Figures from the Office of National Statistics suggest more than one in 10 of all 16-24 year olds in the UK are not in education, employment or training (NEET).
That is a total of 853,000 young people who are in some ways disengaged from mainstream society – the equivalent of a city twice the size of Bristol, and above the average percentage of population for other OECD countries.
Despite the many different circumstances of these young people, they are too often portrayed as feckless, irresponsible and lacking in ‘character’. Their ‘grit’, or lack of it, is called into question in bombastic headlines that generalise and stigmatise.
However, the Character and Values in Marginalised Young People project underway at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues aims to challenge these assertions and develop learning resources that young people themselves consider worthwhile.
A series of structured interventions, developed with young people and practitioners, is central to the project. As active participants, the young people are encouraged to engage in critical self-reflection with the help of group activities and one-to-one sessions.
The educational programmes comprise five ‘banks’ of resources, which overlap in content or theme. Organisations are encouraged to use the activities that are best suited to their groups or individuals and there is freedom to select activities from several banks.
The content is varied and is pitched at different levels of understanding. For example, a game of ‘virtue matching cards’ requires players to match virtue names to virtue definitions and will appeal to young people who are unfamiliar with the virtues. A game of ‘virtue dominoes’ calls for the name of a virtue to be matched to a description of an action that describes it; the actions can be linked to a number of different virtues so a deeper exploration and understanding of the virtues is encouraged.
Activities specifically developed for young people in formal yet adapted education outside mainstream settings look at the virtues of courage, justice, compassion and empathy, curiosity, honesty and humour. For example, young people might consider when humour is appropriate – and when does a ‘joke’ become offensive?
In activities involving video and short role-play, young people look at good and bad choices, practical wisdom and the barriers that exist to doing the right thing. For instance, how might they behave if they saw someone lying in a busy street, apparently unwell? Would they go and help? And would they make a different decision if the person were young, elderly, dressed in a suit, or homeless?
At all times, the young people are encouraged to look at their own character strengths and virtues. Through reflection, they are asked to consider which virtues they already possess and think about what might be stopping them from being the person they want to be.
The Character and Values in Marginalised Young People project has already completed a survey of 3,000 young people aged 11 to 18 to look at their understanding of what it means to live a ‘good’ life and what influences those ideas.
The new interventions are being rolled out this month in 10 organisations working in non-mainstream settings. The groups, comprising 480 young people, include pupils excluded from mainstream schools, those attending youth groups, and individuals on both the margins of criminality and some already involved in criminal activity.
All the settings are unique and support young people from a variety of disengaged backgrounds. The participants often feel they have not been listened to and the educational programmes are designed to give them a voice.
The initial programme runs until December 2016 and feedback will be used to refine the interventions. A short questionnaire, focus groups with participants and session observations will aid impact evaluation. Short questionnaires completed by the young people before and after the interventions will seek to discover their ideas about living a ‘good life’ and how confident they are about their future goals and how they might reach them.
Clearly, character education is not a panacea for the multiple and complex challenges faced by young people on the margins of society, but it is the hope of the Jubilee Centre that this project and the new learning interventions will help to support young people in combatting today’s challenges and enrich their lives.
Dr Sandra Cooke, Director of Partnerships
Jenny Higgins, Research Fellow
Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues