. Member for Guildford will probably agree with me. Constituents tell me that changes in the careers service have meant that one group of students has made worse decisions than it might have, because the service has been focused on another group. The careers service is invaluable and should be invested in.

I would be interested to see the drop-out rates and course-change rates for those who have taken a gap year. However, it is obvious that reflecting for a year on whether one really wants to study a subject can give one pause. In my own case, I might have abandoned medicine if I had decided that I wanted to enter politics instead.

Mr. St. Aubyn

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point about the careers service. He may not know—I only recently discovered it—that, under current funding arrangements, careers service advisers who persuade a school leaver to take a year out do not necessarily get a credit for that as an education outcome. Therefore, there is a disincentive for careers advisers to promote the idea of the year out for students, even when they think it might be appropriate. The Department should investigate that.

Dr. Harris

I know that the Minister heard that point and I shall leave her to respond to it. Perverse incentives come with all sorts of regulations and schemes to encourage people to do one thing or another, and they must be ironed out if they are a problem.

The third area I wanted to touch on was the attitude of universities and employers to the year out. I was pleased that vice-chancellors have changed their views on the gap year, because there is no reason why it should be frowned on, even it makes it difficult for universities to plan places, as they used to claim. It would not surprise me if a gap year was considered to be worth an extra grade at A-level, because of the advantages that it gives.

It is hard to say how one gained from one's own gap year, but I have watched people who have worked for me in the House of Commons—for remuneration in excess of the minimum wage—during a gap year, and they have blossomed. I currently have one such employee who is one of the best researchers that I have ever had, even though he is not yet a graduate. He has been superb: I have watched him develop in the role and he is now more than capable of bossing me around—which is perhaps the true test of competence for a research assistant.

It is important that universities recognise the importance of a year out. Maturity in general is an important factor in higher education: we know that mature students need fewer academic qualifications to succeed at university. A debate for another time and place is the plight of full-time mature students in higher education. The more mature the student, the better, for all the reasons that the hon. Member for Guildford gave. The Minister should send a message to the higher education sector that there should be no disincentive—in the form of fear that it will be badly regarded by universities—to students who wish to and are able to do so taking advantage of a year out.

There was an old-fashioned concern that students would forget everything that they had learned in the sixth form by the time they arrived at university a year later, but I remember that one forgets everything a week after taking exams for which one has swotted—that certainly happened in my case. I remembered what I had learned only six years later, working in a district general hospital, during bursts of feverish calculations on drug charts—which should be a worry to everyone.

My final point is tangential to the point made by the hon. Member for Guildford about the advantage of a gap year to post-qualification application to university—not to post-qualification entry, because we all expect qualifications to be a condition of entry to higher education. The gap year has all the advantages that the hon. Gentleman detailed, but it is not necessary to insist on or encourage a gap year to achieve such advantages. It would be a useful beginning if he and others could drop their seemingly instinctive opposition to the reform of A-levels, which they regard as the gold standard.

The higher education system in the United States has certain disadvantages and certain advantages, but it is a system that is envied. University applications are made on a much wider basis than final exams taken at the end of two years' study at A-level grade. Perhaps for that reason, the courses entered are more varied and enable people to choose which subjects to major in during their time at university. Many people perceive advantages in that, and hon. Members on both sides, including Liberal Democrat Members, should be encouraged to look beyond the A-level as the gold standard. That is tangential to the main thrust of what has been said about the advantages of a gap year, to which I wholly subscribe.

The hon. Gentleman should be applauded on his initiative in working with organisations at the front line, and emphasising the advantages of taking a gap year to those who would not otherwise consider it, or who might consider it another year's delay. Whether those opportunities are explored abroad or in this country is not as important as whether they are explored at all. The fact that the gap year is regarded as something that needs to done abroad can be a disincentive: certain groups of young people who are not fully engaged in taking advantage of gap-year opportunities might not want to go abroad, or might feel that it is beyond their means. Structured voluntary sector programmes in this country might open up possibilities for self-development to those who are not already taking advantage of such opportunities.

12.1 pm

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

It is conventional to congratulate the hon. Member who secures an Adjournment debate. On this occasion, I want to go further by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) not only on initiating the debate and making an eloquent contribution, but on his personal, hands-on role in the Year Out Group, which will be launched after the conclusion of this debate. It is unusual, but welcome, for a Member of Parliament to be so directly involved in such a group.

The Chamber in Westminster Hall was devised to provide an opportunity for hon. Members to express consensus on matters that do not always enter into party political controversy. I hope that I do not spoil that consensus. It was not spoiled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), or by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), and I suspect that it will not be spoiled by the Minister. I congratulate those hon. Members, in retrospect or in advance, on that consensus. We should welcome the fact that we can reach such consensus from time to time. It is remarkable that, by osmosis and a good deal of hard work, the Year Out Group already includes a strong collection of big hitters, and offers a huge range of opportunities to young people.

