‘My internship has helped me develop skills for my degree and my career’

This summer, Christine O’Shea took part in the University of Bristol’s Widening Participation Summer Internship Scheme. This is a paid internship which matches students with a researcher or research project to get hands-on research work experience for six weeks during the summer holidays.

Christine, who is a third year BSc Social Policy and Politics student, worked on the Active-6 study in the Centre for Exercise, Nutrition and Health Sciences, within the School for Policy Studies. Active-6 is a crucial research project exploring the impact of the Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions on the physical activity of Year 6 children and their parents/carers.

Here, Christine shares her experiences of, and learnings from, her internship.

What new skills did you learn on your placement?

I would describe the internship as very hands-on. I felt very much involved in data collection, including many trips to the participating schools and undertaking survey data entry. My involvement in data collection gave me the opportunity to learn how to build a professional relationship with external stakeholders and my colleagues’ help with data entry has made me less apprehensive about learning new software. Also, this internship has broadened my understanding and comfort with using essential office software like Excel. The warm reception I received from my colleagues from the very start of my internship also enabled me to grow my confidence in asking questions and voicing my ideas in meetings.

Were you able to apply your learning from your degree in your placement?

During my time on the project, I completed independent work including desk-based research on the socio-demographic contexts of the study’s schools which allowed me to spot trends which I could apply to interpret the projects data. The internship enabled me to actively apply the skills I have learned from my degree to the real world, including having the chance to listen to and code the qualitative data. As a result, I feel prepared to use qualitative research methods in my dissertation.

What were the most surprising things you learned?

Before the internship, I was quite apprehensive about working in an office as I thought the days would become quite repetitive. However, I never felt bored as there was always something popping up to do – which also taught me that research doesn’t always go as smoothly as planned! As a result, the internship has taught me lessons about how I should approach my dissertation, including planning for potential issues. The internship also taught me how to maintain good communication with participants and how to conduct research ethically.

Has the placement helped you make decisions about your career?

Going forward, I would like to pursue a career in public health and thanks to the help of my colleagues I am aware of how to get started. Speaking with my colleagues has allowed me to understand that no-one’s career path is linear, and they have broadened my awareness of the many job roles there are that are involved in making changes in public health.


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Autism and Homelessness – Increasing autism awareness and improving access and engagement in homelessness services

By Dr Beth Stone

Autism is disproportionately over-represented in homeless populations. However, little is known about how autistic people experience homelessness and how best to support them.

My research examined the factors which increase risk of homelessness for autistic people, autistic people’s experiences of homelessness, and barriers to service engagement. The research found that autistic people are at increased risk of homelessness due to the social and economic disadvantages they face throughout their lives such as low educational attainment, difficulties finding and maintaining employment, and social exclusion. Once homeless, support services were often inaccessible or unsuitable. The impact of autism on day-to-day life was not recognised by housing offices. If participants were found eligible for support they were housed in over-crowded and confrontational hostels which aggravated social anxiety and sensory processing difficulties.

Improving services

Working with two local organisations, Bristol Autism Spectrum Service (BASS) and Golden Key, we created an autism and homelessness working group, with the aim of improving local services for autistic people experiencing homelessness.

I also received an ESRC Impact Acceleration Grant to produce a film based on the lived experience of my research participants.

In July, we hosted an event for local stakeholders from homelessness and health services and Bristol City Council.

The event featured:

  • The launch of the film highlighting the experiences of autistic people who have experienced homelessness in the South West of England, followed by a presentation on how autistic people may experience homelessness more generally and barriers to service use (Dr Beth Stone).
  • Presentation of the Autism and Homelessness Toolkit, aimed at improving access to, and engagement with, homelessness services for autistic people (Dr Alasdair Churchard).
  • Autism awareness training provided by Bristol Autism Spectrum Service (BASS).

Discussion in feedback groups indicated ways in which support services planned to adopt autism friendly ways of working into their everyday practice.

View the film launched at the event here.

Next steps

We are putting together a proposal aimed at improving local service provision for autistic people who are experiencing homelessness.

