New Research: Exploring the role of adult social workers in supporting parents with learning disabilities

By Beth Tarleton and Gillian MacIntyre

Made with photo symbols (see credit below)

The lives of parents with learning disabilities have been given increasing attention by policy makers and practitioners in recent years and there has been a growing awareness of their particular support needs and the barriers they face in parenting their children.

We have both carried out research in this area for around 20 years and during that time we have witnessed changes in awareness, knowledge and understanding of, and attitudes towards, parents with learning disabilities. We believe that this is partly the result of the prominence given to the rights of people with disabilities to have a family life and children, as set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  This has been accompanied by a growing body of research on the lives of families with learning disabilities and there are a number of things we now know about these families.  Firstly, they are likely to be over-represented in the child protection system and are much less likely to have their children living with them.  Secondly, these families are likely to face a number of barriers that prevent them from undertaking their parenting role effectively and thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we know that parents with learning disabilities can, and do, parent their children when appropriate support is in place.

We also have a really good sense of what the right support looks like for parents with learning disabilities and guidance around supported parenting is available for practitioners across the UK (see link below).  Good support often involves early identification and intervention at an early stage to work in a preventative manner with families to help develop and support parenting capacity.  Good practice also involves paying attention to communication, thinking about how complex information can be shared with parents in a clear and accessible way. Support via parenting programmes to help parents develop their parenting skills can also be useful, particularly when these have been adapted to suit the needs of people with learning disabilities. We know that parents with learning disabilities benefit from having tasks broken down and repeated and, ideally, that support should take place in their own home or in an environment in which parents are familiar. The assessment of parenting capacity should take place using specialist assessment tools that take the needs of parents with learning disabilities into account. When assessing parenting capacity, parents should be made aware that an assessment is taking place and the assessment should take place over an extended period of time to allow parents to develop their skills. Parents with learning disabilities also benefit from additional support from advocacy services who can support parents to understand complex information as well as ensuring that parents have the opportunity to have their voices heard in a range of different settings.

We know that often professional involvement in the lives of parents with learning disabilities centres around child protection concerns. At this stage, statutory timescales often mean that parents do not have the opportunity to develop or demonstrate parenting capacity.  Much of the research that has taken place in this area has centred around the child protection process and has considered the role of children and families social workers. Other research has focused on the role of nurses, midwives and advocacy workers in supporting parents with learning disabilities.  This leaves a gap in our knowledge around the role of adult and/or learning disability social workers in supporting parents with learning disabilities.  We know very little about how they understand and experience their role including the skills and knowledge base they draw on to work with and support parents with learning disabilities.

To address this gap in our knowledge we have been awarded funding by NIHR SSCR to explore in more detail the role of adult and learning disability social workers working with parents with learning disabilities. We hope to identify areas of good practice that we can learn from, developing shared learning and development across the sector.  We will work with Research in Practice and SpeakUp Rotherham to develop:

  • A focused briefing document for LAs regarding the development of policies/protocols to support parents with LD which also details the knowledge social workers need and the training they require.
  • An outline policy document on support for parents with LD which can be adapted and used by LAs.
  • Run, with Research in Practice, two half day webinars.
  • An easy read briefing and short film for parents about getting support in their own right.

We will do this by engaging with a number of key stakeholders including parents, social workers and policy makers. We will approach this in a range of different ways including a policy analysis, focus groups and interviews to better understand the role of adult social workers in this complex area of practice.  We look forward to working with our colleagues in the practice community over the next year or so.

Beth Tarleton is a Senior Lecturer at the School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol. Beth is co-ordinator of the Working Together with Parents network which is a free network that supports professionals working with parents with learning difficulties/learning disabilities. Beth has many years of experience of carrying out research with parents with learning disabilities.

Gillian MacIntyre is a Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Strathclyde. She has many years of experience of carrying out research with parents with learning disabilities.


This blog reports on independent research funded by the National Institute for Health & Care Research, School for Social Care Research. The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the NIHR SSCR, the National Institute for Health & Care Research, nor the Department of Health and Social Care. About NIHR SSCR | NIHR SSCR

Further information:

Recent publications:

MacIntyre G, Stewart A, McGregor S. The double-edged sword of vulnerability: Explaining the persistent challenges for practitioners in supporting parents with intellectual disabilities. J Appl Res Intellect Disabil. 2019 Nov;32(6):1523-1534. doi: 10.1111/jar.12647. Epub 2019 Jul 18. PMID: 31318123.

Tarleton, B., Turney, D. Understanding ‘Successful Practice/s’ with Parents with Learning Difficulties when there are Concerns about Child Neglect: the Contribution of Social Practice Theory. Child Ind Res 13, 387–409 (2020).

Housing schemes for older people helping to alleviate loneliness

This blog by Paul Willis, Brian Beach and The DICE team, is part of the wider CaCHE equality, diversity and inclusion initiative. It has been cross-posted from Housing LIN blog.

Loneliness is a prevailing problem for adults across the life course with indications that adults who are single or widowed and renters are at higher risk of experiencing loneliness. New research into housing schemes for older people suggests that housing with care and support plays an important role in alleviating loneliness in later life. This is a key finding from The DICE study – a study into the social inclusion of older residents (60+ years of age) in housing with care and support schemes. This is a timely finding. The White Paper on social care released by the UK Government at the end of 2021 emphasises the importance of expanding options for supported housing and injecting more funding into new housing developments that give people with care and support needs, including many older people, more choices in their local area.