I begin by dealing with potentially contentious matters. The Minister would be surprised if those did not relate primarily to resources, although I strongly echo the comments that were made about the importance of adequate guidance for young people. To some extent, that guidance can be provided electronically through the new UCAS website, the Year Out Group and the higher education institutions. However, information is no substitute for guidance.

There is concern—to be debated in another context—about the new arrangements for the guidance of young people that are being introduced by the Government. They lay strong emphasis on dealing with the problems of the socially excluded. I have no problem with that emphasis, but it must not come at the expense of offering proper guidance to all young people. All young people have difficulties and opportunities, and need personal support in making choices.

The second issue is that of resources. I would be surprised and a touch shocked if the Minister got up and said that anyone who wants to take a year out will be fully funded to do so. That is not a realistic aspiration at this stage, but the Minister should bear in mind two matters. The first, to which reference has been made, is that when young people take a year out there is an opportunity cost to them, because they do not earn much during that period. Secondly, taking a gap year can add to the difficulties that may already be experienced as a result of recent changes to the higher education support system. Many young people will finish their higher education with a debt exceeding £10,000, so taking a non-earning year out before they reach the labour market, even if it has long-term benefits, must give them cause for thought. I hope that the Minister will take an holistic look at the overall impact on young people, as well as the impact on specific young people who lack the advantages that some of us have had. They, too, should have the right to share in such programmes if they would benefit hugely from doing so.

We must remember that all young people are individuals whose aspirations, confidence and wishes vary hugely. It would be wrong to send out a signal suggesting a conscription programme in which all young people are expected to participate. Each young person must decide whether and when to participate in a year-out programme and then choose the programme that is right for them. Some may seek activities for personal improvement at home or in their spare time, rather than take a formal year out. Both forms of experience can be valuable.

Guidance is important because young people will need to draw on the counsel and wisdom of parents, friends, teachers and, perhaps, the universities admitting them. I welcome the fact that universities now accept that prior experience is a positive benefit for young people. However, I would not wish them to make such experience a precondition of entry, nor do I anticipate their doing so. The decision should be for them, and the Minister and the Department would be ill advised to stir the system too strongly.

The Minister's encouragement and involvement is welcome. She should be able to offer advice on the guidelines, keep a close watch on what the Year Out Group is doing, and participate in appraisals and statistical activities with the various agencies and the group, but each young person should make a choice and we should keep our hands off. Any involvement by an institution should be solely a matter for the young person and the institution—Ministers should not directly interfere.

This is a general debate and it would not be helpful to give a personal curriculum vitae, but I shall draw on some of my experiences gained since my undergraduate years—I now realise that they were 40 years ago—and as an education Minister. Perhaps I should declare a non-interest in that I did not take a gap year, although I participated in a number of other extra-curricular activities before going to university. I seemed to learn quite a lot about civil defence, and when I got to university I found myself president of my junior common room. Those were the sort of activities that people did then and they were not irrelevant, even though they did not constitute a formal gap year.

Since that time, there has been a huge change in the character of higher education in this country. We have moved from what was—it was not intended to be—a largely elite system to a massified system. I do not mind that because it has been a positive development, encouraged by Conservative Governments. A third of our young people now go through higher education. However, that has inevitably affected the experience and nature of those participating.

One or two generations ago, many people went to higher education from well-known independent schools or leading grammar schools; now, there is much broader participation, and that is right and proper. The issue is not only that of resources and the economic background of students and potential students, but of students' confidence and social skills. The paradox is that, while many people would benefit hugely from the opportunities of a year out, their background and the resources immediately available to them make it less likely that they will apply or take part. They might even be discouraged, or feel themselves discouraged, from doing so.

That is a social problem that the Minister will not solve this morning, but I hope that the resources available to her and the powers of encouragement that she has are directed towards creating a better balance. Our common interest, which was well expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford, is to ensure that, as people from all backgrounds move through higher education, they exploit all the opportunities available to them. They should not be excluded by an accident of education or geography.

My final comments relate to the education experience itself. There have been suggestions—which are, to some extent, concomitant on the expansion of the sector, the huge changes in the labour market, the development of globalisation and so forth—that higher education is simply a commercial development activity, as though one went through it as a staging post on the way to a lucrative career. That may be so—indeed, there is plenty of evidence that the ancient universities began primarily as vocational establishments, training people for service in public life in various capacities—but it is not the whole experience, nor should it become that. Universities have much more to offer an individual in terms of development than merely the ability to join the labour market at a higher rung than they would otherwise have done.

