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changing the mindset

people

Ben Spencer is the head of CABE's new education foundation, and wants to improve knowledge of the built environment among schoolchildren - the clients, decision makers and building users of tomorrow

CABE Education is, we feel, a long-term project and is all about looking at attitudinal change on a generational basis.

It's not necessarily about getting a new generation of architects or landscape architects, or urban planners. It's about raising the overall level, so if, for example, you're an elected member at any point, you'll have a better understanding of what all the issues are.'

So says Ben Spencer, head of CABE's new education wing, a man with a mission to foster a greater understanding of the built environment in the nation's children; and, it follows, in the UK's future clients and decision makers.

CABE has created the foundation to attack this broad topic, and it will stage a major launch of its programme in May (after slight slippage). It has been set up as a charity, which, Spencer explains bluntly, enables it to go after funding in a way that CABE, with central government cash, cannot. It has lofty aims: to squeeze buildings onto the cramped curriculum via geography and 'citizenship' (in line with the CABE agenda); to act as a central resource and website (www. cabe-education. org. uk) for parties keen to share best practice; and to publish a good practice guide. In short, and mirroring Sir Stuart Lipton's words at the birth of CABE, to get architecture 'into the bloodstream' of the nation, nabbing them young.

Spencer has the perfect background for such a job. He started out as a primary teacher in Brighton, where he had also studied. His school, 'an oasis of creativity', had a 'great buzz' in its tiny building on the famous Lanes. Primary education appealed to him because it was not about 'doing things in little boxes'. Instead, he was happy pointing the kids to their local environment:

the seafront, pier, beach, museum and pavilion - part of the 'incredible richness' of urban space. The children would produce Tshirts of what they felt would appeal to the Brighton visitor, prepare projects on a map of the city, blown up on the wall, and generally have a ball.

Then Spencer joined London's Natural History Museum as education officer, where his desire to communicate and enrich its potential shone through. He was there for six years, changing its output as a resource centre for teachers; attempting to empower the front-of-house staff by getting them more involved with the 'experience' of visiting the museum; and introducing interactive 'hands-on trolleys' stocked with fossils and other items. The idea was for the children to learn in a 'constructivist' manner - ie making their own discoveries.

While he was there, he picked up a part-time MA, before moving to the Horniman Museum in 1998.

At that 'very quirky' institution, he got involved with bringing in money and with Allies and Morrison's extension. 'It was a very interesting learning experience for me, ' he says, and he revelled in the outreach to schools and community programmes. He then moved to The Learning Circuit, where he provided support and advice for nine Department for Education and Skills museum and gallery education projects.

Today, Spencer is employed by CABE but will do the work of the foundation - he is currently working up a budget bid and looking to expand its staff of two. But he is already finding glaring differences between attitudes to education here and abroad.

Spencer has just returned from a working group visit to Copenhagen with DfES and Department for Culture, Media and Sport officers. They looked, among other things, at play areas.

'It was absolutely astonishing, ' he says.

'The public facilities they had for play were far more extensive and imaginative than we see generally in this country. Plus, they showed far less of a risk-averse attitude to health and safety, and with sand instead of 'bouncy tarmac'. We're becoming a litigation-oriented society, with local authorities not wanting to have responsibility for injuries. And yet a lot of interesting research shows that where there is that bouncy tarmac, kids are simply assessing risk and climbing higher.'

The group also looked at after-school clubs, where children had opportunities to design, build, inhabit and maintain their own, admittedly small, buildings. These were 7- to 14-year-olds with guidance from adults, but some of the creations were pretty advanced, with balconies and towers, along with basic landscaping. This does not come cheap, says Spencer, but another idea is the use of teachers and 'pedagogues' - 'less wellpaid professionalised play workers, but with a high profile in education'.

Were the Brits impressed? 'Yes. On an individual level they could see a richness that would be of benefit in life skills and social teamwork.'

They could look, too, to Copenhagen's creative playspace topography, or good examples of play areas here, such as the Diana Memorial Playground in Hyde Park. 'But if all your experience has been to design swings and roundabouts planted in tarmac, it's difficult to make that leap.'

Another leap Spencer is keen to examine is that from children's Utopian housing scenario - 'in a tower block with all their mates' - to the adults' favoured Georgian house ideal. 'Why do they flip over?' he asks.

Spencer will be leading the charge to 'join up' the 16 architecture centres, help London Junior Open House, and get more artists and architects in schools. Architecture students in Birmingham were impressed with such sessions, where they had to convey their ideas without jargon. He will also seek talks with the WWF about its campaign for one million sustainable homes - possibly a joint education resource could emerge - and then there is all that curriculum support work.

'The test for us is going to be getting that long-term strategy right. If that is your ambition, it'll be a long time until we see that it's successful. But you can break it down into small pieces and attack it from all angles.'

The key will be 'staying focused' and pulling off the trick he feels CABE has managed already: 'Punching above its weight'.

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