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In the shadow of despair

As unions fight for the 8,000 jobs in the Longbridge car plant, Julie Henry reports on a head's fears for the children of Rover workers.

HEADTEACHER Roger Perks, whose school is in the shadow of the Longbridge car plant, has torn up the prize-giving speech he was due to deliver this week.

The words of encouragement and celebration seemed inappropriate in the light of the announcement by BMW this week that the Rover car group will be broken up.

Instead, the Baverstock school principal will describe how BMW's decision, which is likely to lead to the closure of the Birmingham factory and the loss of 8,000 jobs, will go down in history as the West Midlands' darkest hour.

"I cannot easily describe my feelings of revulsion at such a cynical demolition of our area's greatest employer. We feel completely sold out," he said.

"I took assembly this week and asked the children who had parents or relatives working at Rover to put their hands up. My blood ran cold when I saw the result. A mass of hands - more than two-thirds - were raised. Tragedy is looming for so many of these families."

Ties between the school and the Longbridge factory are strong but no one knows what will happen now.

To add insult to injury, a BMW poster advertising a young people's recruitment evening next Tuesday and boasting of the opportunities the company can offer landed on the head's dek on Monday.

The 20 to 30 students who were hoping to take up apprenticeships at the plant are confused and demoralised, and one 16-year-old has already had an interview with Land Rover cancelled.

Mr Perks said: "Here we are, telling our pupils to work hard, do their very best, take our advice, go along with Government initiatives such as the extended school day and all will be well. Just as the BMW management told the Rover work- force who, like our pupils, did just that.

"Now we have to persuade our youngsters to continue to trust us, to have hope and accept that there is some point in gaining these qualifications."

The head was brought up in Staffordshire, where pit closures devastated schools and created ghost towns.

Parents living on the Druids Heath estate, which the school serves, are already talking about selling up.

Mr Perks said: "We are telling people not to be embarrassed about the need to take up free school meals or help with buying uniforms. But we are under no illusion that dealing with this body blow is a massive challenge. The enormity of this must not be under-estimated.

"It will require a vigorous re-thinking and re-working of our existing aims and practices. However, I do honestly believe that, with this school's dynamism, expertise, teamwork, belief and faith, it is a battle which can be won on behalf of our children."

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