Advertising mogul, Sir Martin Sorrell – so often the media’s favourite go-to source of contentious quotes – has clashed with student travel firm STA over the value of gap year breaks.

Speaking at the Varkey Foundation Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai, Sir Martin, chief executive of WPP – the largest advertising agency in the world – said:

“I don’t believe in gap years. I had three sons. None of them did gap years. Not because they listen to me, if I say go left they go right. Those [gap years] from what I’ve seen, that tends to be wasted.”

Sir Martin, who studied at Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School in Hertfordshire, Cambridge and Harvard Business School prior to starting his career, believes gap years tend to be ill organised and are too short to be meaningful.

“They’re [gap years] very short periods of time. Companies don’t find them enough time [to do something useful]. If you could organise a year’s programme where somebody really felt they were making a contribution… and much more disciplined.”

He also said gap years need to be “more focused and specific”.

”I’ve seen when my children were coming out of secondary school and going to university it would be that. Go to Japan for three months to teach English, or six months, and the rest of the time got wasted. Travelling is in and of itself an education, teaching English is valuable, but it could be more focused and decided.”

Sir Martin’s comments have angered the youth and student travel company, STA Travel, which has hit back at his claims that teenagers are “wasting time” taking foreign gap years.

Defending the value of gap years as part of a general shift towards responsible travel, STA Travel UK country manager Tim Fryer said: “Our teams in stores throughout the UK are seeing ever-increasing demand for guidance and advice on what to see and do in destinations, as well as help on ensuring that time and budget are used in the best possible way. Young people embarking on a gap year want to ensure they’re getting the very most out of it, in terms of both their money, and its potential to broaden horizons, skill set and CV.”

According to Fryer, bookings for volunteering projects are up 27 per cent on this time last year, with adventure tour sales up 20 per cent – all of which indicates that young people are planning ahead  more than ever for their on-the-ground time, not just pre-booking flights, he added.

“The boom in volunteering and conservation projects highlights a shift towards responsible travel, as young people usually want to give something back to the communities they visit, as well as learning new skills. Taking part in these kinds of projects allows you to really get under the skin of a country or community, as well as broadening your horizons, meeting new people and opening yourself up to new experiences.”

Among the most popular volunteering projects are working with rescue elephants in Thailand, sea turtle conservation in Costa Rica and teaching children in Cambodia. Working Holiday Visas for Australia and New Zealand also continue to be one of the most popular options for young travellers as it enables them to work to earn money for further travels, as well as widening their skill set.

“The job market is still very tough for young people in the UK. More and more are taking the opportunity to head off on a gap year trip to broaden their work and life experience, and boost their CV with overseas work experience.”