Gap-year takers 'more likely to have used cannabis by 16'

Footprints in sand The researchers looked at data on two groups of young people born in 1970 and 1989-90

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Gap-year students are more likely to have smoked cannabis by the age of 16 than those who go straight to college, government-funded research suggests.

A team from the Centre for Analysis of Youth Transitions studied data on 16,000 people born in 1989-90.

Fewer than 20% of those who went straight to university had smoked cannabis by the age of 16, compared with 30% of the gap-year students.

The latter "are more likely to engage in risky behaviours", says the report.

The study, Gap-year takers: Uptake, trends and long term outcomes, looked at data from two longitudinal studies of two groups of young people - one who would have been eligible to start higher education in 2008-9 and another born in a particular week in April 1970.

The researchers assessed the intentions, activities and characteristics of gap-year takers and analysed the long-term effects of deferring higher education, particularly on earnings.

The study found gap-year takers in the younger group were likely to come from wealthier backgrounds and better performing schools than those who went straight to university.

However the study also found they tended to have less belief in their own abilities, were less likely to think they had control over their lives and were more likely to have engaged in risky behaviours.

'Former truants'

The report says just over 10% of the students who went straight to university admitted to playing truant before they were 16, but that figure rises to some 20% of those who took a gap year. The figure for those who did not go to university was above 30%.

The researchers found little difference in exam results between those who went straight to university and those who did not, but detected "some evidence that those who go straight to university are more likely to have studied science, technology, maths and science subjects at AS- and A-level".

The researchers defined two main types of gap-year takers.

  • One plans to take a gap year, accepts a place at university before leaving school, gets better exam results, is more likely to go travelling, comes from a wealthier background and is more likely to take up their university place.
  • The other is less likely to have planned a gap year, did not apply for university while at school, is more likely to have worked or continued in full-time education during their gap year and is less likely to have gone to university in the end. They are also less likely to be from a wealthy background than the first group but are still significantly better off than non-students.

Some 12% of those who planned to take a gap year primarily intended to work abroad. Some 80% who took gap years reported earning money in Britain at some point. Some 60% described work as their main activity, while only about 4% described voluntary work as their main activity.

Data from the older group of individuals who had taken a gap year showed that on average they earned less in their 20s than those who had not. This effect was smaller but still persisted when the individuals were questioned again in their 30s.

The researchers suggest that this may simply be because gap-year takers have fewer years after graduation "to reap the returns of the investment" in higher education.

The study was funded by the Department for Education.

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