Professor Phyllida Parsloe 1930-2021

Professor Phyllida Parsloe          J. Wilson – University of Bristol

Inaugural Professor of Social Work at the University of Bristol, first female Pro-Vice Chancellor and Warden of Wills Hall and Emeritus Professor in the School for Policy Studies, Professor Phyllida Parsloe died age 90 on 1st September. During a long and distinguished career, she made an immense contribution to social work education and research and to the development of social work as a profession. Further, her personal and academic credentials made it impossible for the male culture of the time to sidestep her and led her into senior roles in UK universities.

John Carpenter, Emeritus Professor of Social Work and Applied Social Science, writes:  Alongside her close friend and colleague, Professor Olive Stevenson at Nottingham, Phyllida Parsloe was regarded as a doyenne of social work in the UK. Blessed with a formidable intellect and clarity of expression, she would pick apart woolly thinking and challenge specious argument whether in writing about social work or in university committees. More than this, her ability to respect and understand the needs of each person as an individual enabled her to move debates forward and alleviate entrenched positions.

During the 1970s, social work was finding its feet following major developments in social welfare, notably the creation of social services departments in local authorities, the professionalisation of probation and the growth of the voluntary sector. Professor Parsloe’s voice carried great authority: unlike many critics of social work, she had been a practitioner herself and with Olive Stevenson, she had researched what social workers at the time were actually doing and thinking (Stevenson and Parsloe: Social Services Teams: the practitioners’ view, 1978 and Social Service Area Teams, 1981). She very evidently knew what she was talking about. She commanded the room. But her authority derived also from her humanity and quiet generosity to many: she was generous with her time and her ideas, but she wanted first to know what you thought. If your ideas made sense, you would get her full support. If not, she would help you examine them rigorously and fairly and develop them more sustainably. Her many doctoral students from Hong Kong and the UK would attest to this.

Phyllida had great ideas herself. Recognising from her own experience that the lack of good professional cooperation between doctors and social workers was to the detriment of patients/clients, she persuaded the Bristol University medical school to engage in a short programme of joint pre-qualifying interprofessional education – the first in the world. She brought ‘problem-based learning’, pioneered at McMaster University for the education of medical students, into the education of social workers as ‘enquiry and action learning’.  Hers was the inspiration; her colleagues made the ideas a reality, with her support. Determined to develop the pedagogy of social work education and its evidence base, she became the founding editor of Social Work Education: an international journal (1981). Under her leadership, Bristol acquired an international reputation as a centre of excellence in social work education. She had a special relationship with universities in Hong Kong and was a visiting professor first at Hong Kong and later at Hong Kong Baptist University.

At a national level, Phyllida Parsloe was a prominent member (1986-2001) of the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work, then the regulating body for the profession, the Barclay Commission review of social work (1982) and the Wagner review of residential care (1988).

Phyllida combined again with Olive Stevenson to research the notion of ‘empowerment’ (Community Care and Empowerment 1993). The incisive introduction to her edited book Pathways to Empowerment (1996) remains well worth reading by social workers, counsellors and others who believe that they can ‘empower’ their clients. In her view, pathways to empowerment are those whereby people can increase control over their own lives and the services which they receive.

Phyllida Parsloe had graduated in history at Bristol University and qualified in psychiatric social work at the LSE. She was awarded a PhD by Bristol university and an honorary Doctor of Science degree by the University of the West of England.

Phyllida worked as a probation officer in Devon (1954-1959) and at St George’s Hospital, London as a psychiatric social worker (1959 to 1965). She returned to the LSE as a lecturer in the Department of Social Administration (1965-1970). In 1970 Phyllida was appointed as Associate Professor in Law at the University of Indiana in the United States where she taught law students how to interview. She returned to the UK as the first Professor of Social Work and the first female professor at Aberdeen University (1973-1978) where she established a department.

Professor Parsloe was appointed as the first Chair in Social Work at Bristol in 1978 and only the university’s second female professor. She held this post until her retirement in 1996 when she was appointed Professor Emeritus. A further measure of her stature with the university was that she was the first woman to be appointed as Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University (1988-1991); in that role she once again proved her integrity, clarity and vision. She chaired a review of university halls of residence, seeing them as a place where the whole person was developed, not just their academic credentials.  Subsequently, she was an ‘inspired’ appointment as Warden of Wills Hall (1991-1997), the first woman to take this role. She enjoyed it enormously. It was a source of many anecdotes, including repelling an invasion of Viking marauders (conference delegates in fancy dress) who burst into her room at night; she awoke, they fled.

