Greater numbers of marginalised young people report having a ‘sense of purpose’ in their lives, compared with those in mainstream education according to a report out today by the University of Birmingham, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues.

The research sheds new light on the factors that influence how young people from all backgrounds understand “purpose” and what it means to live a “good life”.

The study found that 27.4% of non-mainstream pupils responded positively to statements regarding their life’s purpose, compared with 24.2% of pupils in mainstream settings.

The project involved 3,250 young people from mainstream and non-mainstream, marginalised and non-marginalised, educational backgrounds.

Flourishing From the Margins, which includes participants from pupil referral units, youth offender institutions and other non-mainstream education providers – as well as state secondary schools – reveals that “marginalisation” in education does not necessarily have a negative effect on how pupils understand their purpose in life.

The research underlines the importance of “circles of influence” – both inside and outside the education system – on perceptions of what constitutes living a “good life”.

Participants who were categorised as “having purpose” were more influenced in their views by those close to them, including friends and family, and especially teachers and those in the wider community. This influence was widely perceived to be positive.

Aidan Thompson, University of Birmingham said:

‘This study has found that young people from marginalised backgrounds don’t see their circumstances as being disadvantageous to their sense of purpose.

‘Where young people are engaging in non-mainstream education provision, a focus on character-led teaching can help aid this development of purpose and encourage young people to live a ‘good life’.’

A film to accompany the report provides detailed insights into the educational journeys of young people in non-mainstream provision, including their engagement with non-mainstream education and how they ended up outside the mainstream schooling system.

It also paints a positive picture of non-mainstream education, with participants highlighting how tutors support students, provide encouragement, and “speak to you on the same level”.

A package of teaching resources, which was trialled as part of the project, has been launched alongside the report and film. The resources were inspired by the Jubilee Centre’s curricula for character education, and featured lesson plans designed to help tutors discuss character strengths and how they affect perceptions of what it means to live a “good life”.

In the Foreword to the report, Dame Kelly Holmes, founder of the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust, underlines the importance for all young people, whatever their background, of having opportunities to develop their character. Dame Kelly argues that “teaching character and creating environments that promote positive virtues is arguably more important today than it has been in a long time”.

The double-Olympic gold medal-winner believes “character is central to young people leading positive lives and benefits local communities”.

The report is launched today at the University of Birmingham by Ian Webber, Managing Director of Rathbone Training UK, the largest informal education provider in Britain.

Webber said: ‘Rathbone Training has supported this research because we believe that every person should have the opportunity to unlock their potential through learning and this report highlights some important findings around provision of education for marginalised and NEET young people, both of which we exist to serve.’

For interview requests or for a copy of the report, please contact Rebecca Hume, Communications Manager, University of Birmingham on 0121 414 9041 or email the press office

For out of hours media enquiries, please call: +44 (0) 7789 921 165

  • Flourishing From the Margins was co-authored by Aidan Thompson, Director of Strategy and Integration at the University of Birmingham’s Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues. The full report can be viewed here
  • The University of Birmingham is ranked among the world's top 100 institutions. Its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers, teachers and more than 5,000 international students from over 150 countries.
  • The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues is a unique and leading centre for the examination of how character and virtues impact on individuals and society. The Centre was founded in 2012 by Professor James Arthur. Based at the University of Birmingham, it has a dedicated team of 30 academics from a range of disciplines, including: philosophy, psychology, education, theology and sociology.
  • With its focus on excellence, the Centre has a robust and rigorous research and evidence-based approach that is objective and non-political. It offers world-class research on the importance of developing good character and virtues and the benefits they bring to individuals and society. In undertaking its own innovative research, the Centre also seeks to partner with leading academics from other universities around the world and to develop strong strategic partnerships.
  • A key conviction underlying the existence of the Centre is that the virtues that make up good character can be learnt and taught. We believe these have largely been neglected in schools and in the professions. The Centre also holds a key conviction that the more people exhibit good character and virtues, the healthier our society will be. As such, the Centre undertakes development projects seeking to promote the practical applications of its research evidence.