As highlighted by the Housing LIN, across the UK there is a growing demand for high-quality, age-friendly housing options that provide care and support for older adults within their local communities. Housing with care and support schemes are one answer to this. Such schemes are designed to prevent social isolation, promote interaction among residents and support people to live independent lives as they get older in the local areas that matter to them and their significant others. Housing with care models include extra care housing and independent living schemes as well as schemes formerly referred to as sheltered housing. Up to now we do not have much evidence as to how effective these kinds of housing schemes are in alleviating loneliness and reducing social isolation.

The DICE study was a three-year study into the ways in which housing with care and support schemes support the inclusion of older residents from different social groups and backgrounds. The study was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. One part of the study included a questionnaire distributed to over 104 schemes in England and Wales for residents to complete and return via the post. Seven hundred and forty one (741) residents returned the questionnaire to us, representing experiences from 95 schemes. The questionnaire was designed so we could compare our findings with the data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing.

The majority of respondents lived alone and were female which is broadly similar to other surveys looking at populations living in retirement-type housing. We used a short three-item measure of loneliness where higher values reflect greater loneliness. Using a statistical technique to match our respondents to similar people living in the community, we found that respondents in the DICE study had a significantly lower average score for loneliness than would be expected if they were living in the community instead of in housing with care and support. In addition the majority of DICE respondents agreed that their housing setting offered many positive opportunities to socialise with other residents. But there were more divergent views when it came to whether schemes offered social activities appropriate to their needs.

These findings highlight the benefits of housing with care schemes – alleviating loneliness and promoting positive opportunities to build social connections with other residents. The findings also help dispel arguments that housing schemes for older people represent social ghettos for residents and increase social divides between housing residents and people living in the wider community.

But the findings also suggest the type of social activities appropriate to all residents is more complicated. We know from our interviews with residents in the same study that social factors like gender, sexual identity, ethnicity and disability, alongside political orientations and personal interests, shape what social activities matter to different groups of residents in schemes.

In short, it’s good news for housing providers and residents – these schemes are working well in providing socially engaging environments for older people and helping to reduce loneliness in later life. But more needs to be done in meeting the diverse needs and interests of residents living in these schemes to make sure social activities hold appeal for all.

Paul Willis, Associate Professor, the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol and Brian Beach, Research Fellow at University College London and formerly at ILC-UK, are the primary authors of this guest blog.  

For more about The Dice Project, visit the project’s microsite hosted on the Housing LIN’s website here. You can also sign up to the HAPPI Hour session featuring The DICE Project taking place on Tuesday, 3 May 2022 at 4pm

And, if you found this blog of interest, do also have a look at the dedicated pages on combatting loneliness and reducing social isolation curated by the Housing LIN.

Lastly, if you would like to find out more about how the Housing LIN can provide you with bespoke support, please email us at: or look at our consultancy page.

Views expressed by authors may not represent the views of CaCHE.

Carbohydrates, fats and type 2 diabetes – are there patterns to be found?

By James Garbutt

When it comes to managing type 2 diabetes, there are lots of extreme diets out there with passionate advocates. Avoid carbs! Reduce fat! Restrict calories! However, researching the effects of diet on health in terms of single nutrient changes can be misleading. We don’t just eat single nutrients such as carbohydrates or fats on their own, we eat all kinds of combinations of nutrients from all kinds of different foods. How we combine all these foods together forms our ‘diet pattern’, and studying the health effects of diet in this more holistic way could offer insight into less extreme dietary management of type 2 diabetes.

What is type 2 diabetes?

For the majority of us, our blood glucose levels are kept in check by our pancreas. When we eat, carbohydrates in our food break down into glucose which then travels straight into our bloodstream. Our pancreas, sensing this increase in blood glucose, releases the hormone, insulin. Insulin, acting like a key, unlocks the cells of our body and shuttles the glucose inside, providing us with the energy we need to go about our day-to-day lives. Thankfully, our blood glucose levels return to normal.

In type 2 diabetes however, the cells of our body stop responding to insulin and our pancreas also stops producing as much. The insulin keys no longer fit the locks. Our body’s inner security systems fail to keep watch over us and our blood glucose levels begin to rise, bringing along for the ride a number of potentially serious complications.

Does diet matter for type 2 diabetes or is it all about weight loss?

Many types of diet have been shown to help blood glucose control in type 2 diabetes. Despite already being the focus of a lot of research, there is still no single diet that appears to win every time. Sometimes low-carbohydrate diets come out on top, at other times, low-fat diets. Very low-calorie diets are currently standard. Many people suggest weight loss is all that matters for improving blood glucose control, so whatever diet you can stick to will do the job. Lowering the amount of any macronutrient in your diet can instigate weight loss because your calorie intake is typically lowered as well. Maybe different diets can improve blood glucose control simply because they happened to help people lose more weight? However, eating carbohydrates (specifically, starches and sugars) does directly increase blood glucose after you eat them and constantly managing a large rise and fall of glucose may be an issue in its own right, regardless of weight loss. I wanted to try to make sense of what is going on here. Is dietary management of type 2 diabetes all down to weight loss or does the dietary pattern you eat matter too?