Feedback from discussion groups at the awareness event has helped to shape our proposal, which we will discuss with autistic people with lived experience of homelessness. We will then use the proposal to advocate for wider changes to policy and support services.

Related publications:

Stone, Beth. 2022. “Homelessness as a Product of Social Exclusion: Reinterpreting Autistic Adults’ Narratives through the Lens of Critical Disability Studies.” Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research 24(1), 181–195. DOI: https://www.sjdr.se/articles/10.16993/sjdr.881/

Stone, B., Cameron, A., Dowling, S. 2022. “The autistic experience of homelessness: Implications from a narrative enquiry”. Autism (1-11), DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/13623613221105091


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Jess Phillips MP on “Everything You Really Need to Know About Politics”

On October 5th, Jess Phillips MP gave the Policy & Politics Annual Lecture in the University’s Wills Memorial Hall.

Here, Dr Oscar Berglund, co-editor of Policy & Politics, gives an account of the lecture and its themes. This report was first published on the Policy & Politics blog pages.

Policy & Politics was delighted to host Jess Phillips MP to speak to a large audience in Bristol about ‘Everything You Really Need to Know About Politics’.

Jess has been MP for Birmingham Yeardley since 2015 and is arguably one of Britain’s most prominent feminist politicians.

The aim of Phillips’ talk, based on her recent book of the same title, was to demystify British politics in an effort to strengthen the relationship between citizens and their elected representatives. The general scorn for politicians that is so common across the UK serves the Conservatives, she says. When people say ‘What’s the point in voting? You’re all the same’, people think that they are soldiers, that they are taking a stance. But on the contrary, to Phillips, it sounds like surrender.

What has always motivated Phillips to engage in politics has been to end violence against women and girls. ‘Whilst change is slow and hard, everything good in my life, the right to vote, the right to abortion, was delivered to me through politics’. Politics is everything, she says, ‘from the clothes we wear to what’s in my womb’.

Phillips has some key messages in order to demystify and detoxify politics.

People have good intentions. 95% of MPs want to change the world for the better, Phillips states. We also have remarkably similar ideas of what is good, such as people not going hungry and having housing and education. Although people do obviously have different views of how to get there. Painting people as though they are gruesome or evil does not help Phillips in her work to make women and girls safer, she says.

Another important lesson for Phillips has been that most people don’t care about almost anything that you care about. It is futile to lecture people on the basis that they do or should care about something as much as you do. The vast majority of people are not deeply wounded by whatever issue. Apart from the rights of Palestine, Phillips’ constituents don’t care about any of the hot issues on Twitter. People, she says, care more about bins. Aggression and righteousness will never be enough to win people over. Instead, there has to be hopeful vision.

Don’t assume bad faith. For Phillips, bad faith is stifling political activism. We too often assume that people are in politics for the wrong reasons and that stops us from meeting people where they are to achieve our goals. Unfortunately, the small percentage of politicians who are out for themselves often rise to the top. David Cameron and Boris Johnson are in that category, she says.

Central to Phillips’ view of politics is that there is no such thing as perfect policy. There are no obvious answers even though we often think so. All policies have downsides. As an example she cites her first vote on bombing Syria. Although she voted against it, she has come to recognise that people die whether you bomb or not. You’d just feel better about it if you’re not the one pulling the trigger, she says. The idea that there are easy options is wrong. We need to move away from a view that you’re either perfect or you belong in the bin, she says. The certainty that there are simple solutions does us no favours. Slogans don’t mean anything. Instead Phillips believes that we would get more out of our politics if we had more faith and nuance.

Phillips’ final message is to have hope, not despair. Things can be better if we make them better, but it relies on people making it better. Everything that ever changes does so because people decide to.

Asked by an audience member about being brave and outspoken and the danger it brings, Phillips states that if you’re not brave in politics the outcome doesn’t change. Nine people are currently in prison for trying to, or threatening to, attack Jess Phillips. She is one of the most targeted MPs in the UK. ‘If I stopped speaking from a feminist perspective I might be safer but the world doesn’t become safer’.

