Picture credit: Kimberly Warner/BRAVO Youth Orchestras
El Sistema, the Venezuelan music education programme that claims to transform lives through intensive participation in orchestra and choir, has again been in the news. In a preview to his forthcoming book based on a year of ethnographic fieldwork in Venezuela, Geoff Baker questions whether the social change claims can really be supported with evidence and critiques the pedagogy that underpins El Sistema. Baker’s book promises to add a critical perspective to a growing body of research, evaluation and theoretical critiques reviewed and summarised in our recent international review of evidence relating to El Sistema and Sistema-inspired programmes.
Perhaps El Sistema’s greatest triumph lies in the ‘Sistema-inspired’ programmes, now numbering nearly 300 and found in some 60 countries. El Sistema has been interpreted in many ways, but Sistema-inspired programmes are united in their aspiration to foster personal and social development through participating in musical ensembles, focusing on the joy of making music together.
Here in England we can be proud that In Harmony Sistema England has added to a music education landscape that does provide musical opportunities for children who would not otherwise have had formal support in developing their musical potential. The evidence from Sistema England suggests that its orchestra programmes provide structure, a culture of perseverance and a context for children and young people to learn from each other.
Significant wider benefits have been reported, attributed to intensive engagement with music within these programmes. For example, increases in wellbeing and personal and social development have been reported amongst In Harmony children in Liverpool, who spend at least 4.5 hours of curriculum time per week focusing on music. The In Harmony Lambeth schools demonstrated significant improvements in personal and social education and communication, language and literacy. In one Norwich school, children in Years 1-4 were achieving better scores in maths, reading, and writing after one year in a Sistema-inspired orchestral programme compared with their peers. Similarly, in Liverpool, when compared with neighbouring schools, the In Harmony school has seen a significant and steady improvement in the percentage of children who achieve their academic targets, as well as a drop in absenteeism from 7.9% in 2009 to 5.9% in 2012.
Although the evidence of social change is more limited, there are some indications that the In Harmony Sistema England programmes have helped enhance home-school relationships and positive community identity. For example, parents of participants in Lambeth were clear that the programme had helped to support community engagement. The opportunities for parents to become involved in their children’s learning and to attend performances as well as the after-school club were highly valued and the programme had a high impact on parental involvement in school activities. Parents said that feeling they and their children were part of a wider In Harmony community was important, and children demonstrated a greater awareness of a community beyond the school and estate.
The place of these Sistema-inspired programmes within the broader music education community is a focus for debate. In the UK, this is a rich and diverse community that we can justifiably be proud of. Our excellent Sistema-inspired programmes emphasise positive teacher-student relationships, nurturing musical development, high expectations of musical commitment and positive behaviour within structured and safe learning environments. There are issues relating to ‘ownership’ of these core values. Some argue that the ideology is not in fact new and that the symphony orchestra is not the only musical medium for bringing about social transformation. For example, the ideology enshrined in Sistema Europe’s core values (human rights, duties, responsibilities, lifelong learning, trust) and some of its principles (access, inclusivity, excellence) are shared by the wider music education community (for example, UNESCO’s Seoul Agenda for arts education where the three core values are identified as access, excellence and social development).
Others point out that Sistema-inspired programmes play a crucial role in highlighting and reinforcing the view that society should not tolerate economic barriers to high quality music education. However, the existence of Sistema-inspired programmes should not lessen the responsibility of governments at all levels to provide high quality music education within school systems and within a range of community contexts. Neither should such programmes serve as a replacement or substitute for collaborative and creative approaches to music education that support children and young people in developing their talents and interests in diverse ways. Dialogue and collaborative networks that embrace Sistema-inspired approaches alongside other rich musical practices and provision could greatly support a highly integrated and cohesive approach to achieving social development through music.