It was a difficult time for those of us transferring from our safe, small, district based primary schools to the big secondary schools all of which were in the centre of town. To add to the pressure we were the first intake of the comprehensive system introduced in 1970.
Saint Aidan's Comprehensive had not decided on the new uniform, so temporarily the girls had to wear the lower school County High uniform which was a grey v-neck jumper, no cardigan, white shirt, maroon tie, grey pleated, knee length skirt, white ankle sock and black, flat lace-up shoes. There were no blazers to be worn before middle school. Boys wore the Grammar school's lower school uniform, essentially the same as ours but they could wear trousers and a blazer.
In 1971 there was a world wide oil shortage. St. Aidan's had an oil-fired heating system; this is where my story begins.
Lower school girls were the ones most affected. The lads could put soccer socks on under their trousers and wear their blazers. We were freezing!
At home I was writing in my diary complaining about the situation. Although I was only eleven I was politically aware and active through my Mam's involvement with the Labour party. I had leafleted and listened to the political discussions in our house.
The next day in registration I asked Mr. Lowe if I could have a new exercise book. He didn’t ask what it was for so I didn’t tell him.
On the first page I wrote in big capital letters “WE, THE UNDERSIGNED, DEMAND THE RIGHT FOR ALL GIRLS IN LOWER SCHOOL TO BE ALLOWED TO WEAR TROUSERS AND BLAZERS DURING THE FUEL SHORTAGES.”
The book circulated like wild fire, by 3.30pm I had over 500 signatures. That night we made a banner from wall paper which read “2, 4, 6, 8, YOU SHOULD NOT DISCRIMINATE!!!!” The next morning Alison, June and I got to school early and stood at the main entrance with the banner and our chant. We were quickly joined by about 20 other lower school girls. Our chanting was quite loud by now and a lady in the house opposite phoned the police.
The police car arrived at the same time as Mr. Sidaway. Our group of 20 girls quickly evaporated to 6. Mr. Sidaway assured the police officer that he would deal with the situation and took the 6 of us into his office. It was very cosy with his electric fire!
It was like a red rag to a bull! I had the book in my hand and did my speech about the unfairness of the uniform rule and was about to launch into my discrimination speech when he waved his hands and said “I have never heard such twaddle. Who do you think you are bloody Barbara Castle? I have never heard such rubbish, get to registration, you will all be in detention for the rest of the week. I will be writing to your parents. Now GET OUT!!”
I was livid; he had dismissed us as if we didn’t matter. I will show him who I am, who WE are. We will go on strike and march to the Civic Centre. I may as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb.
Mr. Sidaway hadn’t taken our banner or petition (he wasn't very clever, was he!). We decided to meet by the gym gate at lunch time to go on our protest march and give the petition to the Mayor, Tom Souness.
There were over 100 of us there! We set off with our chant and had got almost half way when a black mariah arrived. Six huge Bobbies got out, three went to the back of the group, and the others came to us at the front. To my horror it was Sergeant Coleman, who lived in Upperby, too. He towered over me and said “Now then, young Prewitt, what are you up to? “
I showed him our petition and explained that it was our democratic right to strike and protest peacefully because we were being discriminated against. He rubbed his chin and spoke to the other sergeant and said “I have no argument, young Prewitt, and besides it’s easier to walk you up there than force you back to school.” So off we went.
In no time we were outside the Civic Centre. The news had obviously travelled because the Mayor and Chief Executive were waiting on the steps to receive us. I gave my speech again. There were roars and whistles of approval from my school mates. They accepted our petition and promised an early resolution.
We walked back to school like crusaders. I felt elated, we had taken positive action and held our heads high.
As we entered school we were greeted by Mr. Sidaway and several teachers. “Back to your classes", he yelled. "Not you, Prewitt. My office.” Mr. Sidaway slammed the door closed. He had gone past red, He was purple. He was a small, chubby, balding man, always dressed in light tweed suits with contrasting waistcoats, a bow tie and a flower in his button hole. His round wire framed glasses sat on the end of his nose. He was incandescent. He ranted uncontrollably, his voice so loud his words were distorted, sweat beads on his brow and top lip, spit showering the room as he stormed up and down. I just stood stock still, strangely unafraid. prepared to stand my ground.
His secretary came in with an envelope, which he threw at me. He told me that I was suspended. I was escorted from the school by Mr. Lowe, my form tutor.
At the front door he looked down at me and said ”Well, you’ve done it this time, Jayne.” As he opened the door for me, he clapped me on the back, winked and said “Well done Kid, I'm proud of you.”