Jottings from the (former) Chair

This page gathers the monthly notes from the former Chair (John Batt).  These were previously posted as News items.

John Batt

2022: May

A new u3a has been created for the Quantock area and I recently attended their inaugural meeting. It’s taken a few months for them to get together a committee and find group convenors, but they’re now up and running. For any of our members who’d also like to belong to Quantock u3a, their current associate membership fee will be £8. I’ve also had contact from the Chairman of Exmoor u3a to introduce himself and their new committee. They are aiming to triple their small membership of 20 and to offer more groups than their current three. Both u3as are excited about the future. 

We too have struggled to find new committee members, but I’m pleased that we do now have enough nominations to move forward into our next u3a year.

Three of our trustees are leaving the committee after many years of service: Helen, Group Co-ordinator; Hilary, Membership Secretary and Website Editor; and Margaret, Newsletter Editor and Press & Publicity. In addition, Mark, IT adviser, and Sue, our Secretary, are standing down. Saying thank you to these volunteers on behalf of each of our u3a members (that would be 324 times!) still does not seem adequate appreciation of all they have done for our u3a.

As with Quantock and Exmoor u3as, our own new committee will, I’m sure, be working to develop membership and opportunities. At the same time, they will no doubt also be considering how to combine the best of the tried and tested u3a model with the extra opportunities that technology has offered us over the last two years. 

No doubt the next few months will have their challenges as we emerge from our Covid hibernation, and the new committee gets to work. I’m confident, however, that West Somerset will soon be home to the most vibrant group of u3as in the country!

2022: April

In response to my email last month, I’m pleased to say that five people came forward to find out more about joining the committee. I hope they liked what they’ve seen of us, and will submit their nomination forms – which must be in by 28 April. There remain committee vacancies and roles to fill, so do contact me for an informal chat if you’d like to find out more. Nomination forms are available by contacting the Secretary, which you can do via the website or email. Please note that the date of our AGM is a week earlier than you may be expecting: it will take place on Thursday 12 May 2022. 

Earlier this month we conducted a test at Minehead Baptist Church, using the Church’s on-site kit to relay a short presentation via Zoom. My thanks to all those who worked hard behind the scenes to enable us to develop our hybrid meeting techniques. We have learned a lot from the experience, and it means that from May onwards our coffee mornings will resume at the Baptist Church on the third Thursday of the month, but the talks will also be available online to anyone unable to attend in person. The feedback from some of those taking part on Zoom was that ‘it was almost like being there’. I’m delighted that we’ll be making our coffee morning talks more accessible. The new committee will decide whether the more informal social events we have been trialling will continue in addition to our traditional coffee mornings with talks. 

Despite the increase in Covid infections, we do seem to be gaining confidence about returning to our old ways. Please still take every care and do not attend meetings if you have any Covid-like symptoms. I think we have some way to go before we are out of this particular wood. 

On a final note, if you haven’t yet renewed your u3a membership, please don’t forget to do so! For only £1 a month we have an exciting 12 months ahead – with old and new groups in full swing and, from this autumn, the likelihood of outings by coach to enjoy.

2022: February

You will all have received my letter seeking volunteers to serve on the committee, and I’m grateful to those who may be considering coming forward.  The Covid situation is slowly getting easier, so this month I want to write about a totally different subject: equipment.

We have been helped by equipment grants from SASP, and currently hold four Amazon Fire tablets – which are available to any member who may be struggling with IT equipment.  If you don’t have broadband at home, we can also help with connection to the internet.  SASP has also helped us to acquire some IT kit to support ‘hybrid’ meetings. Designed to extend the reach of face-to-face meetings, the kit uses technology including Zoom to broadcast an event to anyone who is reluctant or unable for any reason to be present in the meeting room.

At Townsend House we have a TV, a computer, a couple of video projectors and other assorted electrical gizmos.  After two or more years lying in the cupboard, these are being tested for safety before we use them again.  However, they are dated and may need to be replaced before long.  Many venues now have audio-visual equipment installed, so maybe there is no need to maintain our own equipment.

I would be interested to hear your views on any of this.  In the meantime, please do make use of the equipment our u3a owns – especially ensuring that we take advantage of the tablet devices we have on free loan to support any member who lacks IT connectivity at home.

