I have spent quite some time recently looking at two iconic bridges – the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which rises in splendour above Circular Quay in Sydney, and the brand new Queensferry Crossing, visible from Edinburgh airport and for miles around. Each is remarkable in its own way – the Sydney Harbour Bridge is the tallest steel arch bridge, measuring 134 m, from top to water level, while the Queensferry Crossing, at 1.7 miles in length, is the longest three-tower, cable-stayed bridge in the world, and also – by far – the largest to feature cables which cross mid-span. Perhaps even more importantly, each is immensely practical and is a beautiful sight to behold.
Bridges are feats of human engineering, and must rate as one of humanity’s greatest inventions. They facilitate movement – physical mobility – by enabling people to travel to previously inaccessible places, and they connect people physically in ways that would otherwise be impossible. It takes a bridge to be able to cross a ravine or a river safely; bridges take us up above the dangers of road traffic, or let us move, as if in the sky, between high-rise towers. Without bridges, it is fair to say, we would get to fewer places, less easily, and some places might just be out of our reach entirely.
And so it is with education – one of the greatest metaphorical bridges of all in our world. Education makes it possible to move from one side of a divide to a better life on the other side; education turns an apparent impasse into the start of a journey. Part of this is about earning qualifications, which opens doors to further study, but it is increasingly and powerfully obvious that the role of education – and schools – is much, much more that of an enabler, enabling young people to discover and have confidence in their own unique profiles, and providing opportunities for these young people to test out what it is like to cross different types of bridges in their lives. In a global world, these bridges come in many and varied shapes, sizes and directions; often they have yet to be built. The more that schools can do to open the eyes of their students to the multiple – infinite, perhaps – opportunities that await them, the readier each student will be to embark on the journey ahead of them – and, where they do not yet exist, to create new bridges of their own.
I firmly believe that anything is possible if we put our minds to it; I believe too that no child should be limited in his/her potential by early life experiences and social background. In showing students how to identify existing bridges to different experiences and opportunities, and in helping them understand (and have confidence in) how to create and build their own bridges, schools are facilitating mobility.
And the world is an easier place for everyone to navigate as a result.
Dr Helen Wright is the author of ‘Powerful Schools: how schools can be drivers of social and global mobility’, published by John Catt in 2016.