Skip to main content

The Teresa Carreño Theatre in Caracas is over 4,500 miles from Hawthorn Primary School. They are brought together by a cacophony of children learning how to make and love organised sound. Following an autumn statement that was unexpectedly encouraging towards the arts, this relationship may have acquired a new relevance.

Most classical music fans will have heard of the Venezuelan Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra. Its social action education programme, El Sistema, was set up in 1975, and famously fostered ‘The Dude’ – superstar conductor, Gustavo Dudamel. Fewer might be aware of the hundreds of derivative programmes, worldwide. Sistema England was founded by retired ‘cellist Julian Lloyd Webber; amongst other commitments, it supports four In Harmony projects, each of which is linked to a leading concert hall and orchestra. 300 children are involved in In Harmony Newcastle/Gateshead, based at Hawthorn, in Elswick.

In 2004, the opening of Sage Gateshead changed the tone of music-making in the North East. Home to the recently ennobled Royal Northern Sinfonia, the concert hall’s outreach is extensive. Ed Milner, its head of music learning, tells me, “We have possibly the biggest music learning programme in the world, with around 19,000 individual participants per annum, from the unborn, to [those] in care homes, and pretty well everything in between.”

He sees In Harmony as an invaluable part of this: “[It is] unique to our work, and it helps us to bring together our orchestral education programmes and tutors, and our work with young people in challenging circumstances. It’s unusual for these two worlds to combine […] There are other music programmes in the region, of course, but there is no other that is based in a school, so intensive and immersive, or so explicitly about social progression.”

Newcastle/Gateshead In Harmony flute tutor, Clare Crinson, describes the immersive process: “In terms of numbers of hours, the kids just get a half-hour group lesson (in twos or threes) a week. But, crucially, they get a further three hours of ensemble time, plus they’ve had thirty minutes singing on top of that a week. And they have the option to participate in an extra eight hours of after-school time a week.”

The children also take part in additional ventures at the Sage. Seven are currently studying at its Centre for Advanced Training, thanks to 100 per cent means-tested Music and Dance Scheme Centre bursaries. These bursaries are essential: in the Department for Communities and Local Government’s 2015 statistical release, Hawthorn’s postcode received an Index of Multiple Deprivation Decile of 1; its neighbourhood was ranked 297th most deprived of the 32,844 across England.

This is key to understanding the purpose of In Harmony. The National Foundation for Educational Research’s recent interim report, evaluating the national impact of the project’s second year, begins: “In Harmony aims to inspire and transform the lives of children and families in deprived communities through the power and disciplines of orchestral music-making.” Aside from questions arising about the “maturation effect” on participants – some of whom seem to have become slightly less enthusiastic – the report is buoyant. It concludes that In Harmony “continues to support pupils’ music-making, musical enjoyment, social wellbeing and positive aspirations.”

According to Milner, “The difference of In Harmony is the pride of the community [in] their children learning to play orchestral instruments, and hav[ing] ways into different experiences, and pathways that weren’t open to them previously. Children and young people from the programme regularly perform in the community (school, park, churches, etc). Audience development can be a challenge, but slowly they grow as families see and hear the children progress.”

State investment in Newcastle/Gateshead In Harmony is presently £125,000 a year from Arts Council England (ACE) and the Department of Education (DfE); this began under New Labour, and was expanded and continued by the coalition and current Conservative governments. Milner adds that, following a well-received BBC documentary, “the school and Sage Gateshead have jointly raised c.£620,000, including [donations] from philanthropists, trusts and foundations, and individual[s].” However, he insists that this “completely depends on a central core of government funding – donors feel confident in the continuation of the programme, and the best use of their money, if they know that government is supporting it.”

There is no doubt that In Harmony is effective. Yet, in times of constraint, is it viable, and expandable, in the long term? In a short film produced by the Sage, Hawthorn’s headmistress claims that “if this project stopped after three years” – the initial funding period, which was extended for an extra year in March – “it would be morally wrong”. Nonetheless, the costs are considerable for a scheme that superficially benefits those attending just one school. It could be contended that government revenues might be better spent providing less regular opportunities for more young people. But that, of course, goes against Sistema’s immersive nature; the movement’s trademark strength may be an inherent problem.

The greater In Harmony’s success, the more private investment it is likely to attract. And schools are gaining autonomy over their spending. Budgeting, however – whether local or national – necessitates prioritising, and, for many, music is not a major concern. There’s not time here to argue that its curricula and teaching need improvement – or that learning an instrument does not equate to studying academic music – but those debates contribute to a bigger question about the worth of unquantifiably valuable study. Education should promote intellectual pursuit, as well as advancing social mobility and learning potential. Not only because this effects welcome change, but also because it is intrinsically good.

Some find El Sistema’s approach patronising, gentrifying and even – therefore – that deepest of modern sins: offensive. This seems a self-defeating way of preventing wider access to culture. After all, Crinson tells me: “We had two really successful concerts today […] and every single child in the school took part from reception to year six.”  She feels that In Harmony has been “hugely successful in discovering musical ability in children who might otherwise never have gained the opportunity.”

El Sistema in Venezuela has faced more serious criticisms, however, including allegations of abuse. Yet, regardless of whether the original model was badly intentioned, or has been corrupted, In Harmony shouldn’t depend upon it for reasoning or success. In Harmony is not radical; it is simply an impressive British educational programme.

Children from socio-economically deprived backgrounds are unlikely to study music at A-level or specialist higher education establishments. Certainly, to become a professional option, music needs early dedication, and to be taught to a high standard and habitually. So, what happens when pupils leave Hawthorn? In Harmony Newcastle/Gateshead has only been running for three years, but Milner explains that “as the children move to secondary school, we have followed them. Many of them return to our after-school provision, and receive lessons from In Harmony tutors in their school time. The community support and ownership is absolutely central to the future of the programme.”

George Osborne’s arts reprieve typifies government unpredictability, but there are hopes that it might positively indicate the result In Harmony is awaiting regarding DfE and ACE funding for 2016/17. Sustained private investment and wholesale commitment from individual schools are clearly essential for such projects, too. Predicting In Harmony’s future – or its long-term effect on participants – is difficult. But it’s hard not to view it as an innovative method of extending possibility, colour, and unity to struggling communities.

Alongside the requisite focuses of a good education, the chance for immersion in wonderfully unnecessary things, such as classical music, might yet offer true equality of opportunity.

Rebecca Coulson is a political writer and researcher. She is an Associate at Bright Blue and tweets @rmlcoulson.