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Laurie Penny on The X Factor: Gamu Nhengu and the importance of empathy

The plight of the X Factor hopeful reminds us of the power of reality television.

Nothing is real until it's been made into reality television, and that includes human suffering. After years of arbitrarily blaming every imaginable social problem, from housing shortages to unemployment, on migrants, the caring British public has finally rallied to defend one single, solitary immigrant from forced deportation after seeing her perform reasonably well on the X Factor.

Eighteen-year-old Gamu Nhengu, originally from Zimbabwe, has a cherubic smile, a powerful set of lungs and an expired visa. Millions of viewers watched entranced as she belted out a precociously soulful cover of "Walking on Sunshine" in front of judges on the TV talent show, earning herself a standing ovation and a welter of appreciative Facebook fansites. Despite her popularity with the viewing public, however, the young singer was kicked off the programme and into the welcoming arms of the UK Border Agency last week amid murmurings that X Factor producers had declined to deal with her precarious immigration status. Having lived in Clackmannanshire for over five years, Nhengu and her family now have just days to leave the country.

In the past week, tens of thousands of supporters have written letters to the Home Office, signed online petitions and even travelled to Scotland to stand outside Nhengu's flat with wobbly homemade banners, treading that occasionally precarious picket line between popular protest and co-ordinated stalking. Even the Daily Mail has caved in to reader pressure and run panegyric pieces portraying young Nhengu, a benefit-claiming immigrant, as the unimpeachably twinkly offspring of Michael Jackson and Little Orphan Annie.

It's incredible. Campaigners, activists, aid workers, lawyers, family members and any number of asylum seekers have dedicated their lives to persuading a hostile press and a population raddled by prejudice and private anxiety that migrants are human beings with human rights who deserve compassion - but it turns out that all that was really needed was for one of them to stand on a stage in a party frock and compete for the chance to be publicly humiliated by Simon Cowell.

Perhaps the Refugee Council ought to rethink its press strategy. Perhaps they could put out fewer serious pamphlets about institutional abuse in immigration holding facilities and more spangly song-and-dance numbers. Perhaps the public might be more sympathetic to the plight of the hundreds of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who come to this country fleeing persecution in countries where homosexuality is illegal if they were all to dress up in sequins and perform Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Disappointingly, however, stardom is not the top priority of most of the thousands of immigrants currently facing deportation from the UK. Most of them are more immediately concerned about being forcibly returned to countries where they face rape, torture and even murder. Most of them are interested in nothing more than the chance to earn a decent living and a scrap of social respect. Many of the 900 men and women currently locked up in segregated cells in the Yarl's Wood detention centre just want to be able to see their kids again. But not Gamu Nhengu: she wants to be famous, and unlike the aspiration to live a life free from hunger, terror and persecution, that's something we can all relate to.

The formalised rules of managed frenzy that pass for emotional interest on reality television provide an empathic format with which the TV-viewing public can relate, because we know what is expected of us. There's nothing challenging here: we know how this story goes. Here's the shot of the contestant in her home, surrounded by her family; now here she is, waiting for her cue on live camera, with the voiceover informing us about how she just wants to help her mum out. As she steps in front of the judges, chewing her beautiful teenage lips, cut to a shot of her loving parents waiting nervously backstage; as she finishes her set piece to rapturous applause, zoom in on her family crying with relief. A thousand asylum appeal videos with mournful piano soundtracks could not hope to produce the revenue-generating response of a televised reality pageant tugging robotically on the dull heartstrings of a nation used to producing feelings en masse, for someone else's profit.

It would be easy to extrapolate that consumer culture has now reached the point where the only emotion with which the general public can truly empathise is aspirational craving -- not pain, or fear, or intimacy, none of which can be reproduced or ritualised in gameshow format, but simple, needy, greedy longing, for more status, more luxury, more money. It would be easy to assume that the only thing that truly unites us in these troubled times when the social can only be accessed in commodified, photostat formats is the asocial impulse to better our individual situation sat any cost.

That, however, would be the wrong assumption. Late capitalism has warped our capacity for empathy on a social scale, but has not destroyed it. Inside every one of us, from the welfare-claiming immigrant to the wealthy city worker, is a vulnerable, hopelessly young person desperate for acceptance, preparing for our big moment in the spotlight, anxious not to let our loved ones down, hoping to be judged kindly. If we can collectively realise that notion, even for the interim of a Saturday-night talent show, we will be one step closer to building the kind of society that we need.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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"Michael Gove is a nasty bit of work": A Thatcherite's lonely crusade for technical colleges

Kenneth Baker, Margaret Thatcher's education secretary, has been in a war of words with one of his successors. 

When I meet Kenneth Baker, once Margaret Thatcher’s reforming education secretary, conversation quickly turns to an unexpected coincidence. We are old boys of the same school: a sixth-form college in Southport that was, in Baker’s day, the local grammar. Fittingly for a man enraged by the exclusion of technical subjects from the modern curriculum, he can only recall one lesson: carpentry.

Seven decades on, Lord Baker – who counts Sats, the national curriculum, league tables, and student loans among his innovations – is still preoccupied with technical education. His charity, the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, oversees university technical colleges (UTCs), the specialist free schools that work with businesses and higher education institutions to provide a vocational curriculum for students aged 14-19. He is also a working peer, and a doughty evangelist for technical education and apprenticeships in the upper chamber. 