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Policy & Politics, the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors.



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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). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12187-019-09682-y

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Independent living in private gardens – an idea to reduce the risk of youth homelessness

By Dr Jon Symonds and Dr Vicky Sharley

Some young people could avoid becoming homeless if they had the opportunity to reside in an independent living unit situated in their household garden. This was the finding of a recent study by members of the Children and Families Research Centre, working in partnership with the youth homelessness organisation 1625 Independent People.

Youth homelessness is a pressing problem in the UK and the impact on young people can be severe in terms of loneliness, isolation, lack of readiness for moving out and risks to their mental health, poverty and risk of exploitation from others.

If the units were successful, young people could have their own place to live separately from their parent(s), carer(s) or siblings where they could develop their independent living skills, whilst still being able to access care and support from members of their household to prevent feelings of isolation.

The potential benefits of the units

The idea for the study came from an Australian project, Kids Under Cover, which had successfully installed standalone units in privately owned outdoor yard spaces as a way to support families where the young person was at risk of becoming homeless. Units contained a bedroom, living area, electricity and a microwave.

Young people who took part in the study in England liked the idea and felt that it could offer a place of their own outside of a household where there might be overcrowding, or difficult relationships with parents, carers or siblings. It could provide a sense of freedom that they might not have at home, but also help them build responsibility for looking after their space and learning to be independent. If they were provided at the right time, it could help provide the space a young person needs to enable them to repair their relationships with family members, before they break down completely. If the units had a shower room, kitchen facilities and internet access, these were viewed as essential aspects to make the idea work.

Foster carers who took part in the study also saw benefits in the idea. They viewed the idea positively as a way to support young people to make the first step to moving on to their own flat and potentially useful for Staying Put arrangements which facilitate young people in care to maintain a close relationship with their foster carers after they have reached 18.

The design of the units would be an important factor as there is generally much more land available in Australia where the project was originally developed. Here in the UK, some households would be living in urban areas with small gardens and a range of design professionals who participated in the study talked of the innovative design solutions that could be used to fit units into small gardens. There were also questions raised about how long the units would be located for and whether this would be long enough to offset any potential disruption to installing plumbing and electricity in gardens that might have had a lot of work. Considerations would also need to be made for the legal status of the arrangements and whether separate planning permissions would be required, or separate tenancy agreements need to be made.

The importance of support

Although the people we spoke to were very positive about the idea in principle, most people agreed that it should only be considered an option for some young people where they were likely to be able to manage being separate in their own space, and in circumstances where the relationships within the household were strained but not entirely broken. The units were not intended to be used in situations in high conflict or abuse and participants echoed the risks of allowing a potentially abusive situation to continue.

It would also be important to ensure that young people were properly supported in the units and not just left to get on with it. People we spoke to told us about the importance of having support from qualified staff who could help young people with managing housing issues, learning skills of cooking, laundry, college and money, and supporting people with their own wellbeing and mental health. If the idea of the units is to be taken forwards, then plans for these should include provision for personal support as well.


About the study

Jon and Vicky conducted the study in the Southwest of England and collected participants’ views through a series of focus groups. 31 people took part in eight focus groups for young people, practitioners who worked with young people, foster carers, managers of agencies who supported children and young people, and design and construction consultants. The focus groups were held during the Covid pandemic and were conducted online, using Microsoft Teams. An online questionnaire for strategic managers was also developed which was completed by seven people.

About the authors and acknowledgements

This blog was written by Dr Jon Symonds and Dr Vicky Sharley, who worked in partnership with Jamie Gill from 1625 Independent People. The study was funded by Commonweal Housing.

Photo by Iza Gawrych on Unsplash.


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“I was pleased to be able to use my learning, and the opportunities the Social Work Masters gave me, to influence future social work practice in my own career and beyond.”

In this blog, we catch up with Flora Miles, a Bristol graduate and newly qualifed Social Worker. She was recently invited to present her dissertation at an event organised by the University of Bath to mark World Social Work Day 2022, celebrating recent developments in practice, activism and research.