2022: January

The Yiddish proverb ‘Man plans, and God laughs’ has never seemed more appropriate than in relation to 2021.  So, what of 2022?

Whatever it has in store for us, we must not give up on planning.  But, at the same time, we have to be realistic: any plans we make need to be as flexible and responsive as we can make them.  Please remember that and take a philosophical approach to any late changes that group convenors make.

Attendance at group meetings is very much an individual decision.  To protect others, if you have any cold-like symptoms or if you have very recently returned from travelling, please take a lateral flow test on the day of the meeting, or check with your convenor whether it is possible to use our new hybrid meeting kit, so that you can join the group’s meeting remotely via Zoom.

School students are now required to wear masks in class.  The National u3a Office view, which the committee supports, is that, as we are an educational organisation, our members should adhere to the same rule.

Being optimistic – and therefore hoping not to cause any gods too much amusement – we are now aiming to start our social coffee mornings from March.  Look out for more on these in our February newsletter.

I have begun to explore setting up a walking cricket group; some are running successfully in other parts of the country.  If your New Year resolution is to try something new, look at the list of our groups at the end of this newsletter.  And if you would like to join – or even lead – an interest group that’s not on the list, please contact any committee member and we’ll see what we can do.

2021: September

The question we’re still asking in our conversations about planning our u3a activities is how to manage the demands of Covid.  Of course, as members of a social organisation, each of us must decide when and how to attend any u3a gatherings, whether they’re indoors or out.

As I’ve mentioned in previous newsletters, group convenors who are hiring meeting rooms must ensure that their group members follow the guidelines given by the accommodation provider.  However, if successful in-person meetings are to take place, I feel sure that everyone in our groups will understand and be happy to help where new restrictions have been introduced or extra preparation and cleaning is required.  Remember, if you feel unwell or have had close contact with anyone testing positive for COVID, please don’t attend a live meeting.

Over the last 18 months we’ve learned quite a bit about using technology for our u3a activities, but we’re still discovering what is possible, what works well online, and which activities we should delay restarting until it’s wise to do so.  Some u3as have started to hold larger meetings such as coffee mornings, but we’ll continue to use Zoom for the monthly coffee morning talks until at least November. Our IT Champions are working on ways to extend the reach of our coffee mornings by making them ‘hybrid’ meetings.  This is to make it possible for any member with online access to ‘attend’ our in-person meetings, even if unable to physically get to the venue. The IT Champions have written a short introduction to hybrid meetings.

With the support of the committee, I intend to consider whether we could organise a social event for members – maybe as early as October – unless Covid numbers in the meantime make holding it inadvisable.  We’ll see how things develop from there.

All that will be happening over the coming months, but as we start our new ‘learning year’, it would be wonderful to hear from members with ideas for new groups.  The u3a ethos is not only to learn new things, but also to share with others our own knowledge, expertise and interests.  If you have work-based experience you could share with us, I’d be delighted to hear from you.

2021: July

As someone whose working life has been spent in education, for me September has always been my New Year – with new courses, new students, new plans and hopes and even new resolutions.  And September 2021 looks as though it really could be the start of a new chapter for us all.

We are still unclear about how we can safely organise our large indoor coffee mornings, so until November Paul has booked speakers from around the country for us to enjoy over Zoom.  However, we are hoping to be able to hold some smaller informal coffee mornings in late September and October.

With regard to our indoor interest-group meetings, we hope it will be possible for most of those to restart safely before long.  As the rules relax, your committee will continue to offer guidance and support with risk management.  Do check with group convenors or check the website for up-to-date information.

As September will represent our New Year, can I ask you to consider making a resolution to help Minehead and District u3a return to take its place as a vibrant and valued organisation within the local community?  Here are some ways in which you can help us to achieve that.

Promote our u3a and recruit new members.  We know people are leaving cities to come and live in our lovely part of the country, so please look out for opportunities to invite your new neighbours to join us.  As I write this column, our membership is 270; in 2019 it was 440.

Share your interests, skills and expertise by starting a new groupEven under the Covid restrictions, we have formed the Prog Rock and e-bike groups, both of which have attracted new members to join our u3a.

Offer to help group convenors, so that in-person meetings can resume.  There will be extra work managing indoor settings, which may be too much for one person.