Using real-world data from people living with type 2 diabetes to find patterns in diet

Using a statistical technique called reduced-rank regression, I analysed real-life data on food intakes to find the best combination of foods (a diet pattern) that could separate people’s diets by the amounts of carbohydrate and fat that they contained. This allowed me to understand how people living with type 2 diabetes consumed foods which make their diets higher or lower in carbs or fats.  Each person receives a score for how much their own diet follows this unique pattern. The most prominent foods in the diet pattern we found were (sized and in order of importance):We named it the ‘carb/fat balance’ diet pattern. Those who had higher diet pattern scores ate more fruit, milk, baked potatoes and beans alongside less processed meat, butter, white bread and chips, which translated into higher carbohydrates and less fat overall. None of the people we studied consumed extreme intakes of fat or carbs, rather intakes remained in the ‘normal’ range typical of diets commonly consumed in the UK. Hence the key word, ‘balance’. Higher scores also coincided with general improvements in diet quality; something which has been independently associated with cardiometabolic improvements in previous research.

Over time the diets we analysed became more balanced, moving closer to meeting UK healthy eating guidelines. We found that people with diets that became a more balanced intake of carbs and fats had better glucose control. Weight loss associated with better glucose control too, but even after we accounted for weight loss a small effect of diet pattern remained. While the improvement to blood glucose control from weight loss vs. diet pattern change was bigger, our results indicate that overall diet still has a role to play.

The conclusion? Weight loss is still king, but glucose control in type 2 diabetes could be improved further by maximising overall food quality and moving towards meeting UK dietary guidelines i.e. a moderate intake of both carbohydrates and fats. Demonising specific nutrients is certainly a simpler message but it fails to account for the complex interplay between different nutrients, foods and eating behaviours on health.

The old adage, ‘everything in moderation’, rears its head yet again.


James Garbutt, BSc MRes RD, PhD student in the Centre for Exercise, Nutrition and Health Sciences, School for Policy Studies. This blog relates to his recently published co-authored paper in BMC Medicine: Is glycaemic control associated with dietary patterns independent of weight change in people newly diagnosed with type 2 diabetes? Prospective analysis of the Early‑ACTivity‑In‑Diabetes trial.


Cynthia Galliers, 1939-2022

In the 1980s and 1990s Cynthia Galliers was a leading member of a group of administrative staff at the former School for Advanced Urban Studies (SAUS) based at Rodney Lodge in Clifton Village. At the time, SAUS was expanding from its initial profile as a centre providing short residential courses for mid career public servants from both central and local government as well as other key players in the planning and delivery of urban and social policies in the UK. Both the graduate teaching and research profiles of the School were developing rapidly when Cynthia arrived in November 1983 as a Research Secretary, essentially processing research documents.

Over the next decade, she took on ever increasing responsibilities, becoming first a secretary to the short course residential programme, then secretary to a Decentralisation, Research and Information Centre. As a congenial colleague, her clear capabilities, calm competence and sound advice were well received by both staff and students. It was no surprise that in December 1992 she took on the key role of Departmental Secretary, directly responsible to the senior management and Director of SAUS to support their managerial, organisational and representative activities as well as being supervisor of six secretarial staff and key recorder of departmental meetings and the School’s strategic management group.

It was, in the early 1990s, a time of uncertainty about the future place of SAUS within the University of Bristol. It was at the end of 1995 that SAUS was formally merged with Social Policy and Social Work (the School for Applied Social Studies) to form the School for Policy Studies (SPS). At the same time as the rationalisation of the management roles in SPS, plans were laid for the physical transfer of SPS away from Rodney Lodge to a site within the university precinct (Priory Road). Under the new arrangements, Cynthia was appointed to assist the Graduate Secretary in December 1995 and was responsible for the administration of Ph.D graduate teaching and research programmes, including advertising, processing applications, organising induction and offices for new students, as well as ensuring that student issues were promptly addressed. About this time, Cynthia began to reflect on life after working with major administrative responsibilities for so many years and finally retired on 31 October 1997.

Cynthia was born on 20 July 1939 and was brought up in the county town of Shrewsbury. On leaving school, having studied shorthand and typewriting, she was employed as a secretary in the Mayor’s office of Shrewsbury Town Council. She met her future husband, Peter, when she was a teenager and the couple were married in June 1959. A son, David, was born in 1961 and a daughter, Clare, in 1965. Peter’s career led him to a job in Bristol and the family initially settled in Portishead but then moved to Stoke Bishop where they lived for 25 years.

Following retirement from the University of Bristol, Cynthia enjoyed for several years a varied social life including membership of a health club and a theatre group. Sadly, she had a severe heart attack in 2000, requiring 12 weeks in hospital and a triple by-pass operation. After a careful recovery, Cynthia indulged herself in her love of gardening with support from her husband. Another heart attack followed in 2006 and eventually she and Peter realised that they should be living in a more practical home. They moved to Henleaze in 2010. Gardening was still important as was joining a walking group and continuing to meet up with her friends from the  time she worked at SAUS, where she had been well regarded by all.

Cynthia passed away on 8th March 2022. She is survived by her husband Peter, her son, David, her daughter, Clare and her grandchildren Caitlin and Stanislas.

Four Black women who have advanced human rights

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala at the Annual Meeting 2016 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM/ Michael Buholzer/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Zibah Nwako, University of Bristol and Afua Twum-Danso Imoh, University of Bristol

Around the world, the activism of Black women has been instrumental in shaping social justice agendas and promoting human rights. Their work has improved the health and welfare of women and girls, protected the environment and elevated the voices of the oppressed, both in their communities and further afield.

As researchers who focus on women and children’s wellbeing and rights, we have come across the work of many such Black women. The four introduced here are inspirational – for the changes they brought about, for their work ethic, and for their passion to improve the everyday lives of marginalised or oppressed groups.