Here she talks about the findings of her research along with her experiences of the masters programme:

Flora Miles

After completing my undergraduate degree in Social Anthropology, I wanted to further focus my skills and knowledge towards helping people live fulfilled and empowered lives. I was inspired by social workers who I had encountered through my voluntary experience with charities. The Masters in Social Work at the University of Bristol offered me a great opportunity, building on my previous studies and some experience which I had gained through volunteering. The course was highly rated and I was excited at the opportunity to study in Bristol, which is a city I did not know well before the course and have now become very fond of!

I found the programme varied and engaging. Teaching on a range of topics by faculty members was supplemented by interesting guest lectures. My learning was supported by the knowledgeable and generous members of the service user and carer forum who, through appearances at lectures and in small group workshops, helped us keep service users and carers at the centre of our learning. One of my favourite things about the course was my fellow social work students, who were interesting and friendly people with a breadth of experiences from which I learned a lot and gained treasured friendships.

“Work placements…expect the unexpected and respond with creativity!”

I undertook my first practice placement with Exeter Homelessness Partnership at CoLab in Exeter, where I live. I loved this experience in the voluntary sector, during which I met some brilliant people and learned so much about creativity and resilience. Unfortunately, the covid pandemic began during the early stages of this placement, leading to a change of plans in which my placement was suspended. Luckily, I gained employment as a project worker with CoLab’s Resilient Women project and as a mental health support worker with Rethink Mental Illness. The university supported me to take learning and reflection opportunities from this employment, which allowed me to progress to the second year of the Masters. This was a very challenging time requiring much flexibility and adaptation from myself and the university, but I am proud to say that we got through it and that I gained valuable experiences. A key takeaway for me was to expect the unexpected and respond with creativity!

My second placement was with Devon County Council, in an adult safeguarding team and a community health and social care team. I was pleased to have this experience in a statutory setting, following my experience in the voluntary sector in first year. This placement was invaluable for my learning regarding the principles and processes at the heart of social work in a local authority, where many social workers are employed. I was helped by committed and supportive social workers as my practice educator and supervisor, who were role models to me. This placement was very useful, especially as I have gone on to work for Devon County Council and therefore continue to directly apply context-specific learning gained while on placement.

“My dissertation has stuck with me powerfully, and opened up opportunities…”

One of my favourite parts of the Social Work Masters was writing a dissertation. It was a real challenge but I grew and learned a lot through it. My dissertation was entitled  Mental Capacity in cases of Self-Neglect: A Thematic Analysis of Safeguarding Adults Reviews in England. I became fascinated by topics of mental capacity in adults throughout my studies at Bristol. With the help of my supervisor, I identified that looking at mental capacity in cases of self-neglect would be especially interesting. Having read some Safeguarding Adults Reviews throughout my studies, I wanted to become more familiar with these documents and see what they could teach us.

Three key findings emerged from my dissertation:

  1. People at risk of self-neglect were let down when professionals failed to assess mental capacity
  2. Safeguarding processes failed to protect people who were found to have capacity to make self-care decisions
  3. Assessments needed more nuance and scope to account for the complexity of mental capacity

These findings enabled me to make recommendations for social care practitioners, team managers, policy makers, those involved in the commissioning and creation of Safeguarding Adults Reviews, and researchers.

My learning from researching for and writing my dissertation has stuck with my powerfully, and opened up opportunities. One such opportunity was being invited to speak on my findings at an event to celebrate World Social Work Day 2022 organised by the University of Bath. It was a pleasure to speak alongside other practitioners, researchers, and educators. I am proud of the presentation I gave, having received positive feedback including social work educators asking to share my findings with their students and practitioners telling me that they would use the findings to inform future work with people at risk of self-neglect. I was very pleased to be able to use my learning, and all the opportunities the Social Work Masters gave me, to influence future social work practice in my own career and beyond.

The masters in Social Work at the University of Bristol was challenging, however I am grateful to be the social worker I am today because of it. I would recommend the course to anybody looking to learn a lot, meet passionate people, and take steps into a social work career.

