Size matters

[13/11/2016] A topic that has long been of interest to me – though apparently not to anyone else – is whether El Sistema is as big as it claims to be. (It seems fairly obvious to me that if something is famous for being big, then question marks over its size are worth exploring.) In my book, I explained that if the official figures that El Sistema put out during my fieldwork period had been correct, there would have been an average of almost 2000 students per núcleo (music school). Even a brief glance at a few núcleos was enough to know that these figures seemed unrealistic; most had nothing like this capacity. More recently, I blogged about the constantly rising numbers, and mentioned that when I counted the núcleos on El Sistema’s website, there were 166 fewer than stated in the headline figure. That was quite a lot of missing schools.

Two figures caught my attention in Cestari’s infamous speech to Sistema employees at the Centro de Acción Social por la Música a couple of weeks ago (see my earlier post). One was the current number of teachers in the program: 7,000. The other was the government’s target for the number of participants: one million.

According to the official figure that has been repeated over the last year or so, there are currently 780,000 students. That would mean that there is 1 teacher for every 111 students. If the figure is correct, then the program is stretching itself extremely thin in terms of its teacher-student ratio and the quality of its instruction. It may be the figure itself, though, that is stretched. Either way, again something does not look right.

If the program is to expand by another 25%, then it will need to take on almost a couple of thousand new teachers just to keep the teacher-student ratio constant, and buy a lot of new instruments. Quite how it will manage to do this in the middle of a chronic economic crisis, which has produced drastic shortages of food and medicines, is something of a mystery.

Indeed, while hard, verifiable facts are impossible to obtain (there is no way of independently checking any official figures), anecdotal reports from employees of the program suggest that the number of teachers is in fact declining. A number of musicians appear to have left the country or be looking for an exit; others are deserting because of the extremely low pay on offer, which is only shrinking due to the rampant inflation; and there are rumours that the employee rolls are being cut in some states as a result of the pressure on finances. With Venezuela in such a parlous political and economic situation, it’s hard to see how the program will manage to grow by 25% in the near future in any respect other than the numbers coming out of Fundamusical’s press office.