Orchestral manoeuvre to give poorest children hope

Children as young as four from England's toughest estates will perform orchestral concerts under plans inspired by a Venezuelan programme which has transformed the lives of youngsters in that country's most violent slums.

The El Sistema initiative has used a network of orchestras to help 500,000 impoverished children avoid crime and drug abuse over the past 33 years.Now ministers hope a similar scheme can use music to stop youngsters from England's most deprived homes going off the rails.

Pupils as young as four will be in the £3m, three-year "In Harmony" programme, led by the cellist Julian Lloyd Webber. It will begin in three or four pilot areas within months. The project is based on the El Sistema initiative in Venezuela, which resulted in the formation of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, and has been credited not just with transforming the lives of street children but the social cohesion of the country.

The Government has taken advice from Jose Antonio Abreu, the economist and amateur musician who founded the El Sistema programme in the 1970s. Children from the poorest backgrounds are given free music tuition by charismatic teachers. They are then brought together into orchestras and encouraged to play live in front of audiences from as early as four.

The Venezuelan orchestra has toured the world, and performed to wide acclaim at the Proms last year. Participants have gone on to successful international careers as professional musicians.

In England, leading orchestras and venues such as the Barbican in London will alsorun after-school music clubs and put on free concerts and master classes to try to tackle social problems by engaging children through music, Lord Adonis, the Schools minister, said yesterday, as "a powerful agent of social change". He added: "It teaches discipline and rigour, it raises hopes and aspirations, it is a source of pleasure and enjoyment and it also gives young people skills that will stay with them for life. Our new programme, In Harmony, will introduce children as young as four to the family of the orchestra. The programme is as much about building vital life skills as about developing musical talent. The sense of achievement – from the hard work of rehearsals to the successful performances in front of international audiences – is an important ingredient in what has made El Sistema such a force for social progress in South America."

The El Sistema programme has been credited with causing a reduction in school dropout rates, drug abuse and criminality among youngsters in Venezuela. British ministers have visited Venezuela to see the scheme in action, and a similar project has already started in Scotland.

Lloyd Webber said: "Music has the power to transform young people's lives. All children should have the right to experience music and I am excited and passionate about this new way of making that happen."

Leading venues in London, Bristol and Manchester will become after-school clubs with master-classes, free concerts and the chance for children to make CD recordings. The project is part of the government drive to ensure all primary pupils in England have the chance to learn a musical instrument for at least a year by 2011.

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