To the end of June 2017, there were 790,000 young people (aged 16–24) in England not in formal education, employment or training (or ‘NEET’). Within England, Yorkshire and Humberside had the highest proportion of young people who were NEET (14.7%).

Last week, the Department for Education (DfE) formally announced the launch of the Essential Life Skills fund; a new £22million programme to fund extracurricular activities aimed at boosting young people’s life skills such as resilience, teamwork, leadership, emotional and social skills.

The fund has retained the ‘language of character’ from the Character Grants that they essentially replace, but with a shift in focus to improving the life chances of young people in 12 social mobility ‘coldspots’; areas identified as having poor social mobility, or including schools that face challenges, including the North Yorkshire Coast.

The DfE suggests that the fund will seek to benefit those at an educational disadvantage, and provide extracurricular activities to young people from socio-economically deprived areas. In addition, such opportunities should seek to build ‘skills’, or character traits, to support overcoming disadvantage, with an inference that there will be less likelihood of young people from such areas becoming marginalised from mainstream education, or falling NEET altogether.

Today, the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham launches the Flourishing From the Margins research report that aims to give a ‘voice’ to young people on the margins of education. The study, which worked with nearly 3,250 young people from mainstream and non-mainstream, marginalised and non-marginalised, educational backgrounds across the UK, sought to understand the character of young people on the margins of education through a focus on living a ‘good life’ and considering one’s life purpose.

The study found that young people engaging in non-mainstream education reported that they had a sense of purpose in life in greater numbers than those in mainstream education. The report also found that participants engaging in non-mainstream education regarded the influence of close family and friends on their sense of living a ‘good life’ as being greater than participants in mainstream education.

The concepts of having a ‘sense of purpose’ and of living a ‘good life’ were the access points through which this research engaged both marginalised young people and their tutors in the language of character.

Participants were introduced to virtue terms and moral dilemmas where virtues may conflict and one needs to reason discerningly how to navigate tough situations. In addition to surveying the opinions of marginalised young people, the study also engaged with non-mainstream education providers and sought to examine the impact of adopting character-led teaching in non-mainstream settings. An educational intervention designed to develop character was trialled with young people in non-mainstream education, using a suite of teaching resources intended for use outside of the mainstream school classroom.

Over 200 marginalised young people, from across the UK, participated in some part of the trial, with over 100 participants completing pre- and post-intervention surveys. One of the key findings from the trial of the resources was the importance of the voice of the tutor in such provision. The film produced as part of the study captures the voices of both the young people and their tutors participating in the trial, and specifically how tutors seek to develop the character of their learners in order for them to make positive contributions to society, and ultimately fulfill their purpose.

So, while being educationally disadvantaged and educationally marginalised are different matters, they are inextricably linked. The DfE Essential Life Skills fund is a positive step towards providing access to opportunities for young people in deprived areas. It is important, though, that the opportunities funded retain roots in developing the characters of young people for the benefit of both the individual and society.