When I was 11, I received a letter saying that I was to go to the local grammar school. When my sister was 11, she was told that she was to go to the local secondary modern. Our lives were to show a marked contrast from then on.
Up until the age of 11, our experiences had been the same. We lived on a council estate. Our parents encouraged us in the same way: visits to the library, museums and the park. We went to the same primary school and had the same teachers. We mixed with the same children. My sister's school reports, as did mine, portrayed a bright, intelligent, well-motivated child. We both enjoyed school and eagerly rushed through the gates when the bell rang at the start of the day.
A clue as to why my sister failed the 11-plus may be that her birthday is at the end of August and mine is in October. When we started school there was a three-term intake, and I had two extra terms in the reception class. All through school, my sister was judged against children nearly a year older than herself.
Our parents began to label us differently when we went to separate schools: she became the pretty one and I was the clever one. She became the one with the common sense, I was the absent-minded professor. We started to live up to our labels. My studious glasses and old-fashioned uniform ensured that I did not attract the boys. My sister wore fashionable clothes and had the time to listen to the latest music, as her school paid little attention to giving her homework or pushing her to achieve academically. The grammar school neglected the practical and artistic side of the curriculum and I left school unable to sew, cook, paint or draw.
My sister was only allowed to take CSEs; I had to strive for O-levels. We both left school at 16.
I became a library assistant, my sister a dental nurse. We both married at 19 and both of us had completed our families by the time we were 27.
Then our lives started to diverge again. I had had the academic schooling: I had O-levels and a grammar school background. This enabled me to go to college and obtain a BEd, certificates, diplomas and an MA.
My sister, with CSEs and secondary modern schooling, found it difficult to gain higher qualifications, and for a while did housework to supplement her income. She would have needed to do a one-year access course before being considered for college. This would have meant an extra burden for her, both in terms of finances and child care. Later, she used her artistic skills to good effect and became an expert at floral design.
Our children have gone in different directions. Hers are developing careers by learning a trade. My son has a degree in civil engineering and my daughter is working towards a degree in nursing.
Our expectations for our children differ as a result of our contrasting experiences at school. My sister sees the value of a job that enables her children to earn a good wage and that equips them to deal with the everyday practicalities of life: my nephew will never have to worry about car servicing bills, or what to do when the car breaks down. My expectations for my children have helped to launch them on the academic treadmill. Only time will tell which mother has served her children better in this respect.
My sister and I have drifted further and further apart over the years. When I tried to discuss this article with her, she felt I was portraying her as a failure. She is convinced that because she failed the 11-plus and does not have a degree, she has been dealt a poor hand. Society has taught her that only those with academic qualifications can be considered successful, so she feels that I must think she is inferior to me.
If only she would listen when I tell her that I envy her artistic skills, her common sense, her serenity. If only she would stop seeing the seemingly powerful headteacher, the large salary, the successful academic, and realise that the job is stressful, that I am constantly disappointed with my artistic endeavours, and that I lack confidence in my appearance, all of which make me feel inferior to her.
I am convinced that if a good comprehensive school had been on offer for us at the age of 11, and she had had the chance to catch up, and if I could have studied a wider variety of subjects, then she and I could have had more control over our choice of lifestyles. Maybe then we would have had a fighting chance of being "devoted sisters", instead of two people who fail to understand each other.
The writer is headteacher of an inner London primary school.Reuse content