But when we meet at the charity’s glass-panelled Westminster office at 4 Millbank, he is on the defensive – and with good reason. Recent weeks have been particularly unkind to the project that, aged 82, he still works full-time to promote. First, a technical college in Oldham, Greater Manchester, became the seventh to close its doors since 2015. In three years, not one of its pupils passed a single GCSE, and locals complained it had become a “dumping ground” for the most troubled and disruptive children from Oldham’s other schools (Baker agrees, and puts the closure down to “bad governorship and bad headship”). 

Then, with customary chutzpah, came Michael Gove. In the week of the closure, the former education secretary declared in his Times column that the UTCs project had failed. "The commonest error in politics," he wrote, quoting Lord Salisbury, "is sticking to the carcasses of dead policies". Baker is now embroiled in a remarkable – and increasingly bitter – war of words with his successor and one-time colleague.

It wasn't always this way. In 2013, with UTCs still in their infancy, he told the New Statesman the then education secretary was “a friend”, despite their disagreements on the curriculum. The bonhomie has not lasted. In the course of our hour-long conversation, Gove is derided as “a nasty bit of work”, “very vindictive”, “completely out of touch”, and “Brutus Gove and all the rest of it”. (Three days after we speak, Baker renews their animus with a blistering op-ed for The Telegraph, claiming Gove embraced UTCs about as warmly as “an undertaker”.)

In all of this, Gove, who speaks warmly of Baker, has presented himself as having been initially supportive of the project. He was, after all, the education secretary who gave them the green light. Not so, his one-time colleague says. While David Cameron (Baker's former PA) and George Osborne showed pragmatic enthusiasm, Gove “was pretty reluctant from the word go”.

“Gove has his own theory of education,” Baker tells me. He believes Gove is in thrall to the American educationalist E.D. Hirsch, who believes in focusing on offering children a core academic diet of subjects, whatever their background. "He doesn’t think that schools should worry about employability at all," Baker says. "He thinks as long as you get the basic education right, everything will be fine. That isn’t going to happen – it isn’t how life works!" 

Baker is fond of comparing Gove’s heavily academic English baccalaureate to the similarly narrow School Certificate he sat in 1951, as well as the curriculum of 1904 (there is seldom an interview with Baker that doesn’t feature this comparison). He believes his junior's divisive tenure changed the state sector for the worse: “It’s appalling what’s happening in our schools! The squeezing out of not only design and technology, but drama, music, art – they’re all going down at GCSE, year by year. Now children are just studying a basic eight subjects. I think that’s completely wrong.” 

UTCs, with their university sponsors, workplace ethos (teaching hours coincide with the standard 9-5 working day and pupils wear business dress), and specialist curricula, are Baker's solution. The 46 existing institutions teach 11,500 children, and there are several notable success stories. GCHQ has opened a cyber-security suite at the UTC in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, as part of a bid to diversify its workforce. Just 0.5 per cent of UTC graduates are unemployed, compared to 11.5 per cent of all 18-year-olds. 

But they are not without their critics. Teaching unions have complained that their presence fragments education provision and funding, and others point out that hard-up schools in disadvantaged areas have little desire or incentive to give up children – and the funding they bring – at 14. Ofsted rate twice as many UTCs as inadequate as they do outstanding. Gove doubts that the vocational qualifications on offer are as robust as their academic equivalents, or anywhere near as attractive for middle-class parents. He also considers 14 is too young an age for pupils to pursue a specialist course of vocational study.

Baker accepts that many of his colleges are seen as “useless, wastes of money, monuments to Baker’s vanity and all the rest of it”, but maintains the project is only just finding its legs. He is more hopeful about the current education secretary, Justine Greening, who he believes is an admirer. Indeed, UTCs could provide Greening with a trump card in the vexed debate over grammar schools – last year’s green paper suggested pupils would be able to join new selective institutions at 14, and Baker has long believed specialist academic institutions should complement UTCs.

Discussion of Theresa May’s education policy has tended to start and finish at grammar schools. But Baker believes the conversation could soon be dominated by a much more pressing issue: the financial collapse of multi-academy trusts and the prospect of an NHS-style funding crisis blighting the nation’s schools. Although his city technology colleges may have paved the way for the removal of more and more schools from the control of local authorities, he, perhaps surprisingly, defends a connection to the state.

“What is missing now in the whole education system is that broker in the middle, to balance the demands of education with the funds available," he says. "I think by 2020 all these multi-academy trusts will be like the hospitals... If MATs get into trouble, their immediate cry will be: ‘We need more money!’ We need more teachers, we need more resources, and all the rest of it!’."

It is clear that he is more alert to coming challenges, such as automation, than many politicians half his age. Halfway through our conversation, he leaves the room and returns enthusiastically toting a picture of an driverless lorry. It transpires that this Thatcherite is even increasingly receptive to the idea of the ultimate state handout: a universal basic income. “There’s one part of me that says: ‘How awful to give someone a sum for doing nothing! What are they going to do, for heaven’s sake, for Christ’s sake!’" he says. "But on the other hand, I think the drawback to the four-day working week or four-hour working day... I think it’s going to happen in your lifetime. If people are only working for a very short space of time, they will have to have some sort of basic income.” 

Predictably, the upshot of this vignette is that his beloved UTCs and their multi-skilled graduates are part of the solution. Friend and foe alike praise Baker’s indefatigable dedication to the cause. But, with the ranks of doubters growing and the axe likely to fall on at least one of its institutions again, it remains to be seen in what form the programme will survive.

Despite the ignominy of the last few weeks, however, Baker is typically forthright: “I sense a turning of the tide in our way now. But I still fight. I fight for every bloody one.”