Following her retirement from the university, Phyllida took up senior roles within the health service as chair of the Frenchay Hospital NHS Trust, and subsequently of the North Bristol NHS Trust (1999-2003). She lived in Thornbury, South Gloucestershire for many years, became a town councillor and its mayor three times. She served as a trustee of many local and national charities and was a founder of Dementia Voice which enables people with experience of the disease to contribute to the work of the Alzheimer’s Society.

The School for Policy Studies, the University of Bristol and her many colleagues and friends and students around the world owe her a great debt of gratitude. She once wrote of her concern to prepare social work students for the complex and often hostile world they were about to enter. She wanted to “…help them keep alive their faith in being able to change the world at least a little…”. Phyllida’s life was an inspiration and example.

If you would like to add a tribute or share a memory, please write in the comment box below.

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12 thoughts on “Professor Phyllida Parsloe 1930-2021

  1. Philippa Gray writes:Phyllida was an exceptional person. For me as one of her Phd students and later a fellow academic she was an inspiration. I know all her students and colleagues in Hong Kong felt this. She was very well respected in the academic community there. Personally, I have very fond memories of our times together in Hong Kong. We had a lot of fun and laughter as well as work. Phyllida had a great sense of humour.

  2. That she had a formidable intellect goes without saying, but what always shone through to me was her immense practicality, and her ability to rapidly understand other people and what they needed. When I went on my first ever research leave, her advice was ‘ spring clean the kitchen first, or it will nag at you all year’. For me that was spot on. But perhaps a better example is when she moved to Thornbury in retirement. Her home had bay windows right out to the pavement, with no front garden. Neighbours told her that late night antisocial activity from young people going home from town centre pubs was a challenge. Phyllida’s solution? She spent a few friday and saturday nights, out doing hanging baskets and pots of flowers by the door, at midnight. She got to know the young people. She became the nutty lady who gardens at midnight. She never encountered problems, and what’s more she learnt a lot from them about what it was like to be young in Thornbury and used that knowledge to help improve facilities. That capacity to journey alongside you whoever you were made her inspirational to so many generations of students and others.

  3. A true polymath in my view – the first woman Professor at Aberdeen University and the second to be Professor at Bristol University. On top of her formidable intellect I was struck by her compassion and range of influence, for example, from her influential approaches to pedagogy in universities to her understanding of the work of staff in prisons. She made an impact on my thinking, grateful and missed. Prof Graham Towl, Durham University, UK.

  4. I am very sad to learn that Phyllida has died. I knew and worked with her as a colleague at Bristol University, and in a charitable context when she was a trustee of the Sir Halley Stewart Trust, and also supported BRACE – a Bristol Charity involved in funding Dementia Research. I was a consultant employed by Frenchay Hospital NHS Trust, and subsequently North Bristol NHS Trust (1999-2003) whilst she held the Chair of these organisations and was responsible for innovations, often thinking “outside the box” in a way that rarely happened in the NHS. Phyllida left her mark in so many ways, and was very modest about her achievements – a great model for others to follow..

  5. As an academic member of staff when Phyllida led the Department of Social Work I was in awe of her brilliant leadership – inclusive, warm but efficient and authoritative. She was adept at enabling people to take on new responsibilities, roles and challenges and often found the resources to support them. When she delegated she did not interfere but provided support as necessary. She was always willing to look at new ways to do things, even if this meant challenging the established conventions of the university or regulatory body. Kind on a personal level, I recollect that when I was unwell she physically removed a pile of work from my hands with a promise to complete it herself and told me to go home.
    Phyllida was a wonderful role model for women in the university – trailblazing many firsts: female professor of SW, Dean, Pro-Vice Chancellor, then Warden of Wills Hall. Her working life then took her a myriad of public sector roles: from Health Trusts, to Housing to Voluntary Sector, to local government. She also understood the value of community – from her work with the Barclay report, to her conception of the university as a series of communities, to her beloved town of Thornbury.

