Roy Parker 1931-2017

Roy Parker 1931-2017

Roy Parker, who has died at the age of 85, was the first Professor to be appointed to the Department of Social Work and Administration at the University of Bristol in 1969.Previously he had spent ten years in the Department of Social Administration at the London School of Economics, first as a research officer and then as a lecturer. His first book, based on his PhD, ‘Decision in Child Care’(1965), along with the work of Gordon Trasler and John Triseliotis, was among the first serious studies of foster care – and ahead of its time – used statistical methods to disentangle the factors associated with successful outcomes. He was a member of the Seebohm Committee on Local Government and Allied Social Services whose report (1968) laid the foundations for modern social services. He was also a member of the Milton Keynes New Town Development Corporation and chaired its social development committee.


He inherited established Social Work staff in Bristol but had to build a young Social Administration team from scratch. Notwithstanding their administrative inexperience, he delegated trustingly to his young recruits, supporting them even in robust decisions he would never himself have taken. This freed him to be an ambassador, within the Faculty of Social Science, for his comparatively new discipline – a role he performed so convincingly that, by 1981, when he stepped down as its Head, the department was offering two joint degrees, with Politics or Sociology, and a single honours degree in Social Administration. The department had by then established a national and international reputation for its research and teaching and was attracting able postgraduate students. Social Work had also been strengthened by the creation of the university’s first Chair in Social Work.


Roy Parker was a superb teacher at every level. His lectures were meticulously prepared and, like his writing, were lucid and compelling. He provided a clear framework which students could use to guide their further reading, thoughts and writing. His observations and advice were critical when necessary, but offered in a way that brought the best out of his students and colleagues, amongst whom he had enormous respect. He was a very collegiate and generous head of department, not least in facilitating the opportunities of his recruits to research, present papers and contribute to local and national policy debates. He thus created a lively and sparky department.


At the same time, he was continuing his own research and writing. In 1975, Change, Choice and Conflict in Social Policy was published and became a foundation text for many students of social policy, staying in print over 20 years. He co-authored it with Phoebe Hall, Hilary Land and Adrian Webb (all authors listed alphabetically on his insistence – another sign of his generosity). This study, informed by six case studies of policy change, argued for and demonstrated the need to study social policy within a political science framework, thus taking into account the complexity of history and wider socio-economic forces and ideologies. His case study of the Clean Air Act 1956 was chosen at a time when there was little interest in environmental policies.


This broad approach is developed further in his last major authoritative publication Uprooted: the Shipment of Poor Children to Canada 1867-1917 (2008) which had been 20 years in gestation and was completed after he had joined the Dartington Social Research Unit in 1997, having been elected a fellow of its Centre for Social Policy. By then he had become a leading expert in child care services. His historical overview Change and Continuity in Children’s Services, published in 2015, draws not only on his deep knowledge of the history of child care – including residential care, adoption, fostering and disabled children’s services – but also on his experience as an adviser to various government departments and committees as well as research consultant to numerous research projects. He never lost sight of the individual child and drew upon direct experience: of having a foster-sister and then, in the 1950s, of being a child care officer and a house-father in a residential establishment for vulnerable boys. In the Canadian archives he searched tirelessly and found the voices of some of the 80,000 children who were uprooted. This is important because, as he explained in the Preface, a major purpose of this historical study is ‘to show how the interests of children – and thereby their well-being – can fall victim to prevailing expediencies, fashion or exploitation.’


He not only kept up his research and writing after ‘retirement’ but also his love of sport He had run the first London marathon just after his fiftieth birthday and seven years after a major heart attack. He continued his long-distance running until well into his seventies. His retirement present in 1997 was a pair of racing skis (which he later exchanged for a faster pair!). Even bridge and scrabble brought out his competitive streak and his colleagues considered it no coincidence that the staff scrabble league was mysteriously abandoned the evening Roy dropped to the bottom of it while his wife Jo soared to the top.


He was born in South East London, where his father was a Southern Railways engine driver. He attended the local grammar school before studying sociology at the LSE. There followed National Service in the RAF. He is survived by Jose, whom he married in 1954, sister, his four children and eight grand children.

Roy Parker, born London 12 March 1931; died 18 January 2017, Devon


Hilary Land and David Bull


A memorial event is being held on the morning of March 17th in the Reception Room, Wills Memorial Building, University of Bristol. Details to follow

Donations to Rowcroft Hospice, Avenue Road, Torquay TQ2 5LS