Join an additional group.  With lower membership numbers, without your support even our established groups may struggle to remain viable.

Help us to run the organisationWe particularly need more support in publicity and marketing, and in IT – and the Committee would welcome any help you could offer.

Enjoy the summer break.  And I hope you’ll join me in looking forward to September as a positive new start for our u3a!

2021: June

Thanks to everyone who attended our AGM and helped to set our u3a on the path for another year.   The new committee has had informal discussions about the next few months, but at the time of writing we still await the government guidance on how our lives will be after 21 June.  Many of our groups are now restarting, making their own decisions about where and how to meet, taking into account current Covid guidance.  Some groups, however, have decided to wait a while longer, which is equally understandable.

Assuming that the official guidance doesn’t change, we are provisionally planning for the return of our indoor coffee mornings in September/October.  This is also when we’ll be concentrating our efforts on reconnecting with the wider community and encouraging new members to join (and lapsed members to rejoin us).  We are hopeful that, with the relaxation of restrictions, this extra activity will encourage new groups to start up.

Every crisis has its threats and opportunities.  For our u3a the major threat is a significant decline in membership – both in numbers and in engagement.  Ex-members have often told me that they enjoyed belonging to u3a for the social contact and to meet people, which of course has not been possible for many months now.  On the plus side, however, once we are able to meet again, there will be plenty of new opportunities: new people in the community and existing members whose lifestyles have undergone major change.  They may well be looking for new challenges or the chance to develop interests with like-minded people.

Technology has allowed us to access a wider range of speakers at coffee mornings and to share presenters and meetings with other u3a groups across the UK.  We are already working on hybrid meetings – a mix of online and face to face – so that those unable to attend in person will be able to join in.  So despite all the challenges caused by the pandemic, the result for us will, I hope, be a broader offer and some exciting innovations.

Let’s make a steady, gradual return to active u3a membership.  I trust that you’ll enjoy the summer months and that, like me, you’ll look forward to joining our schools, colleges and universities with renewed enthusiasm at the start of the next academic year.

2021: May

As I write this column it seems likely that – with some restrictions – we may be able to hold some meetings in late June, and that by September things may be returning to some degree of normality.  We’ll keep convenors fully updated on how changes in regulations affect our u3a groups, so please keep in contact with the convenor of every group you belong to.  What we do know for certain is that any changes directly affecting our meetings will not come into force until after 21 June.

Last year, National Office postponed the planned National u3a Day to 2 June 2021.  The timing is to make it part of National Volunteering Week, so you may see some coverage of it in the media.  As a committee we have decided not to organise anything locally for then.  Instead we’re planning to focus our publicity efforts later in the year, probably including an open morning, which will be an opportunity to reinvigorate our u3a and celebrate our local groups and events. 

For historical reasons, our u3a membership year runs from 1 May to 30 April and during this current year what a unique and, at times, distressing set of circumstances we have had to face!  We delayed our last AGM (2020) from May until August – so it may come as a surprise to find that it’s already time for the next one.  You will all have received a copy of the accounts and reports.  I do hope that you will join us virtually to show your support for our organisation.  However, please email me or Nic (Treasurer) if you have questions or comments, but are unable to attend.  The business part of the morning, which is quite short, will be followed by a contrasting presentation: an online magic show!  John Batt

2021: April

Many of you will be familiar with the Theory of Human Needs, as described by Maslow.  On the right is Maslow’s pyramid, showing how we only develop our knowledge when the base is solid.  It is worth considering, given that we all have to decide how to get involved with u3a activities again in the coming months.

Thanks to supermarket deliveries, we have been able to have our basic needs of food met and are fortunate to have shelter in our homes.  But since the start of the pandemic, we have not felt, or even at times actually been, safe, and, until we do feel safer, we won’t want to meet in social groups.  After such a long break from normality, our confidence may have taken a knock.  This model may help us to appreciate that our groups, led by convenors, will rebuild slowly, and will need to do so at their own pace.

The u3a movement is all about providing opportunities to achieve the top parts of the pyramid.  And central to achieving this is good communication between members and convenors.  The website calendar is a useful tool to keep everyone updated, but so too is direct contact – via email, letter, phone, or even small informal social gatherings – in order to work together, to return to the familiar interest group meetings that give us so much pleasure.