  6. I have known Professor Phyllydia Parsloe since I was a student and quiet apart from her distinquished academic record and formidablke mind, she was a lovely human being, practising what she taught- almost classically reflecting the grweat Quaker dictum “seek ye the godhead in every perosn”.
    As a young lecturer in Psychiatric Social Work, Leeds University, Phyllyda was an inspiration and I was privilged to serve with her on CCSWQ andat a personal elve, she was the extenral assessor for my professorial appoiuntment at Southampton in 1980 and, quite rightly, she gave me a rough ride, but was very supportive of this new anxious professor.
    Our social work discipline has lost a great doyen and the world fine human being, who contributed to much, with much grace to so many people across the professional/ ptient boundary
    Professor Colin pritchard
    Research Professor, Bournemouth Unversity.

  7. I invited Phyllida to edit the book Pathways to Empowerment in 1994, as part of a series of books on social work aimed to assist the devleopment of social work as an academic discipline and a profession in post-Communist countries, especially Russia. The series was funded by the Open Society which at the time was active in promoting such a development. It was indeed published in Russian as well as in English.
    It was a pleasure and an honour to collaborate with Phyllida on devleoping and publishing this book, which remains a key text on empowerment, a concept and a practice totally new to post-Communist countries.
    Prof. Shulamit Ramon
    prof. of social inclusion and wellbeing
    University of hertfordshire

  8. I too am very saddened by news of Phyllida’s death. Reading John Carpenter’s lovely tribute John to a remarkable woman and life sent me back to the memoir by her dear friend Professor Olive Stevenson and this delightful memory from when she began as a social worker in Devon:

    “Another facet of my Devon experience was a meeting, within the first few weeks, with a very tall, fit-looking young woman, who had arrived at the same time as I, as a Probation Officer in Exeter. With typical thoughtfulness, Nora Gallup introduced me to Phyllida Parsloe, fresh from Home Office training – as it then was – and a history graduate from Bristol University. (Two ‘new girls’ together.) Our friendship was immediate and, within a few months, we had found a flat together; subsequently we moved to a lovely little thatched cottage in Ebford, near Topsham, where we spent the next four years. (The rent being 4 Guineas a week, I recall.) That friendship has been very important to me throughout my life….”

    Olive goes on to describe how they used to give their home phone numbers out to service users, one of who, “Mrs C”, used to ring Phyllida regularly and there’s a lovely story of how Mrs C rang up one evening when Olive and Phyllida had some very special dinner guests round: Clare and Donald Winnicott! and how Phyllida, lacking in confidence as a newly qualified social worker, was embarrassed to have to talk to Mrs C in front of such esteemed guests. “Mrs C usually prefaced her remarks with, ‘Oh Miss Parsloe, I don’t know what the end will be’. ” (https://www.hintonpublishers.com/reflections-on-a-life-in-social-work-a-personal-professional-memoir.html)

    There is so much we can still learn from Phyllida and her huge legacy.

  9. I too want to share my sadness. My memories of Phyllida – always a striking and stimulating presence both as a person and in what she had to say and how she said it, go back to when, as a visiting lecturer, she ‘dropped into’ the Barnet House Oxford Child care officer and Probation course in 1962-3. She made a giant contribution to social work policy, practice, research and education in so many different ways. The research she and Olive Stevenson led just post-Seebohm (Social Services Teams the practitioners’ views) was grossly under-valued (partly because it didn’t quite fit with received government wisdom at the time) should still be on the social work curriculum, especially now when social work within community-based social services is at serious risk of being marginalised. And it showed many of us the way in terms of ‘mixed methods’ practice research with clear policy messages. Our paths crossed over the years and she was always kind and generous with wise advice to me as I moved from practice to research and social work education. What a huge contribution she has made.

  10. Dear Phyllida

    I am so very sad to hear about your death but take some comfort from knowing that you died at Lion House, a place that was very special to you and that I had the opportunity to visit. You were a letter writer and I have decided to write my personal tribute to you on your death as a letter.

    I first met you in July 1989 when I was visiting the UK from my then Toronto home. I was in England to attend a national conference, develop a network here, and explore job possibilities for a planned return to the UK after 20 years in Toronto. The University of Bristol, Department of Social Work had been recommended. I still have my notes from that meeting and they comprise a list of people and places to contact, you said I ‘might be the kind of person they are looking for’. Perhaps in part because you had yourself worked at the University of Indiana in the 1970s, you were very supportive of our plans to return. A follow-up letter gave me further access to parts of your network. Our planned return took place in December 1989 and with my husband and two young children we settled in Somerset.