There is a good deal of evidence, much of which has been brought out in this debate, that the experience of a year out is very beneficial to the individual, partly because it is different from what he or she would have been doing at university: it is a different chunk of the map. It is often also beneficial to a student's future employer.

I did not take a formal year out myself, so I shall to draw on the experience of two young people whom I know well. Our children's contemporaries have been students in the past decade. I have seen the difference between the undergraduate who is reading for her first degree and the same person who is reading for her second first degree at another university, with a view to becoming a lawyer. The 21-year-old undergraduate was a very different person from the 18-year-old undergraduate. Another young person of my acquaintance, who went to university very early, had an interesting year out, which she divided between an advanced cookery course and working on the Archbishop of Canterbury's staff. As the late Eric Morecambe would have said, there is no answer to that. In diversifying their experience, those young people expressed the wisdom of centuries of educationists who have never seen the university or higher study as a degree factory, but regard it as a place for developing a rounded person.

In two respects, the year out is valuable. First, in many cases, it provides a physically demanding set of tests: it is the old idea, at which we should not scoff, of a healthy mind in a healthy body, although that is not possible for everyone. Secondly, it provides a moral challenge: many of my generation can still respond to Kennedy's inspiration for the Peace Corps and to the idea of asking not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country— or, indeed, for other countries. I hope that all parties share that healthy aspiration. It is a spark in young people that we must kindle, not extinguish. We welcome the initiative unreservedly.

12.15 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Margaret Hodge)

It is a joy to participate in debates in Westminster Hall. They are informative and consensual, and I am sure that we all agree that they provide a better way in which to discuss issues that are important to our constituents.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) on securing this debate and on the work that he has done to support the organisations that will today launch the Year Out Group. I have known the hon. Gentleman for some time—he and I sat on the Education and Employment Select Committee. Although we did not agree on every issue, I recognise him to be a man of integrity who has done much practical work as a Back Bencher. In this instance, his efforts will ensure that a sector that is of increasing importance to young people will develop. Growing numbers of young people are taking a year out at some stage during their period of maturing. I join him and other hon. Members who have spoken in congratulating the 20 leading organisations that have come together. That effort, with support from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service and other groups, have ensured that today's launch will go ahead.

I must declare an interest. I have four children, three of whom have taken a gap year. Quite horrifyingly, one of my children is currently wending her way across the world. She sends us e-mails about sharks in Thailand, which leave me shivering, and about sheep-farming in Australia. In her most amusing e-mail, sent from Vietnam, she asked, "Mum, What's wrong with communism? Is it that different from new Labour?" Her e-mails suggest that her experience is enhancing her capacities and abilities and preparing her for university when she returns.

The right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) referred to his time in national service as his gap year. When he retires from the House, I am sure that he will have another gap year before he moves on to other activities. We all need the odd gap year in our lives to recoup, to recharge our batteries and to consider where to go next. Young people are no different in that respect. I did not have a gap year. I am afraid that my gap years involved the three years that I spent at university in the 1960s. I did not do a lot of work, although I underwent a great deal of personal development, and I still have nightmares about my lack of preparation for finals.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) talked about the gap year after university, which is becoming increasingly popular. People also often talk about career breaks. A member of staff in my private office is currently doing massive overtime to secure his second or third career break, during which he wants to travel round the world. Good luck to him, too.

The Government have made it clear that one of our objectives is to secure a real increase in the number of people of all ages who become involved in voluntary activities. Many activities during the gap year involve volunteering. It is difficult to attract young people to voluntary activities, because they tend to think that such work involves people such as myself-middle-aged, middle-class women. Our challenge is to turn that perception around, build on young people's interests and ensure that when they put something into a community, they get something back. To the extent that the gap year complements our efforts in the voluntary sector, it is of great importance.

For many young people, the transition from school to college or university, or from university to work, is an especially important time in their life. The experience that they gain during that period can be formative to their career choices or their development later in life. It is a time in which young people are particularly open to new experiences and are looking to be challenged. What young people choose to do at those stages in their lives vary from individual to individual. For some, the gap year or the year out will work to their benefit and be life-altering. Every year, thousands of young people decide to take a year out after finishing their full-time education—whether post-school or post-university—before entering the labour market. They are able to choose to take part in an enormously varied range of activities during that period.

People tend to think of the gap year as being spent abroad. That is true in some cases, but not all. Some people choose to get work experience, take part in exchanges or join educational programmes that offer alternatives to more formal academic teaching. Voluntary work in this country is as important as voluntary work abroad. It may involve anything from improving the environment to working with homeless people, to bringing arts and music into communities—in fact, any activity that one can think of. It is an endless list, and the benefits are enormous and valued.