I know that quite a few groups haven’t taken advantage of the technology available today, yet around half of our members have gamely supported our online efforts to keep our u3a going.  I am delighted that we’ve continued to offer at least some activities over the last year, especially since many a u3a across the UK has simply closed down.

Being u3a Chairman must be similar to being the pilot of a hot air balloon: in a fine, calm climate, the organisation just floats along.  Suddenly last year we were blown off course and had to ‘zoom’ into the stratosphere of IT and social media.  Now I hope we’re gently descending, but with no idea where we’ll end up or even what the land beneath will look like in the future!  With your help on the ground, I hope the committee and convenors will find a welcoming return to earth during the course of our next year, starting with our 2021 AGM on 20 May.

Last month I invited you to send me any views you have about where we are as a learning organisation and where you consider we should head if you believe we ought to change course.  I’ve received five responses to date, but I (or indeed any member of the committee) would very much welcome more!

2021: March

What is the future of Minehead & District u3a?  I pose this question as last month I wrote about the Aladdin’s cave of riches found on our new website and on the wider internet.

Accessing this untold wealth brings its own problems: the digital divide between people without the skills, means or inclination, and those who are embracing the opportunities of the internet will widen, possibly at the cost of that essential element of a u3a, the social interaction within its local community.

As a committee, we have worked hard during lockdown to keep that divide as small as possible.  We have provided help and support to access technology, thanks to our IT Champions, created a local technology platform for members, and even acquired ten tablet computers for loan to those with no technology.  There are still some available, by the way.  But what now?

The government ‘roadmap′ anticipates that group meetings can resume after 21 June.  It is unlikely that large meetings, like our coffee mornings will be allowed or manageable before 2022.  However, outdoor meetings can take place from 17 May, socially distanced of course.  I am delighted to hear we have an  e-bike group in the making.

The committee has spent some time looking at the next few months, as May will soon be here.  Membership subscriptions are due at the beginning of that month, and the AGM will be on the 20th.  I had proposed to conduct a members’ survey but on reflection – following an attempt to formulate some questions – I realised that what is really important is what YOU think.

What are your thoughts about the u3a in the coming months?  How can we contact new members, promote the movement, encourage and energise existing groups, and keep the u3a relevant and valuable to the local community?  Finally, do you believe that next year’s basic membership fee of £10 is value for money?

What is the future for Minehead & District u3a?   There is a detailed paper ‘Planning for the u3a Post Lockdown’, by the Chair of the Third Age Trust (I can post a printed copy to anyone interested).  BUT what is vital are your thoughts about the future for our u3a.  Can I invite you to send your thoughts, ideas or concerns to – the website page, via an email to me, or if you prefer to chat about it, you can simply telephone me, or any committee member.

2021: February

It’s now 12 months since many of us were at the Baptist Church drinking coffee, chatting to each other and listening to a talk about beavers on the National Trust’s Holnicote Estate.  Since then we have learned so much!  New words and phrases have entered our lexicon: Covid; Zoom; social distancing; the ‘new normal’…  Familiar expressions – such as stay safe, vaccination, and be kind – have taken on new significance.  And there has been a great deal of change in our social behaviour.  We have been encouraged to eat out, to stay at home, to stop hugging friends and relatives, and to take avoiding action when coming across people out walking.  For me the most surprising change of behaviour is that we may now only go into a bank or post office if we’re wearing a mask over our faces!

Change management is a science on its own.  This cartoon sums up in reverse where we are today.  We cannot refer to COVID as a magical moment, for it is simply horrendous, but its impact on changing our behaviour has brought us some great new opportunities and challenges.

We have helped members to become IT competent when earlier they didn’t think they needed to know.  Of necessity, we have learned how to keep in touch with family and friends through various social media platforms.

About half our u3a members now use our Zoom links.  For our coffee mornings, using Zoom has allowed us to invite speakers from anywhere in the UK.

However, the most magical change for us is our new website – the result of much very real hard work on the part of our web team members.  To continue the magical analogy, our website is an Aladdin’s cave of treasures.  Recommended books to read, poetry, short stories, and photographs abound.  There are forums to post in, and the opportunity to share projects we’ve worked on, and even to watch recorded presentations.  You don’t need a genie – or to be an IT genius – to access the website, although you do need to register in order to enjoy all the benefits that are only open to registered members, including the chance to add to its treasures.