Efua Dorkenoo

Ghanaian-British women’s rights activist Efua Dorkenoo (1949-2014) was a pioneering leader in the global movement to end female genital cutting.

Portrait photograph of woman
Efua Dorkenoo. Lindsay Mgbor for DFID, Department for International Development, UK/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

As reported in The Guardian’s obituary of Dorkenoo, it was while working as a staff nurse at London hospitals that she learned of the medical complications faced by women who had undergone the practice.

In 1983, she co-founded the Foundation for Women’s Health, Research and Development, a women’s rights organisation which works to stop violence against women and girls.

She also became the World Health Organization’s first technical expert on female genital cutting.

Marielle Franco

Brazilian human rights activist Marielle Franco (1979-2018) drew on her experiences growing up in Maré, a favela (slum) in Rio de Janeiro, to campaign for the rights of favela residents, many of whom are Black. Much of her activism focused on addressing police violence and military intervention in the favelas.

Woman speaking to crowd
Marielle Franco. Mídia NINJA/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Franco’s campaigns on these issues, as well as her work to improve the lives of poor Black women in the favelas, made her one of the most-voted-for members of Rio city council’s 2016 local elections. She was assassinated less than two years later. Her legacy has ensured that four women closely connected to her have also recently been elected to political office.

Wangari Maathai

Professor Wangari Maathai (1940-2011), a Kenyan environmentalist and human rights activist, was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. From her previous training and practice in veterinary anatomy, she came to recognise the connection between environmental degradation, poverty and conflict. In particular, through her work she saw the negative impact of environmental degradation on the lives of women who were the main producers of food in this context.

Woman standing speaking into microphone
Wangari Maathai. The-time-line/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

Recognising that these conditions resulted in more drought, loss of biodiversity and increased poverty, she founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977. The focus of this movement is on poverty reduction and environmental conservation through tree planting. By 2004, the movement had expanded to over 30 countries and has now planted more than 51 million trees in Kenya alone.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Nigerian economist and politician Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is the first woman and the first African to be appointed as director-general of the World Trade Organization.

Woman dressed in blue
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala at the Annual Meeting 2017 of the World Economic Forum in Davos. World Economic Forum / Boris Baldinger/Flickr, CC BY-NC

She worked previously as a development economist at the World Bank, where she led several projects that provided support to low-income countries during the global financial crisis of 2007-08 and the world food price crisis of 2008-09.

As two-time finance minister of Nigeria, she worked to reduce corruption.

She has supported young people in Nigeria by launching programmes such as Growing Girls and Women in Nigeria, which has helped women to gain skills and employment. She has written several books and is the co-author of Women and Leadership: Real Life, Real Lessons, published in 2020.

There are many more women that are creating change in diverse ways in their communities or beyond, often in the face of great adversity. We encourage you to look around your local community and find more Black women to add to our list.The Conversation

Zibah Nwako, Senior Research Associate in Education, University of Bristol and Afua Twum-Danso Imoh, Senior Lecturer in Global Childhoods and Welfare, University of Bristol

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


The Bristol Referendum 2022: Thinking through the options

The co-authors of this contribution are members of the Bristol Civic Leadership Research Project: David Sweeting, Senior Lecturer in Urban Studies at the School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol; Robin Hambleton, Emeritus Professor of City Leadership at the University of the West of England, Bristol; and Thom Oliver, Associate Lecturer, University of the West of England, Bristol.

In a referendum on 5 May 2022, the citizens of Bristol will make an important decision about the way our city is governed.

Citizens will be asked to choose between retaining the existing mayoral model of governance, which was introduced into Bristol in 2012, or to opt for a committee system of decision-making, which was last used in Bristol in 2000. In a new report, called The Bristol referendum 2022: Thinking through the options, we consider:

  • What exactly are these two ways of running a city?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of these two models?
  • How could the models be designed to enable Bristol to respond to the current challenges the city now faces?

This is the latest report from the Bristol Civic Leadership Project (BCLP). This project, which brings together city governance experts from our two local universities, has been examining the impact of mayoral governance on the city since 2012.

Research findings on mayoral governance and the committee system

Our research has shown that the introduction of mayoral governance has had many benefits for Bristol. Opinion research carried out by the BCLP before and after the introduction of a directly elected mayor – in 2012, 2014 and 2018 – indicates that the citizens of Bristol felt that the leadership of the city became far more visible. Civic leaders agreed that the mayoral model enhanced the visibility of the city leader, and they also felt that the mayoral model had improved the leadership of the city.

Detailed investigation over the last ten years has also revealed that civic leaders in the city, in the public, private and community sectors, as well as citizens at large, take the view that Bristol’s first two directly elected mayors, Mayor Ferguson (2012-2016) and Mayor Rees (2016-2024), have both been successful in developing a positive vision for the future of the city and that the mayoral model meant that the city was much better represented in national and international settings.

On the downside BCLP research has also shown that, following the introduction of mayoral governance, many councillors felt that their role in city governance became unnecessarily restricted. There was also concern amongst civic leaders that too much power had become concentrated in the office of the mayor. Our survey research also suggests that citizens’ views on the timeliness of, and trust in, decision-making have not been improved by the introduction of mayoral governance in Bristol.

This new report also reviews experience with the committee system used in Bristol and across local government in Britain up to 2000. Supporters of the committee system argued that it enabled local government to be both effective and democratic, and that it provided councillors with influential roles in decision-making.