    In April 1990, I was offered a two year part-time post as Research Fellow in your Bristol Department. You had obtained the necessary funds for this appointment from The Halley-Stewart Trust and your letter of 18 July 1990 tells me you were hopeful of seeking further funding to extend the appointment. You were kindness itself – at Easter 1990 you generously lent us your cottage by the sea on the Isle of Wight – we all fondly remember that stay, including being mortified that our 6 year old son had accidentally broken a clock!

    On 1 September 1990 I began to research Enquiry and Action Learning (EAL) a hugely exciting and innovative approach to learning and teaching for the professions that I had first discovered in a 1976 family therapy student placement at McMaster University Medical School, Ontario. This was a wonderful opportunity as I shared your passion for developing how to learn to be professionals. You became my Head of Department, my supervisor, and you undertook my staff appraisals. As you note in Nov. 1992, I was ‘actually researching the Department itself’! You took a big risk in appointing me. In 1993, I was appointed to a Lectureship in Social Work and you encouraged my submissions for promotion.

    I was hugely impressed that you were Pro-Vice Chancellor at Bristol (1988-1991) and the first woman to hold such an appointment and you encouraged my interest in university leadership and administration. I was elected to University Council at Bristol and then later at the University of Sussex. I took on the Head of Department role in both Universities and I like to think that I learnt from observing you. You were able to both be authoritative and to listen and respond to your staff. You were generously supportive to many of us. Your preferred mode was one-to-one and I remember you laughingly expressed how difficult you would have found the EAL focus on group learning. You nevertheless understood the value of groups and others in your Department were national leaders in groupwork. EAL provided a springboard for my national roles in the field of learning and teaching

    You encouraged me to pursue a doctorate while at Bristol and I was awarded a doctorate by publication in 1999, after you retired from the university. You wrote, ‘congratulations. I was delighted to hear that you have got your PhD. It’s a nice handle to have and well deserved, with love Phyllida.’ Letters were still hand-written then!

    You introduced me to your Hong Kong Doctoral Supervisees, I took on an examining role, I also forged links that helped me develop my own connections with universities in Hong Kong. They were interested then in the potential for developing EAL in programmes there.

    I left Bristol in 2001 and moved to Sussex, pulled back to where I grew up and where my parents still lived. Again in common with you, supporting ageing parents was important. In 2004 I was touched when you honoured me by travelling to Sussex and giving the vote of thanks at my professorial lecture. I treasure a photo of us both that evening. And my parents and sons were finally able to meet you!

    I was appointed as Editor of Social Work Education in 2009, the journal you founded in 1981. I still have the box of papers under my desk, awaiting ANO to write a history of the journal. I was keen to further internationalise the journal and to explore similarities and differences across the world.

    After you had retired from Bristol University, I admired your ever burgeoning portfolio career as you moved on to new fields. I tried on more than one occasion to interest you in writing for Social Work Education or to contribute to books I was editing but you graciously turned me down. You told me you then what I now have a deep understanding of, that you no longer focussed on keeping up to date with social work so could not write about it. I find myself today with the same response to such requests as I have become active in different fields. There are many ways to give back to my own community.

    Thankyou for all you gave me.

    With love
    Imogen

    Imogen Taylor, Emeritus Professor of Social Work and Social Care
    University of Sussex

    1. Phyllida joined the Board of Trustees of The Sir Halley Stewart Trust in 1982, 4 years before I was elected and met her for the first time. She was already an important and influential figure in Social Education and the Trust, which awards grants in support of medical, religious and social research, depended heavily on her expertise in the last area although she took a keen and informed interest in all our activities.
      Phyllida was unafraid to question the quality of any application but if convinced of its value would offer support and frequently made the decisive analysis which led to acceptance, or rejection, of a grant application. All this she achieved with humour and without alienating those with opposing views.
      Her other great contribution to the Trust was her generosity, she frequently visited grantees and offered her support and wisdom. She was in my opinion the perfect trustee and when she was no longer able to attend our meetings we collectively agreed to offer her Emeritus Trustee status and were delighted by her acceptance.
      Duncan Stewart. President of SHST

  11. A great loss to social work – and to humanity. I loved Phyllida’s wit. My favourite memory is when a number of Bristol staff were attending a CSWE conference on poverty at the Atlanta Hilton (yes, you read that correctly). Phyllida had long been irritated at how difficult it was proving to get people to attend staff meetings. One colleague who had been notably absent walked into the foyer where Phyllida was holding court. ‘I think I’ll call a staff meeting’ was her response.

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