Beryl Mellish, Len Street and Keith Richards have many years’ experience of helping shape the residential learning programme at U3A. Here they look back at the history of summer schools, how they have developed and why they have been proud to be involved.
Summer schools, as organised by the Third Age Trust, came about as part of an evolutionary process which began with the formation of the SCE (the Standing Committee on Education) as a major sub-committee of the NEC in 1996. It was formed to be a focus for U3A educational issues and to co-ordinate and extend the learning support services.
In the 1990s, the larger subject networks would organise study days. It is the existence of these network study days, particularly the Languages Network ones which involved a period of overnight accommodation, that made the proposal by Phyllis Babb that the Trust should organise a regular Summer School seem a natural, evolutionary development. At that time Phyllis Babb was the Subject Network Co-ordinator.
These ‘schools’ would offer opportunities for U3A members, from any part of the UK, to follow a course, while in residence on campus over three or four days, in a subject chosen from a wide range and all tutored by a U3A member. The ‘schools’ proved to be very popular with U3A members and for many it was the first time they were able to experience, albeit briefly, full-time residential study.
The first U3A Summer School was held in York in 1999 followed by Chester in 2000 and Exeter in 2001. With each Summer School having around 200 participants with about a dozen different subjects on offer, it soon became necessary to hold two per year and this was the case in 2002 and 2003. Later the demand was there for three each year.
The Summer Schools, run by U3A members for U3A members, are a vitally important part of the learning support offered to members by the SCE and are wholly in keeping with the concept of U3A as proposed by the three founder members – Michael Young, Peter Laslett and Eric Midwinter.’
I think one of the wonderful aspects of summer schools over the years has been its adaptation to the changing membership of the movement. When I first joined U3A many of my fellow members had left school at fourteen and had not been in a position to take up further learning opportunities. Since then, we know that educational standards in much of the population has improved and there has been a widening of interests.
I think the ‘baby boomers’ have roused an interest in science and the universe though there is still a lot to be explored on these topics. Opportunities to travel have opened up a desire to communicate in other tongues, and indeed there is an interest in the history and development of language. In U3A, Latin has gone down with great delight and indeed it was on the menu again for the national summer school in Cirencester this year.
I think the opportunity that residential learning gives to share knowledge, skills and experiences is what we are all about really. This learning and social interaction widens our own knowledge and understanding the world around us.
As Len mentioned, the Subject Adviser. Phyllis Babb is credited with the inspirational idea which was quickly taken up by Lin Jonas the National Administrative Officer who organised planning meetings at Harrison Street leading to the first School at University of York. Thereafter she assumed a pivotal role in bringing together the resources and volunteer tutors and organisers.
The South East Region was the first to organise a school of its own in Chichester and the north west was swift to follow. Others such as the one held in the Midlands followed and the London Region also now organises a well-established non-residential school each July.
The national and regional schools offer U3A members an experience of residential learning which some have never experienced. The peer to peer education goes on over meals, coffee and tea breaks, deep into the night when the organised evening functions are over. Summer schools reflect the U3A movement’s wider ethos and I hope will keep evolving and growing for many years to come.
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