However, in a report published by the Bristol Local Democracy Commission in 2001, major criticisms of the committee system were identified. The Commission found that there was no clear and accountable leadership, that important decisions were not subject to proper and effective scrutiny, and that a lot of time and effort was absorbed to no great effect in committee meetings.

Where next for city governance in Bristol?

Current legislation means that the referendum will fix the governance system of Bristol for ten years, from 2024 to 2034. It is a hugely significant decision. This new report discusses a range of issues for citizens to consider and here we highlight three important themes.

First, the literature on city leadership suggests that the way city governance is organised can have an important impact, not just on whether a city council is able to be effective in meeting the many complex issues they face, but also on the democratic vitality and inclusiveness of decision-making in their city.

It follows that all the citizens of Bristol should be encouraged to consider which of these two models of governance will help the city respond to the major challenges now facing the city. These challenges include: responding to the public health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic; revitalising the economy of Bristol in the face of economic downturn; addressing the global climate emergency; and addressing increasing social, economic and racial inequality in our city.

Second, key democratic questions emerge in this debate. What are the advantages and disadvantages of enabling citizens to directly elect the city leader? What are the pros and cons of the committee system, where the council leader is selected by councillors? As part of our research on mayoral governance, we have long argued for stronger roles for councillors within the mayoral system. Adopting a committee system gives councillors clear roles in decision-making. In our report, we consider these and other matters, and include consideration of the ways that the models shape political leadership, their impacts on accountability and the ways that they affect the representation of people locally and the city externally.

Third, given the momentous significance of the May referendum for the future governance of Bristol the report recommends the establishment of an independent Bristol Governance Commission. This new commission, which would need to include representatives from across the voluntary, community, trade union, business, public and university sectors should be charged with the task of considering the best way to improve the governance of the City of Bristol.

This new commission should be set up without delay to take evidence, to consider experiences with successful city governance elsewhere in the world and to make recommendations to Bristol City Council.

The outcome of the Bristol Referendum in May 2022 is best seen not as the end of a debate about city leadership in Bristol, but the beginning of a civic conversation on how to improve the quality of city governance in our city.

Diversity and Representation. Does having a mayoral system make a difference?

Polling station
Image credit: Elliott Stallion, UNSPLASH

Natasha Carver is a lecturer in International Criminology at the School for Policy Studies and a member of the specialist research institute Migration Mobilities Bristol. Carver wrote the 2012 report “The Right Man for Bristol?” Gender Representation and the Mayor of Bristol.

This article is part of Bristol Ideas’ Referendum 2022 debate which looks at all aspects of city governance as part of ongoing work on democracy and the forthcoming May 2022 referendum.

Ten years ago, in the run up to the first mayoral election, Bristol Fawcett Society produced a report which documented shocking levels of representational inequality across political leadership in the city (The Right Man for Bristol?” Gender, Representation and the Mayor of Bristol). A pitiful 17 (24 per cent) of the 70 members of Bristol Council were female, significantly worse than the national average in local government, which itself was a poor reflection of the population. Ethnic diversity was limited to just three (four per cent) Asian-heritage councillors, despite the census returns showing 13.5 per cent in the city identifying as non-white, many of them as African-Caribbean, Black British or African. Voter turnout records showed that those from wealthier neighbourhoods were twice as likely to vote than those from the more deprived areas. In the public and private sectors things were no better, in fact they were considerably worse. Not only were the vast majority of public-sector organisations and private-sector employers led by white men, but so too their boards: ten of the largest employers in Bristol had boards comprised entirely of men.

Bristol lagged woefully behind the national picture: its claim to be a diverse, progressive city was entirely undermined by the cabal of wealthy white men who held power and seemed unwilling to make space for others – even when it came to statues of slave traders.

But that was ten years ago. As we all know, the people of the city took it into their own hands to put the statue where it belonged. And while we debate what if anything should be put up in its place, change has already taken place in City Hall: the number of female councillors has risen from 17 to 32 (46 per cent); the number of ethnic minority councillors (excluding white minorities) from three to nine (13 per cent), not including the mayor himself.

But does this success story have anything to do with the post of the elected mayor? Both mayors have been male in accordance with the script across England and Wales, where it seems people continue to think that they must find ‘the Right Man’ for the job – or as the former Prime Minister David Cameron put it when he inaugurated the mayoral system, ‘our dream is to have real heavyweight, influential figures [like] Boris’ (laugh or cry quietly into your cup of tea over that one).

However, it was George Ferguson who signed the European Charter for Equality of women and men in local life on behalf of the city, and Marvin Rees who launched a Commission for Race Equality (CRE). The former led to the founding of the Bristol Women’s Commission (BWC) which made increasing women’s participation in public life one of their top priorities, while the latter broadened the reach through the Stepping Up programme aimed at increasing diversity in senior leadership across the public and private sectors.

The work of BWC and the CRE has made an enormous difference, but it also requires those who hold power to accept that things need to change.

Back in 2012, we reported that despite achievements nationally, men were staunchly over-represented among Labour and Liberal Democrat party councillors in Bristol; the level of female councillors for the Conservative Party was lower than the low national figures; and only the Greens, who had just two councillors, were bucking the trend. In our report we argued that ‘the three main political parties of Bristol City Council are all under-performing in relation to equality and diversity and it is incumbent on them to consider strategies and means for improvement.’

