Single Parent Action Network: a participatory history

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: School of Humanities


This project brings together Barton Hill Settlement (BHS), the University of Bristol and the Feminist Archive South to research the history of Single Parent Action Network (SPAN), a voluntary organisation based in inner-city Bristol from 1990 until 2016, when it was amalgamated into BHS. At its height, SPAN oversaw a network of 1000+ groups, and a significant portfolio of national and European funding. Yet it retained a distinctively grassroots and multi-racial ethos. SPAN's activities included education, research, local service provision, community organising and political lobbying. This multi-faceted history is an important example of women's, black, and working-class activism, and the evolution of the voluntary and community sector in the 1990s and 2000s.

After a turbulent few years, and the loss of its premises, SPAN recently amalgamated with Barton Hill Settlement, bringing its life as an independent organisation to a close. This project aims to preserve SPAN's archive, currently at risk, and write the history of this organisation through a participatory research process.

This project will bring together expertise from the heritage, voluntary and university sectors in an innovative participatory methodology. BHS is a key force for community development in inner-city Bristol, which works with over 40,000 people per annum and is extensively networked locally, nationally and internationally. Public engagement is embedded in the work of the FAS. Both PI and CI are experienced investigators on RCUK-funded historical co-production projects.

The central focus of the project is a History Group, which will meet weekly at the Settlement's premises in inner-city Bristol for a period of 12 months. This group will include both academic researchers and community members, activists and service users from both BHS and SPAN. Facilitated by the project team, participants will design and execute a research project, and communicate their findings to members of the public. As outputs will be co-designed, it is not possible at this stage to say what form they will take, but possible outputs include film, an exhibition, walking tours, digital products like an app or a website, collaboration with visual or performance artists and so on.

The participants in this project come from groups that rarely have the chance to engage with the university: single parents, speakers of English as an additional language, and benefits claimants. The experience of participating in the project will allow them to gain confidence and expertise, and to build social and professional networks. But the benefits for academia are, if anything, greater. These groups are ideally placed to critique ways of doing history that professional historians take for granted, and to bring different perspectives and life experiences to bear on the archival material. Members of History Group will present their findings in academic fora, such as conference presentations. In this way, the project aims to overcome the currently existing gulf between academics and practitioners of public, community and co-produced history. The academic team will also lead on five scholarly articles, addressing both the historical significance of the history of SPAN, and the methodological contribution of the project.

This project builds on the team's expertise in engaged teaching and research, both in academia and in the heritage and voluntary sectors. But it goes beyond current practice in the arts and humanities to develop a participatory research methodology in which co-production is central. In this way, it aims to produce history which is rigorous, inclusive and engaging, and to communicate these new methodologies to academic researchers well beyond the discipline.

Planned Impact

The non-academic beneficiaries of this project will include:

1. Participants in the History Group at Barton Hill Settlement will build confidence, experience and social and professional networks, as well as formal accreditation for those who want it. They will gain skills in project design and management, research, writing, communication, evaluation and presentation. Being involved in the project may not only lead to an increase in their quality of life, but also open up new paths to voluntary work and employment. The Community Support Worker will play a crucial role in supporting participants and in helping them to identify next steps after the project. The project will provide fee waivers for the part-time courses offered by UoB, and will offer support for those who wish to apply to the Foundation Year in Arts and Humanities, a clear route into education, even for those with few or no qualifications.
2. This project is closely aligned with the goals of Barton Hill Settlement, and its aims for their service users. BHS was founded in 1911 as part of the Settlement movement by UoB and the WEA. During the 1970s the Settlement broke links with UoB, but it now wishes to renew this relationship to build research capacity as well as creating pathways for local residents into education and employment opportunities. The networks established by this project (e.g. with the Brigstow Institute) should be durable and lead to future research collaborations.
3. The involvement of the Feminist Archive South will strengthen the charity's working relationships with UoB and its track record of community-led research and public engagement. Finally, acquiring the SPAN archive will further enrich FAS's collections.
4. A core objective of the History Group is to produce outputs aimed at members of the general public, particularly target groups that may not usually engage with history. Thus, we expect to reach sections of the public that are usually neglected by historical communicators, and develop new and innovative ways of communicating historical research. The project hopes to contribute to a cultural shift in the profession towards inclusive and engaging strategies and methodologies: this has obvious long-term impact for the UK general public as a whole.
5. The project will also work closely with community engagement practitioners. This research comes out of long-standing relationships with the public engagement team at UoB. We will work together to communicate our findings with the practitioner community, through publications in journals such as Research for All, and presentation at the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement's 'Engage' conference.
6. There is also considerable potential for dialogue with policy makers in the areas of children, poverty, communities, and the voluntary sector. Locally, the project is an excellent fit with Bristol City Council's 2017-2022 Corporate Strategy, which has a strong focus on increasing cultural and educational participation and decreasing worklessness in Bristol's most deprived wards. Nationally, SPAN's placing of black, working-class and women's voices on the national and transnational stage will be of interest to e.g. the All-Parliamentary Group for Communities Engagement. The History & Policy partnership with UoB will allow us to ways of communicating the significance of our research findings to policy makers.
7. Finally, the project is likely to be of interest to the voluntary sector in two distinct ways. As an organisation that survived for over 25 years without any significant national funding, the history of SPAN offers useful insights into resilience and adaptability. Furthermore, the archival resource created by this project will be a valuable template for other third sector organisations looking to preserve their history and heritage. To this end, we will seek to present the project at the annual Locality conference for community-led organisations.