The Government believe that young people should be able to take up the year-out opportunities that are right for them. Hon. Members have raised the question of Government financial support, and it may be helpful if I respond to that. We give support directly from the overseas training programme, which exists to give host projects help in undertaking specific pieces of work in developing countries. It aims to provide young people, many of whom may be interested in continuing to work in development, with a worthwhile experience. It also aims to promote international understanding. The programme is funded by the Overseas Development Administration and managed by VSO, so it receives money directly. Placements are currently limited, but a start has been made. Having known a couple of people who have been involved in the programme, I know that it is successful.

A range of opportunities are funded through Europe. The Erasmus programme promotes student mobility and offers the opportunity to study and learn other languages. About 10,000 UK students took part in it last year. The European Union also offers the Leonardo da Vinci programme, which provides vocational training. The youth exchange centre administers the British Council youth millennium awards scheme, which enables 18 to 25-year-olds to spend time abroad developing skills that will benefit their local communities. The European voluntary service enables young people in EU member states to spend up to a year doing voluntary work. My nephew took part in that, and gained worthwhile experience in France. The "Youth for Europe" programme arranges international exchanges, seminars, project training and other activities. I hope that that quick run through the range of initiatives by which the Government directly fund programmes shows the range of opportunities that are available to young people to broaden their horizons.

We should remember that the year out may not be right for everyone, and some young people will not want to take it up. While respecting everyone's individual decisions, we must ensure that they make informed choices. That is why we are supporting the Year Out Group. The group's guidelines are very useful to young people and their advisers. They encourage young people to ask the right questions and open up opportunities that they would not have thought about before taking their year out.

Several hon. Members referred to the function of the careers service in providing advice and opportunities in relation to the gap year. We are in the process of establishing the new Connexions service, and I shall pass on the idea of advice on gap-year opportunities to my colleagues in the Department with responsibility for that. We will consider whether it can be covered in the prospectus on which the Department will soon be consulting.

Hon. Members have alluded to many of the benefits that result from a year out. The main benefits are gained by young people themselves. They learn vital skills that cannot be gained from academic involvement, known in today's terminology as soft skills, including working with other people and problem solving. They also gain self-confidence, which is important in later life. Those young people also learn about other people and about other environments with which they might otherwise never have contact. They gain impressions and experiences that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. Those experiences can help to motivate people who might have been disaffected in school, to change their perspectives, raise their aspirations and provide them with the knowledge that they have made a difference to other people and communities.

Other beneficiaries include the organisations with which young people spend their gap year, which are often helped to deliver work more effectively; and employers, who are able to recruit from a pool of young people with a wider set of talents. Moreover, educational institutions, including universities, are increasingly asking young people what they have achieved in addition to their academic qualifications. I endorse the comments made about the importance of the work done by UCAS to enable young people to apply for university in a more streamlined way. The personal statements, with which many of us have struggled to help our children, form part of those applications. As academic standards rise, the importance of that personal statement grows. If a young person can say that he or she plans to take a year out, and that that experience will be structured and relevant to his or her course, I would expect universities to see that as a way of differentiating between candidates. The personal growth that young people who have made good use of a gap year will have experienced when they start their studies will give them a head start over their peers.

I agree with all hon. Members, especially the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, who said that the year out should be available to a broad range of people. There is a problem of equity, but it does not arise solely from money and resources; it is also connected with access to information and opportunity. That is why the initiative that we are launching today is so important. It is also about the much tougher agenda that the Government are attempting to address relating to access to higher education and ensuring greater equality through a range of initiatives.

The year out can also change young people's views on their contribution to communities. Learning the importance of community and enhancing the opportunities for individuals within the community are vital threads in the Government's agenda. We want young people to learn those lessons at an early stage. Equality and opportunity for the many are best enhanced through strong communities.

I notice that time is hurrying on, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I shall conclude by saying that we have heard today about the setting up of the Year Out Group—an organisation that draws together several organisations involved in year-out activities. I endorse the work carried out by the hon. Member for Guildford; we believe the group to be a welcome development. Voluntary work can, and should, be challenging for the individual concerned. That is part of its reward. Working overseas has its own challenges and difficulties, and the group is confronting those issues.

Speakers have mentioned many organisations involved in supporting young people who decide to take a year out. Some have charitable status; others are companies; they all offer young people the opportunity, here and abroad, to become involved in worthwhile activities. I am pleased to endorse the guidelines prepared by the Year Out Group, and I congratulate it on the website that it launched this morning. Both will ensure that young people are helped to make more informed choices about their lives, and to do so with greater confidence in the quality of the opportunities that they pursue.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Guildford on securing this debate, and I look forward to joining him at the launch of the Year Out Group. In the spirit of cross-party co-operation, I am happy to offer him a lift in the Government car, so that we get there on time.