Find out more about our MSc Social Work programme and what makes our joint professional and academic practice award unique.


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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/swiss-image.ch/Photo 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.


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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.

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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]


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Collateral damage: the implications of border restrictions on practitioners working with refugee populations

Blog by Dr Vicky Canning, Senior Lecturer, School for Policy Studies

The acknowledgement that asylum systems across Europe are “hostile environments” for migrant groups has increased in academic and practitioner consciousness, particularly in the aftermath of the 2015 refugee reception crisis. However, although the impacts of socio-political hostilities on migrants are well documented, little has been written about the implications of border restrictions on practitioners working with refugee populations. Research led by Vicky Canning, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the School for Policy Studies, expands the focus of hostilities to consider the variable impacts of intensified bordering practices on this group.

Based on qualitative research which included 74 interviews undertaken across Britain, Denmark, and Sweden (2016–2018), the research outlines the experiences of practitioners working with refugee populations. It highlights that increasingly restrictive or punitive approaches to immigration have had multiple negative effects on practitioners working in this sector. This has potential for longer term negative impacts on practitioners, but also – importantly – refugee populations who require various forms of legal aid, or social and psychological support.

Working with refugee groups can be a fundamentally complex task. Whilst roles differ (such as lawyers, psychologists, or advocates and support workers), the experiences of people seeking asylum or living as refugees can impact on people supporting them in various ways. Likewise, the working conditions of practitioners is often reflected in the standard of care that they are able to offer when supporting people with complex lives, refugees and survivors of violence and persecution in particular. Vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue[1] are two of the most commonly cited problems in working in this area.

Emotional and Workplace Impacts on Practitioners

Interviews with practitioners indicate concerning additions to these potential problems: increasingly restrictive or punitive approaches to immigration which have had multiple effects on practitioners working in this sector. Indeed, one stark issue highlighted through interviews with lawyers, psychologists, detention custody officers, and support workers is that they felt their ability to effectively perform their own role well has been compromised. Some indicated increasing levels of stress and, in Sweden in particular (a strong state centric welfare model), a decreased faith in state and state decisions. Terms such as ‘powerless’ and ‘stress’ were included in responses to questions about the impacts of escalated harms in asylum – in particular that practitioners did not feel they could support people seeking asylum whilst they are being held in an indefinite state of uncertainty or crisis.

Practitioners found that changes in legislation or ‘rules’ meant that they constantly had to change their own approaches. Keeping up to date with the workings of the asylum process is increasingly difficult at a time when laws and policies are changing regularly, and thus affecting the rights or welfare entitlements that people seeking asylum can access. This is particularly difficult for people who are working with refugee groups as a means to providing humanitarian assistance, as they find themselves in positions where they are implementing laws they cannot agree with. For example, an employee of a humanitarian organisation working at Center Sandholm indicated, ‘I find it really, really difficult, this neutrality, impartiality concept, and increasingly so. Every time we have to enforce new, stricter rules that have only been put in place to put pressure on people [to leave]’.

Practitioners working with survivors of trauma or sexual violence raised concerns about their client’s inability to focus on therapy, counselling or integration programmes due to risk of dispersal or other exacerbations of illnesses. People seeking asylum can be more concerned with pressing issues arising in the immediate future, such as the threat of homelessness, fear of detention or deportation, or concern for family and friends still residing in areas of conflict or migrating across borders.

An integration project co-ordinator working in Denmark argued that, ‘it will only get worse. I mean there’s a culture of celebrating obstacles that we can put in people’s place… I mean unashamedly celebrating making it hard for people to access asylum and protective status’. This prediction – recorded in summer of 2018 – has proved accurate. By the end of the year the Danish People’s Party and the Venstre-led government announced new restrictions in the Finance Act 2019 which directly aim to reduce opportunities for integration of migrants and people seeking asylum and instead push toward deportations and enforced removals (Clante Bendixen, 2019).  This includes a significant change relating to integration, as the term itself is no longer used in relation to asylum, as focus has changed to accelerating deportation.