10 25 50
Description This award has generated knowledge in the following key areas:

1. The history of single parents in the 1990s and 2000s. Our research demonstrates how single parent families emerged as a key political issue in the 1990s. Single parents (90% of them women) sat at the cross section of a number of key political and social issues: class, race, gender, poverty, work, childcare, benefits and housing. Single mothers in particular found themselves at the sharp end of stigmatisation by the media and politicians, much of it couched in terms of family values, but strongly tied to the politics of state benefits. Our research investigated the response of the Bristol-based organisation Single Parent Action Network (SPAN) to this turbulent period. SPAN's work and organisational self-understanding was underpinned by anti-racism, a feminist understanding of care as work, and the importance of participation and voice. This agenda meant that SPAN often swam against the political tide, and frequently found itself at odds with larger NGOs such as the National Council for One Parent Families. We have concluded that groups like SPAN, which sat at the intersection of activism and the voluntary sector, acted as a reservoir for some of the radical practices and ideas that had emerged from the grassroots activism of the 1970s and 1980s but fell out of favour in a decade of 'modernisation' and 'postfeminism'.

2. Methodologies of co-production. A central part of the project was the recruitment of a diverse group of community researchers, from groups who were otherwise unlikely to have the opportunity to engage with research. All were mothers of pre-school or primary age children, and fitted one or more of the following criteria: single parent, English as an additional language, first-generation migrant, inner city resident. We found that a dedicated Community Support Worker played a crucial role in resolving barriers to participation, and supporting researchers' well being once they were in the group. Community and academic facilitators worked together to create a welcoming environment, with childcare, food and practical support. It was also important to develop ways to support researchers during periods of absence from the group due to family or health circumstances, and to make it easy for them to return when they were able. We hope our findings will make a contribution to the understanding of how people with multiple accessibility challenges can be supported to take part in, and make an essential contribution to, community-university research projects.
Exploitation Route We hope that our research will be a significant contribution to the history of activism, women, and the voluntary sector in the 1990s and 2000s. The project has led to the accession of the SPAN archive and 25 oral histories to the Feminist Archive South. This will be a major resource for future historians.

Our findings on methodologies of co-production are of relevance not just to academic researchers, but also to practitioners in the voluntary sector.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy



Museums and Collections

Description Our project has had non-academic impact in the following areas: 1. Benefits for community researchers. The extensive evaluation process and our ongoing contact with community researchers has shown that participation in the project was highly valued and allowed researchers to build their skills and confidence. A number of researchers have been central to the development and execution of the follow-on Parenting in the Pandemic project, including taking on paid roles as consultants and facilitators. 2. Benefits for our partner organisation. For Wellspring Settlement, the project has been an opportunity to further develop links with the university, collaborative research methodologies and blended delivery during the pandemic. Some of this learning was captured in a paper authored by the Community Support Worker and Community Inclusion Manager. The project Community Support Worker was a central part of the development of the Follow-On Funding application, and the funding of this project has enabled significant career and personal development for this individual. She has also been involved in the co-authorship of several of the project outputs. 3. Emerging policy impacts via the Parenting in the Pandemic Follow-On project. We aim to produce a policy paper for local and national government in June 2022. 4. Enrichment of the local area via the mural produced by Carrie Reichardt (delayed due to Covid, but due to be installed in spring 2022). 5. Adding to the collection of the Feminist Archive South via the accession of the SPAN archive and oral histories.
First Year Of Impact 2020
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural


Policy & public services

Description 'We shouldn't have to shout to be heard': Valuing Parents as Experts
Geographic Reach Local/Municipal/Regional 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a guidance/advisory committee
Description Parenting in a Pandemic: Using Community Arts to Reduce Social Isolation and Explore the Experiences and Policy Needs of Marginalised Families
Amount £76,703 (GBP)
Funding ID AH/V015850/1 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2021 
End 07/2023
Description History Group at Wellspring Settlement 
Organisation Barton Hill Settlement
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution As part of this project, a History Group has met weekly at Barton Hill Settlement (now Wellspring Settlement). Our research team have co-facilitated this, and provided expertise in historical research and co-production research methods.
Collaborator Contribution A Community Support Worker from Wellspring Settlement led on the recruitment of the group, and has co-facilitated the group. The Settlement has also provided rooms for the group to meet in.
Impact We will be able to report fully on outputs and outcomes next year, when the work of the group has concluded.
Start Year 2018
Description Transfer of SPAN archive to Feminist Archive South 
Organisation Feminist Archive South
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution As part of this project, we have contracted a consultant archivist, Dr. Ellie Pridgeon, to catalogue and sort the SPAN archive. This is shortly to be transferred to the Feminist Archive South, which is held as part of the University of Bristol's Special Collections.
Collaborator Contribution The Feminist Archive South agreed to take on this material, and Trustee Hannah Lowery has been an invaluable support in advising us.
Impact The archive will shortly be transferred to FAS, and we will be able to report more fully next year.
Start Year 2018
Description Public event and film premiere 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact 90 people attended an online event to present the work of the History Group and premiere the film made with Calling The Shots. It was attended by the members of the History Group, their friends and family, academics, and a substantial group of project stakeholders who had been involved with SPAN as employees, members, volunteers and service users.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020