How we did it

Crisis hit St Mary's primary school in Hornchurch, Essex, last year when parents threatened to withdraw their children in protest over a nearby phone mast. Head Michael Coy tells how the school coped

The phone mast appeared without warning on a neighbouring building at the end of last summer term. Parents, residents and the school were all furious that we had not been informed in any way.

I contacted the council's planning office and fed back information to parent-governors. BT had put a mobile-phone mast on the roof of the factory next door, less than 100 metres from the school.

A huge groundswell of protest soon grew and some parents threatened to withdraw their children. For me, it was a question of finding out exactly what was happening and just trying to keep control of people's emotions.

My main worry was that the mast could be a threat to health, particularly for the youngest children whose classrooms were close to it. The school needed to speak out as part of the local community - but in a responsible way, without rabble-rousing or scaremongering. It was important that we kept in close contact with what was happening and that actions didn't compromise the work of the school.

We held staff meetings and tried to work out a united approach. We did the same with the governors so that we would all be singing from the same hymn sheet. We also offered the school premises for meetings. A mast action committee was formed, including parents, residents and governors. On the last day of term, parents and children protested on the pavement outside the mast site in huge numbers, and very noisily.

Meetings continued in the summer holidays. There was a push to ask parents to keep their children out of school in protest. It took a lot to persuade the group that this was a bad idea. It was the last thing we wanted. Eventually, we got it down to a token protest on the first day of school. The group got as much media coverage as possible and most of the children joined the demonstration. Those who didn't came in, and school went on as usual. That was important to us because we needed to make the point that this wasn't a school protest.

The issue provided good discussion material with Year 6. We talked about how you deal with situations in which you feel that your rights have been trampled on, and whether it was right that we should be out there campaigning and disrupting.

The mast action group went from strength to strength and became more organised. They kept the pressure on councillors and officers, and finally managed to force the council to reconsider. An alternative site for the mast has been recommended, so we hope the whole saga is at an end.

You learn a lot from a crisis like this. And the children have learned an awful lot about how democracy works, and how important it is to stand up and say what you think.

Interview by Martin Whittaker

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