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A tale of two sisters and the eleven-plus

It was results day and the news was starting to sink in. I had passed my eleven-plus. My sister had not.

By Rebecca White

My twin sister and I were sat on the sofa downstairs, exchanging worried looks. Even with the telly on we could hear Mum playing that one Abba song on repeat upstairs in the bedroom.

The winner takes it all
The loser’s standing small
Beside the victory
That’s her destiny

It was results day and the news was starting to sink in. I had passed my eleven-plus. My sister had not.

Anyone who grew up in an area with grammar schools will know the entrance exam is more than just a test. I was only ten, but its implications seemed enormous. It was like I was inhabiting my own personal Choose Your Own Adventure book. As a working-class  girl in Thatcher’s Britain, I was raised to believe the eleven-plus held the keys to genuine social mobility.  I was a future first-generation university student on free school meals – a grammar school success story. My sister’s experience was less auspicious.

[See also: Tick the box: “Other. Please explain”]

Two schools, one mile apart. Every morning, as we closed the front door behind us, my sister would turn left and I’d turn right. She in her navy oversized blazer, me in my garish purple one. While I learned Latin, German, French and Italian, only one language was on offer at my sister’s school. I went on educational trips abroad, while she stayed at home. At my grammar school I was laughed at for paying for my lunch with  a token. At my sister’s comprehensive, receiving free school meals was a fact of life.

But it was the difference in expectations that really stung. After receiving my GCSE results, a teacher spoke to me about applying to Oxbridge. Meanwhile, my sister was encouraged to go to secretarial college. It feels churlish to complain that doors were opening for me. But then I think of my sister. Did she not also deserve the best education money can’t buy?

[See also: My dreams were deemed unrealistic]

My parents trusted the system and played by its rules. If the system told us I had academic potential and my sister didn’t, they believed it. We believed it.

As it happened, my sister did have “potential” after all. After having two children, in her late twenties she graduated with a first-class honours degree. There: a happy ending of sorts. We ended up on the same page of our Choose Your Own Adventure book. Except her conclusion was against the odds. And, of course, there was no real choice involved.

Rebecca White is supported by A Writing Chance, a UK-wide project from New Writing North designed to discover new writers from underrepresented backgrounds whose voices have historically not been heard in publishing and the media. You can read work by other writers in this initiative here.

A Writing Chance is co-funded by Michael Sheen and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and supported by the New Statesman and the Daily Mirror. The project is delivered by New Writing North and literature organisations nationally, with research from Northumbria University.

This piece is published in Michael Sheen’s guest edited issue of the New Statesman, “A Dream of Britain”, on sale from 25 March.

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This article appears in the 23 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, A Dream of Britain