That’s enough of that!  Next month I shall no doubt return to my usual themes of the need for more committee members to come forward, news of the annual membership fee, the opportunity in June to take part in a National u3a Day, and other organisational matters.  But this month I strongly urge all our online members to take a magical journey into our new website.

2021: January

Last year ended on a successful note with the creation of our new website, featuring the lively Advent calendar, and a special coffee morning with live music.  As I wrote in December, with the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccination programme, it may be possible to return to holding meetings indoors later this year.  Until then, however, our u3a activities will continue to depend on making the best of our technology.

Although many of us have found the current situation difficult, it has created a unique opportunity to develop new online skills.  Sometimes we learn most through trial and error – as my failed attempt last month to create a personalised email to you all demonstrated so clearly! 

Without our customary face-to-face contact and the commitment of a meeting date in the diary, I know it is difficult to keep fully involved in u3a activities.  However, it is mutual support and shared learning that makes our movement so special and dynamic.  Although I’m not normally a fan of New Year resolutions, I’d like to encourage you, in 2021, to be as proactive as possible.  You can do this not only by supporting your convenors and other u3a members in their endeavours, but also by making a habit of looking at the website to see what other groups are doing.  For instance, you can check out all the latest reading lists of the book groups, read work by members of the creative writing group, or admire and comment on photographs and artwork posted on the website.  You can catch up on PowerPoint presentations or the text of talks you may have missed, and even contribute to the website yourself by submitting a news item, if you think the topic may interest your fellow members.

This column has primarily been about re-energising our u3a.  However, other organisations are finding it challenging to keep members engaged during this period.  One in particular is the Townsend House Trust.  In a normal year, about 60% of its room bookings are for u3a activities, which means that most Townsend House users are u3a members.  Eileen Ann Moore has asked me to remind as many of you as possible to renew your subscription to the Friends of Townsend House or become a new member in order to support this worthwhile organisation.  Contact Eileen Ann for more details, to make a donation, or to ask for a membership application form.  


December: In my November column, I told you we were still planning to hold a ‘real’ coffee morning in May 2021, but at the time of writing even May seemed somewhat optimistic.  Since then, however, we’ve heard news of encouraging vaccine developments, so – given a reasonably speedy roll-out of the vaccination programme – a real May coffee morning may not be such an over-optimistic target after all!

I feel more confident that, early in the New Year, our small groups will be able to get together ‘in 3-D’ again: as spring approaches and the weather improves, it should certainly be possible for those groups that meet outdoors.  In the meantime, our use of Zoom is working well for a number of our groups and our virtual coffee mornings are attracting viewing audiences of up to 60 members, plus the occasional guest.  Don’t forget that our IT Champions are always ready to help any of our members who aren’t confident about Zooming without support.

This excellent new website for our U3A offers many opportunities to share, comment, and learn new things, so please take some time to register and take a good look around!  On behalf of you all, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the members of the website development team for creating and managing it as an interactive resource.  The fundamental philosophy behind the U3A movement is mutual learning, so one measure of the website’s success as a method of communication will be the contributions and engagement of you, our members. 

The duo, Fool’s Gold, will entertain us with songs and stories at our Zoom Coffee Morning on Thursday 10 December 2020.  This is a special extra event, as we don’t normally hold a December coffee morning.  However, the committee felt that this year we deserve some extra cheering up, so we’re looking forward not only to seeing many of you enjoying the performance, but also to having a chat amongst ourselves.

Seasonal Greetings and a peaceful, safe, and healthy New Year to you all. 

November: Here we are in another lockdown and it is likely that restrictions will be in place well into next year.  I had thought, for a while, that next May would be the time when most of our groups and our coffee mornings would be able to restart: maybe this is now a little optimistic, but for the time being, I shall hold on to that optimism.  What it means, of course, is that we will continue to promote and encourage as much learning activity as possible through technology.  For members who receive this newsletter in print and may be excluded from our Zoom coffee mornings, we have a limited number of Kindle Amazon Fire tablets available for loan.