The national picture has not changed. In 2019, the Fawcett Society published research which showed that women’s representation in local government was ‘at a standstill’: just 35 per cent of councillors were female, and progress in this area has been so slow that in 2021 the Fawcett Society calculated that it would take until 2077 to reach gender equality.

But in Bristol, following the admirable efforts of BWC, the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrat Party took these criticisms on board and put women and ethnic minority candidates in seats where they actually stood a chance of winning. The Conservatives, meanwhile, continue to operate as though they are living in the 1890s (when the statue of Colston was erected).


Would there have been real change if the post of the mayor hadn’t existed? It seems unlikely, with all the political wrangling needed to bring about change in a council system. But then if the mayor had been Conservative then it seems even less likely that his cabinet would look remotely like the current one.

The extent to which this is a lasting change and will survive either a change of mayor or the end of the mayoral system is, however, dependent not on how you cast your vote in the referendum, but on changing the way politics is financed, organised and conducted. We argued in 2012 that the three factors which limited diversity in public office were caring responsibilities, cash and culture. With regard to the first two of these – as the BWC have recently documented through a survey of female councillors leaving office (some after just one term) – it costs time and money to campaign for office, things that women and ethnic minority people are still often short of in comparison to white men.

More problematic, however, is the culture of politics. Based on analysis of data from 2015-18, Local Government Chronicle found that formal grievances involving bullying and harassment by council staff had increased by 7.5 per cent. Bristol Council was among the worst with 40 complaints over the three-year period. Despite efforts to change this culture, complaints about what the former Leader of the Greens, Ani Stafford-Townsend, called ‘nasty and bullying sexism’ continue to be made.

In addition to the internal masculinist culture, women and ethnic minority people in public life are increasingly subject to misogyny and race hate on social media. This has been found to be the major factor preventing women from taking up roles in public life and driving out those who already have public roles. It’s hard not to see social media as an amplified echo chamber of the sexist culture of politics. A ‘heavyweight’ may have been the stereotype of ‘the right man’ for the job in 2012, but the era of the dinosaurs is over. If we stick with the mayoral system, then perhaps this time we can think about choosing the right person for the job.

Originally published on Bristol Ideas.

Situating Chimamanda Adichie’s ‘Purple Hibiscus’ in the child welfare policy context in Nigeria

Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s debut novel, Purple Hibiscus, illuminates a succession of horrific crimes committed by one man against his children and his wife. Its publication in the UK in 2003 coincided with the passage of the Child Rights Act in Nigeria. Reading Purple Hibiscus against this policy and legal backdrop raises numerous questions about child welfare policies and practices in Nigeria. 

To discuss the child welfare implications of this book the School for Policy Studies held an event seeking to explore the parenting and child welfare policy and practice implications raised by Purple Hibiscus within an emerging child rights era in Nigeria. 

Blog by Ms Olatoun Gabi-Williams (Founder of Borders Literature for all Nations, Lagos, Nigeria)

“Situating Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus in the Child Welfare Policy Context in Nigeria”. This is the title the organisers gave to this seminar which centres a deeply troubled fictional family living under military rule in 1980s Nigeria. Key elements of the seminar were: a reading of a novel excerpt which puts the violent hysteria of the immensely wealthy and influential family patriarch on display, my own review of the novel, and a panel discussion.

The review provides the justification for the meeting of child welfare stakeholders from Nigeria with our peers at Bristol’s School for Policy Studies which took place on Wednesday, 27th October 2021. Viewers will recognise in the Achike’s family crisis, a crisis that has its roots in a time that pre-exists the family – the colonial mission school the father attended as a child. By the end of the seminar, child welfare stakeholders were reminded of the mandate of social work in any situation involving the violation of child rights: the protection of these rights – now made possible in Nigeria by the passage of the Child Rights Act 2003. It has been adopted by over 24 states in a nation of 36.

This seminar was deeply concerned with the dangers colonial legacies may pose to the human rights of children in families. Their rights to life/survival, to development, to protection, to participation in the world around them and to dignity. Mindful of the African family structure with its strong inter-generational links, mindful of how inherited patterns of thought can function like generational curses in a family, a community, a nation, the seminar brought into focus the novel’s atomic vision of brokenness in a parent begetting brokenness in his dependents and it forces a reckoning with this peculiar brokenness which begets its own chain of brokenness.

The seminar was framed in the spirit of two inextinguishable uprisings, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth which attests to a direct link between mental disease in Africa and the colonisation of Africa and Decolonizing the Mind by Kenyan author, Ngugi wa Thiong’o which examines the politics of language, the premier weapon of epistemic violence wielded by imperial forces. With its gaze turned towards the tyrannies of europatriarchal and afro patriarchal knowledge, the seminar also channelled the spirit of Swedish/Nigerian feminist, Minna Salami, whose Sensuous Knowledge, is a pioneering work of epistemology.

But if the spirit of decoloniality is burning here, so too are questions about parenting: the panel examined the social exclusion wrought not by poverty but by wealth underlined by colonial attitudes; the panel shone a light on a Nigerian/ African/ global demographic that ought to be too rich and too famous to parent their children under the radar but that is exactly where the rich and powerful have been parenting: off the social work grid, out of sight, behind the high, fortified walls of their homes.

Dr. Tayo Ajirotutu of Federal Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital, Lagos and Tunde Koleoso, Rtd. Assistant Director of Social Welfare at Lagos State Ministry of Youth and Social Development were my colleagues on the panel. While we were able to address a few of the questions [from my moderator’s script published on BORDERS, a publicity platform and journal for the African book industry], here is a distillation of important research questions:

How prepared is the mental health care system of Nigeria, a former colony, to provide interventions for Eugene Achike’s condition?