The Trend Towards Disempowerment

Practitioners also highlighted feelings and experiences which ranged from sadness or upset to disempowerment and hopelessness. For people working in a deportation centre in Denmark, there was dismay at the lack of clarity regarding the expectations of their role and that their participation did not always have a positive impact,

‘I had days when I went home thinking that today I was definitely a part of the problem, not the solution, today my presence here was a band aid at best but the patient’s haemorrhaging and I’m not actually doing what I’m supposed to be doing.’

In some places, the limits to the support that practitioners are able to provide are not only affected by economic resources, but also managerial and policy decisions on what is or is not allowed. As one nurse in an immigration detention centre reflected, ‘You want to do more than you are allowed; you are not allowed to’.

The emotional effects of seeing people living in avoidable and degrading circumstances are also clear. Many felt that cuts to staffing or services reduced their ability to offer adequate support, as one women’s support worker in Scotland indicated, ‘It really is crippling ‘cause we can’t meet the needs. Literally turning people away every day who are in crisis, so that is awful’. Shortly after this interview, in 2016, the interviewee contacted me to say their role had been removed. To date, it has not been replaced.

Likewise, others disclosed feelings of discomfort at increasingly being part of a system or structure that they had not set out to work in. People spoke of their jobs being reduced from support to ‘managing expectations’ for people seeking asylum and of bureaucracy superseding their capacity to provide support. For example, a custody officer in a Swedish immigration detention centre felt the shifts in law were removing her from the humanitarian approach she had tried to embed in her practice: ‘they [detainees] assume that I am working for the evil government. They think that I don’t see them as human beings, living … I think it’s horrible’.

Breaking Trust

Finally, this research found that impacts on practitioners are exacerbated by increasing mistrust between people seeking asylum and governmental and non-governmental organisations, particularly in the UK and Sweden.

For others, the emotional impacts of the degradation of people seeking asylum were palpable, as a social worker in the North West of England suggests:

‘Sometimes we need to separate our feelings away from the client, but for the first time since I have worked in this field I felt as if I was about to cry when I went to the hospital because I’ve never seen somebody who has been neglected by the system like this woman I came across, because you don’t treat people like this, this is unacceptable in 21st century Britain’.

Practitioners often alluded to a loss of faith in humanitarianism in their respective states. One torture rehabilitation director remarked that, ‘they’re testing this unfortunately, a social experiment, how far they can get with their whip’, whilst a barrister in London questioned the rationale of governmental agendas, asking ‘Even if you accept the premise that migration is a problem and needs to be reduced, why don’t you wait to see what the last set of bad laws did before you bring in the next of the bad laws?’.

In Sweden, a typically state centric nation, the impacts of this increasing mistrust was strengthened with the introduction of the REVA Project – a collaboration between Swedish Police, the Migration Agency and prison service which targets people suspected of living illegally in Sweden so as to speed up detection and deportation – and which has received subsequent criticism for racism (see Barker, 2017; European Parliament, 2013).

Migrant groups and practitioners are therefore left in precarious positions: anyone without documentation or who is awaiting the outcome of an asylum claim may be subject to arrest and possible detention or deportation, whilst some practitioners simultaneously lose faith in governmental agendas and face reduced capacity to undertake their role due to external pressures.

The nationality and borders bill, now in the House of Lords for readings after being debated for only nine minutes in the House of Commons, will inevitably continue this trend, creating an ever more hostile environment towards migrants and in which practitioners working with refugee populations have to operate, a trend Dr Canning has critiqued elsewhere as degradation by design.


[1] The former relates to experiencing emotional or psychological distress based on hearing or responding to trauma experienced by others (Barrington and Shakespeare-Finch, 2013). The latter refers to the emotional implications which can develop for people working at the frontline of response to trauma or other social problems, but feel restricted in their ability to do so due to exhaustion or burnout (Ray et al, 2013).

This blog is based on research and analysis presented here:

Reimagining Refugee Rights: Addressing asylum harms in Britain, Denmark and Sweden

Managing Expectations: Impacts of Hostile Migration Policies on Practitioners in Britain, Denmark and Sweden (Open Access).


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