In February, our Zoom coffee morning will  consist of presentations from a few of our U3A members, so I would love to hear from any of you who would like to, or be prepared to, give a ten-minute Zoom presentation either about your group, or a project undertaken during the last 12 months.  On Tuesday morning, 1 December 2020, we will be running a training event on Zoom for anyone interested in using it for presentations; it is open to everyone if you would like to improve your videoconferencing skills

Our new website is nearly ready for launch, so a massive thank you to Martin and his team.  They have created not just an information source but also a user-friendly interactive tool for us all to enjoy.

At its recent AGM, the Third Age Trust published a development plan.  The most evident outcome is the change to the logo, with different colours and letters in lower case.

Their consultations and research indicated a decline in numbers and an increase in the age profile.  The plan seeks to widen participation, grow the brand and includes all other sorts of corporate speak including peer support networks.  Although this refers to groups for treasurers, secretaries, etc., it is the peer support that is at the heart of being a U3A member.  If I were to publish a Minehead and District U3A development plan, it would be just to encourage and promote peer support, both within your group and across the district.  We do not need to change what we do, we will just continue to support each other, welcome new members and, together, learn, laugh and live.

 October: There has been quite a lot of activity from the National Office of the U3A in the last month.  The Third Age Trust, which is the umbrella organisation, held their AGM on-line.  Technology moment at its best  –  I was unable to log on, but Jan fortunately was able to and she cast our 2 votes on the various agenda items.  We did, along with other U3As in the SW, oppose a fee increase on the grounds of the current situation, but the resolution to increase the fee was passed raising it by 50p for the year 2021/22 – but not £1 as another resolution proposed.  They  have also launched a new logo, more on that in the future, and a podcast on YouTube which is quite an interesting to listen to, if you have half an hour.

The Chairman of the U3A Trust, Ian McCannah, also produced a paper ‘Planning for the U3A Movement Post Lockdown‘.  It was written using surveys and a questionnaire.  I had posed a similar question in my July column but had no responses in my quest for ideas.  However, this paper does give some thoughts on how we can reinvigorate our ‘offer’, looking at different ways of meeting and communicating.  Two suggestions are… (i) for blended/hybrid groups, where up to 6 members can meet  in a COVID safe environment and others opt to attend virtually; (ii) to develop new activities and processes adapted to social distancing.

The principle of Lifelong Learning is at the heart of the U3A and the current situation has created this opportunity to learn about technology, and it is provoking us to find ways we can continue to follow our interests with like-minded people.  The IT champions are a new group exemplifying this, offering their skills and expertise whilst taking on the challenge, as a team, to develop a new website that will help us all.  If you have any thoughts or ideas for new groups, or how we can re-energise our existing ‘offer’, then please get in touch.

September: Over the last few months our ever-changing language has acquired new expressions, such as ‘new normal’, ‘COVID safe’, and ‘social distancing’.  Innocuous little words, yet what an impact on our daily lives!  It is now almost certain that, until 2021, we won’t be able to meet indoors in our interest groups without breaking government guidelines.  However, several groups are finding imaginative ways to work together on projects and learn new skills, and convenors are using initiatives to stay in touch with their members and to keep up group activities.  But please remember to do your own personal risk assessment for any group meeting or activity.

Thank you to the 53 members who attended our AGM on Zoom, thus ensuring that our organisation remains legally able to function for another year.  I hope that in the coming months two or three more of our 300+ members will consider joining the committee and help to keep our U3A moving forward.  I am delighted to announce that Pam Young has been successful in a bid to fund ten Kindle Fire tablets.  These will be available for loan to any U3A members who may not otherwise be able to access the internet.

Returning to the theme of language, I’ve noted that U3A National Office is using the term ‘movement’ to refer to the U3A rather than ‘organisation’ (which is what I’ve always thought of it as).  This has led me to wonder how we might debate this and any other issues on which members may like to seek clarification at this time.  Is there a place for a discussion topic on our new website, on our Facebook page or maybe in a 30-minute spot before the Zoom talk at our virtual coffee mornings?  If you have any thoughts about whether we’re part of a movement or a national organisation, or ideas about how we could develop a discussion on it, please email or speak to any committee member or me.  In addition, I would welcome any ideas for more ways in which we can help our members to engage with the technological world that so many of us take for granted. I look forward to hearing from you!