Gap-year answer – bring back National Service

IT seems hard to believe now, but when I went to university in the 1970s I was the first pupil from my comprehensive school to do so.

I was an erratic in more ways than one.

According to research published this week, August babies are less likely to go on to top universities than kids born earlier in the year. Which is not as surprising as it might seem if you give it a little thought.

The way the school year is arranged, August babies are generally the youngest in their class. That can be a huge disadvantage when you’re comparing the just-fives with the nearly-sixes. And those early strugglers can spend the rest of their school lives playing catch-up.

What applies academically applies in sport too.

The kids with autumn and winter birthdays go through all their young lives being bigger and stronger than their younger team-mates and rivals. It makes them stand out and gives them confidence.

It also means they’re more likely to be picked for school teams, get extra training and attention. Which makes the achievement of an August baby like Roy Keane all the more remarkable – and perhaps helps to explain the aggressive, individualistic attitude Keane needed to muscle his way to the top.

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A typical August flop at sport, I somehow managed to bag a place at a “top university” – where I saw for myself the blatant truth of another of this week’s research findings.

It actually came out as something of an admission (of the other kind) by UCAS, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.

The headline was the news that the process “favours the rich at private schools”.

To which one might add the relevations that Queen Victoria is dead, the Pope’s a Catholic and bears perform their ablutions in the woods.

Things may have improved a little since my student days, when I found myself the only boy from a state school among the 18 studying my subject in my college in my year.

But according to UCAS the system still strongly and unfairly favours the private-school privileged, in practice even if no longer in principle.

To its credit, the service has a proposal to address this inequality. And in the process clear up the mayhem and uncertainty that currently surrounds the final weeks of school and the ensuing frantic summer.

The suggestion is that A-levels should be brought forward, the results published before the end of the school term in July – and only then should students apply to university.

It would end the current heartbreak of university places being offered on the basis of predicted grades and then snatched away when actual exam results don’t match up to expectation.

It would end the clearing system, which sends students at short notice to universities and colleges they hadn’t previously considered.

It would end… No, actually I can’t see any way in which it would change the in-built advantage of the rich and socially privileged.

In a country now again governed – as it was 50 years ago – but a cabal of old Etonians and their stinking-rich buddies, it would take a lot more than a shake-up of university entrance to make any impact on that.

The proposals, though, are undoubtedly well intentioned. But I suspect they would merely exchange one set of problems for another.

They would squeeze the already tight schedule of A-level teaching. And they would put enormous pressure on students and their teachers making university choices and applications in July and August.

My own suggestion would be more radical, and therefore stands even less chance of being acted upon. But it would good for almost everybody.

Prevent students from starting at university in the same year that they leave school.

I would have benefited enormously from a gap year. A year’s extra maturity and experience – a look beyond the walls of education – would have enabled me to get so much more out of university. Both academically and socially.

The same truth would apply, I’m sure, to 99 per cent of fresh-from-school teenagers.

Perhaps they couldn’t, and maybe shouldn’t, all go backpacking round the world, as I would have loved to do.

We certainly don’t want them spending a year hanging around in their bedrooms, in clubs and on street corners.

Not much point in them merely swelling the ranks of the youth unemployed.

So how about bringing back National Service?

Not of the military kind, which would be the most pointless thing of all.

But there must be an awful lot of ways in which all that youthful brain and brawn could be put to good use.

I’m sure Oxfam, Action Against Hunger, the International Rescue Committee and other such organisations would be very happy to provide a list.

It would do every young person good to meet some of the world’s poor and desperate, and to get their hands dirty helping them. And that certainly includes the Etonians.