“In El Sistema there are no poor people”: follow-up to the IDB study

[15/02/2017] One of the most eye-catching findings of the IDB’s recent report on El Sistema, which I analysed recently, is that the poverty level was far lower among the Sistema students that they studied than in wider society. Far from catering to “the most vulnerable groups in the country,” as the program’s publicity states, El Sistema is actually somewhat elitist, the study suggests. These are not unexpected findings; I questioned the poverty claims two years ago. But it’s the first time they’ve come from an official source.

In a discussion arising from my post, a new source of information emerged that provides further corroboration. It is a sociology thesis, presented in 2013 at the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in Caracas, about Montalbán – El Sistema’s showcase núcleo in Caracas, to which foreign visitors are invariably taken on their red-carpet tour. (My book begins with my own such experience at this school.) The thesis is built on interviews and focus groups, primarily involving the mothers of current students.

On p.126 we find the following observation about one of the focus groups:

All the mothers agreed that a poor family cannot remain in El Sistema.

They all agreed that in El Sistema there are no poor people because they would not be able to keep up with the routine expenditure that it requires, and that on the contrary, those who spend their time there have a basic level of economic resources that allows them to pay for travel, food, instrument maintenance and repairs, uniforms, etc.

They all agree that studying music is expensive.

“if you break a violin string… maybe El Sistema gave you the violin, but you need to buy strings for a violin, you need to buy a bow, that falls on us, but how is someone poor going to manage?”

That being the case, the mothers agree that many children drop out along the way because their families don’t have the resources to keep them there. “Many children don’t continue here for that reason, because seriously, it’s a sacrifice, you need to have parents who can help you.”

The parents talked repeatedly about the cost of providing instrument accessories, even the instruments themselves, as well as daily travel costs on public transport, a uniform for concerts, and other expenses. These findings tally closely with my own (also derived from fieldwork in Venezuela in the same year) about a low rate of poverty and a high rate of desertion in the program, and they back up the figures from the IDB report. Even if the IDB’s positive finding is taken at face value (see below), the evidence is mounting that the program fails to target the poor effectively and does not therefore have the larger-scale positive effects that are claimed.

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Another point that I raised in my analysis related to the positive finding in the IDB report – the significant outcomes that were found in child-reported self-control and child-reported behavioural difficulties. As I wrote:

This suggests that El Sistema may be a positive intervention for more disadvantaged children. However, […] there is a potential generalisation problem given the application process. Boys with less educated mothers benefited from the program, but these were boys with less educated mothers who applied for the program. In other words, this is a particular subset of less educated mothers. So it cannot be assumed that the program is effective for all disadvantaged children. Boys with less educated mothers whose guardians think music is a waste of time, or are too busy or burdened or disorganized to apply, might not be helped significantly by the program. It may be that parental support is a key ingredient in generating positive effects.

I was therefore fascinated to read on p.105-6 of the UCAB thesis:

The participants (mothers and one father) consider that they make more sacrifices than the children do. The sacrifice is measured by the time they invest in transporting their children to lessons, rehearsals, and concerts, and waiting for them.

One of the mothers stated, “we get more tired than they do.” All agreed that their schedule, that of their family, their duties, etc., are organized around the child’s musical life. Some of them had to change jobs, looking for something closer to the school in order to be able to go to meetings, collect their children, and make the journey much faster between work and music and vice versa.

The parents felt the sacrifice was worth it, but this does not detract from the crucial point about social inclusion. Reading these sections underlines just how important (a) a basic level of economic security and (b) supportive parents are to children’s chances of thriving in El Sistema. (These, again, are arguments that I made in my book two years ago.) Of course, there are exceptions – cases in which children have managed to prosper in the program without these advantages. But the evidence suggests they are indeed exceptions rather than the rule, placing El Sistema’s central claim about social inclusion in doubt.

There are two conclusions that can be drawn:

1. El Sistema is not an effective social inclusion program, because the poor are underrepresented and the program’s design favours children with more economic resources and more supportive parents.

2. There are problems with generalizing the results of the study, as the IDB’s article does, and suggesting that El Sistema may be a positive intervention for more disadvantaged children in general. If the support of a parent or guardian is important, as the qualitative evidence suggests, one cannot assume that El Sistema would be effective for all disadvantaged children. It may be that the IDB’s positive results depended on the support that those children received at home, and that children lacking such support would struggle to remain in the program and therefore fail to derive any significant benefit from it.

Rather than “saving the poor” and instilling discipline, as it has long claimed, El Sistema actually appears to depend on the economic resources and discipline of participants’ families in order to function.

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