Dr James Weinberg (PSA Trustee)


The Political Studies Association is a proud partner of UK Parliament Week. During #UKPW the PSA will be sharing a number of blogs written by teachers and students of politics. UK Parliament Week is an annual festival that engages people from across the UK with their UK Parliament, explores what it means to them and empowers them to get involved. For more information click here.

It all starts with…democratic education? UK Parliament Week 2020.

Following the murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minnesota, former US President Barack Obama sent a message to the world about the importance of politics and, more specifically, the potential of individuals to challenge power structures, address abuses thereof, and make a positive difference in the face of adversity. He wrote: ‘[I]f we want to bring about real change, the choice isn’t between protest and politics. We have to mobilise to raise awareness, and we have to organise and cast our ballots to make sure that we elect candidates who will act on reform.’ This invocation was a compelling reminder that politics, as both an individual and collective phenomenon, can be what we make of it.


This is an important message that resonates strongly with the theme of the 2020 UK Parliament Week: ‘it starts with you’. A pithy aphorism, but what does it mean in practice? To stick with the opening gambit above, let us consider the story of Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. In 2013, these three women came together on social media following the murder of a young black man, Trayvon Martin, with the simple message that #BlackLivesMatter. Seven years on and these three exceptional women have built a global network of politically active communities that work together to combat racism, end police brutality, influence policy, amplify people’s stories, run for elected office, and represent those without a voice. From a single tweet, they have created a mass movement of politically conscious and justice-oriented activists seeking to make a difference in people’s everyday lives. 


Yet insofar as political participation lies at the heart of democracy and stimulates responsive and inclusive government, it is also important that we understand who participates and when, why, or how? Sadly, political scientists continue to document multifaceted and often intersectional inequalities in political participation by age, gender, education, ethnicity, and socio-economic status. In this context, academics as well as practitioners seek to interrogate the dynamics of participatory inequalities and find ways to redress them. One such response, researched by many of our colleagues in the Young People’s Politics specialist group and practiced by our wonderful community of school and teacher members, is ‘political’, ‘democratic’ or ‘citizenship’ education.


When we talk of democratic education, we refer specifically to those informal and formal opportunities taking place in sites of learning that enhance people’s abilities to handle evidence, articulate and substantiate arguments, engage critically with the social and political world, and understand key democratic concepts, issues and processes as well as their membership of local, national and global communities. Research conducted around the world has shown that democratic education in its variant forms can increase social capital, improve political knowledge, stimulate current and anticipated political participation, and even mitigate inequalities therein. If people of all ages, genders and backgrounds are going to feel willing and able to have their voice heard in politics, and in doing so respond to Barack Obama’s call to action, then effective democratic education must be available as both a staple of our schooling system and as a component of what a 2018 House of Lords’ report described as everyone’s life-long civic journey.


As an organisation committed to the public understanding of politics and the study thereof, the PSA supports and applauds all of our members and non-members alike who are engaged in the act of democratic education during this year’s UK Parliament Week and ordinarily. We also support those who already hold the levers of power but remain committed to opening the door to the next generation of change-makers. Policy documents such as the Council of Europe’s Reference Framework of Competences for Democratic Culture, which was launched in April 2018 and has now been implemented in countries across the continent, is a case in point of good practice. And at a time when our politics is increasingly fractious, and our livelihoods are existentially stretched by the Covid-19 crisis, the PSA supports everyone in the global community who is directing democratic values, attitudes, skills, knowledge and critical understanding into achieving positive change.

Dr James Weinberg, University of Sheffield and PSA Trustee (@JamesWeinberg1)