Does the Nigerian mental health care system possess the approaches and resources for intervening in cases like that of Achike’s wife and children who are casualties of a lifetime of violence perpetrated by the family patriarch?

In this era of universal child rights, how much social work in our communities involves the children of the rich and powerful?

In this era of universal child rights, how much literature in childhood studies, social policy studies, family policy studies and social work practice is dedicated to the rich and powerful?

If it were discovered that the rights of the children of a rich and powerful family have been violated in this era of child rights laws, does the existing child welfare system have the resources to intervene effectively and to protect the child?

How have the real-life mission school contemporaries of the fictional Eugene Achike, (octogenarians today) raised their own children? [Type of education, enforcement of discipline, prohibitions, emphases, the language and culture of the home in post-colonial Nigeria]

How did the children of mission schools who rose (like Eugene Achike) to positions of leadership in political life and industry, raise their children? [Type of education, enforcement of discipline, prohibitions, emphases, the language and culture of the home in post-colonial Nigeria]


Understanding ‘rough sex’

This week, Dr Natasha Mulvihill, Senior Lecturer in Criminology and researcher at the Centre for Gender and Violence Research in the School for Policy Studies, is launching an anonymised online survey to investigate experiences of ‘rough sex’.  She introduces here the context and aims of the research.

Photo by Kristin Vogt from Pexels

‘Rough sex’ refers broadly to aggressive physical or degrading acts during sex.  In recent public and popular discourse in the UK, the term has been used commonly in two contexts.  The first is to refer to consenting sexual practices following the Fifty Shades trilogy, published by E.L. James over 2011-2012. The second refers to instances of death, usually involving a female victim and male perpetrator, and commonly following asphyxiation, beating or injuries through penetration.  In the second case, ‘rough sex’ is an inaccurate euphemism, as such acts represent sexual violence, manslaughter and homicide.

Beyond these two examples, lived experiences of ‘rough sex’ may be better understood on a spectrum, with the line sometimes misjudged between consensual rough sex and sexual violence and abuse.

In a research project commencing this week, I am seeking to understand individual experiences of unwanted ‘rough sex’ – however defined by participants – which occurred within the context of consensual sex, but which the participant felt at the time or later was non-consensual, harmful or upsetting. The research invites participants across different identities of gender, age and sexuality and recognises different contexts of sexual relations, including one-off encounters and short-, medium- and long-term relationships. It recognises too, and welcomes comment on, the limitations of the term ‘rough sex’.

The impact of Fifty Shades is disputed.  It is celebrated by some for catalysing popular acceptance of, and engagement in, consensual BDSM (bondage, dominance, sadism, submission, masochism); and by others castigated for promoting unsafe practice, commodifying and mass-marketing kink, and sexualising an essentially abusive relationship (see, for further discussion, Bonomi et al, 2013).

Downing (2012) argues that the non-sexual behaviour of one of the book’s protagonists, Christian, is far more “sinister” (2012, p.99) than the exposition of what happens intimately between the couple.  She is concerned here to separate sexual practices from normative assessments of character: a fair concern given how, historically, society has stigmatised sexual activity which falls outside of a heteronormative and reproductive template.  Yet from a coercive control perspective, it could be argued that the protagonist’s sexual behaviour is entirely consistent with his wider techniques of emotional, psychological and physical control. So, the insight here is that it is not what happens within a relationship or encounter, so much as what it means to each of those involved – albeit recognising from inside when behaviour is harmful, rather than as an external observer, is not always easy.

The second context relates to where the defendant in a criminal trial claims that a victim’s death occurred through sexual ‘misadventure’ or ‘accidental injury’. The campaigning group We Can’t Consent to This and the Centre for Women’s Justice have been at the forefront of documenting the stories of victims, and seeking a change in the law to ensure that perpetrators of sexual violence cannot retrospectively represent their harmful actions as consensual ‘erotic play’.  Campaigning and research led to specific amendments to the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 (England and Wales), namely:

  • Section 70 of the Act makes non-fatal strangulation an offence in its own right
  • Section 71 of the Act states that “it is not a defence that the victim consented to the infliction of the serious harm for the purpose of obtaining sexual gratification”

It remains to be seen how effectively these offences will be enforced in practice or whether sexual violence packaged as ‘rough sex’ (or the threat of repeating previous episodes of rough sex) is sufficiently recognised by police and prosecutors as part of the repertoire of perpetrators of coercive control (Weiss and Palmer, 2022).

It is likely that experiences of unwanted rough sex broadly are reasonably common and under-disclosed.  Indeed, in 2019, a BBC survey revealed high prevalence, particularly in the female under 40 age group, and low police reporting.  In common with other sexually harmful experiences, disclosure may be inhibited by embarrassment, shame and confusion about what happened, especially when it occurs within what began as a consensual encounter.

While there is some evidence to suggest that exposure to sexually explicit material online is associated with either a desire to, or an engagement in, ‘rough sex’, the directionality and nature of the relationship continues to be disputed (see, for example, Vogels and O’Sullivan, 2019), as does the assumption that individuals will, through ongoing exposure, come to conflate consensual rough sex and sexual violence. The consumption by young people of sexually explicit material which mainstreams rough sex practices is thought to be a more compelling concern, since their sexual scripts are still in development (see, for further discussion, Wright, Herbenick and Tokunaga, 2021), including their understanding of active and ongoing consent.

Using an anonymous online survey, this research study therefore aims to understand:

  • The experiences and contexts of unwanted ‘rough sex’, where study respondents feel, either at the time or subsequently, were harmful to them, physically, sexually or psychologically
  • The impact of that experience(s)
  • Whether, why (not) and how respondents sought support, advice or justice for what they had experienced and what happened next?
  • The respondents’ broader feelings about ‘rough sex’, its nature and prevalence
  • What respondents would like to see in terms of, for example, political, media, criminal justice, cultural or educative interventions, to both prevent future harmful experiences of unwanted ‘rough sex’ and to secure accountability or recognition for what happened to them

It is hoped that this work will inform work with police and criminal justice professionals and practitioners working in support services, including with young people and the production of free online briefings to raise awareness and improve practice.

Participation in the survey is entirely voluntary and can be completed by anyone aged over 18, although participants may refer to experiences under 18.  It is open from Monday 7 February 2022 to Friday 29 April 2022.

For further information, please contact the lead researcher: Updates on this project will over 2022-2023 be signposted from here.

Sources of support:


Lockdown saw couples share housework and childcare more evenly – but these changes didn’t last


Susan Harkness, University of Bristol

It may feel like a common occurrence today, but if you cast your mind back to the first COVID lockdown, having whole families working and studying from home was a very unfamiliar situation. And it was one that had unfamiliar consequences.

For opposite-sex couples, lockdown disrupted the traditional gender division of household chores. In research that my colleagues and I conducted, we found that having both partners at home saw men increase how much of the domestic burden they took on, so that women’s typically greater share decreased.

We discovered this by analysing data from Understanding Society, a big longitudinal household panel study – the largest of its kind. The study follows a sample of UK households, periodically asking them questions to see how their lives are changing. Between April 2020 and September 2021, its participants were asked to complete web surveys every few months specifically about the impact of the pandemic on their lives.

We looked at responses from people of working age who were in opposite-gender relationships that continued throughout this period of COVID surveying. This provided a final sample of just over 2,000 couples for us to analyse. Here’s what we discovered.

Lockdown shocks

The couples were asked about the gender division of housework during the first lockdown, and we then compared this with information collected from pre-lockdown surveys carried out during 2019. The couples were also asked whether those changes persisted when the first lockdown eased. On top of this, we also compared the changes experienced by those with no children at home and those with children of various ages.

What we saw was that overall, women’s share of housework fell from 65% pre-COVID to 60% during the first lockdown. So initially there was a moderate amount of gender rebalancing in the sharing of domestic work. However, by September 2020 the old gender divisions were being re-established. By this point, women were on average doing 62% of housework.

These changes coincided with changes in working behaviour. Overall, the findings showed that both men’s and women’s paid working hours reduced substantially in the spring of 2020 but had recovered by September.

A woman vacuuming a rug
Despite some rebalancing, on average a sizeable majority of the domestic burden still fell on women.
Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock

And during the spring lockdown, around a third of both male and female respondents were employed but working from home. However, this had fallen to just under a quarter by September. Similarly, around one in five women and one in seven men were furloughed in the spring, but this had dropped to fewer than one in 20 by September.

This seems to suggest that having both members of a couple at home, with less time committed to work, leads to the domestic burden being more evenly shared.

Having both family members spending more time at home also appears to have led to there being more housework to be done. Both men and women increased their weekly hours of domestic work during lockdown – from 12.5 to 15.5 for women and from 6.5 to 10 for men. Come September 2020, these figures had fallen again, though they remained above their pre-lockdown levels.

Childcare burdens

However, the rebalancing of work wasn’t consistent across the couples we looked at. The extent of the change depended on the number and age of the couple’s children.

When the respondents were split into three groups – those who had no children living at home, those who had children under the age of five and those who had older children – marked differences emerged.

For couples without children at home, women’s share of domestic labour fell during the spring and continued to fall after the summer. Though these women still did more domestic work than their partners, their input did not return to pre-COVID levels as 2020 progressed.

For those with children aged between six and 15, the drop in women’s share of housework had partially reversed by September, but it hadn’t fully bounced back. In the autumn they were still doing less than before the pandemic.

But for those with children under five, the drop in women’s share of housework had reversed completely by September. This was despite the initial drop in the spring having been greater for this group compared to the other two.

Family dynamics

So what do we make of this? In terms of family dynamics, the lockdown may have had more lasting effects for some families than for others. Fears that advances in gender equality could be reversed during the pandemic were more real for those with very young children, who were much less able to keep themselves busy with other tasks and whose children were not old enough to make use of online education.

One important reason for the division of labour changing during lockdown was men’s and women’s working hours. Women with young children tended to reduce their paid working hours more as the pandemic progressed in order to take on the increased burden of care that stemmed from schools and nurseries being closed.

A grandfather and grandson walking outside
Having family support nearby will have influenced how much childcare and housework couples did.
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Our study shows that changes to family life during the pandemic were nuanced, with different family set-ups resulting in different changes to the balance of housework and the rebalancing of work changing over time. Indeed, there may be further nuances that we’re yet to fully identify.

In the future, it would be good to look at whether extended family networks were able to alleviate the increased care burden for some families. We could also look at how the pandemic affected the mental health of women with and without children, and it would be useful to see whether different countries’ lockdowns affected families differently as well.The Conversation

Susan Harkness, Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Centre for Poverty and Social Justice, University of Bristol

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.