Sarah Sands: From Chile, nobility. From Venezuela, a lesson in culture

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The Independent Online

A delegation of fine-featured, slightly melancholy men from Chile met me for coffee at the end of the summer. They wanted to encourage tourism but didn't know how to generate publicity. As it turned out, there may have been easier ways, but none as effective. The Chilean miners, like the New York firemen after 9/11, have a beauty of their own.

Everyone has been touched by the ideal of the working man, and his nobility of nature. Endurance, comradeship, strength, tenderness and cool shades. No wonder the female population has been reduced to gelatin.

The Economist has been talking up South America for years, but why did it only mention the currencies? It could have added the photographer Mario Testino's endorsement: "I have always admired the freedom Brazilians have with their bodies." Yet there is more to South America than football and waxing. There is a physical joy we yearn for in our reserved, rainy little island. I saw it last week at a performance by the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra of Venezuela at the Royal Festival Hall in London.

This is the younger sibling of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, who first astonished British audiences three years ago, at the Proms. Jude Kelly, the Southbank artistic director, in a skittish introduction, heaped praise on the orchestra before it had played a note and called for a British version. I tried out her speech on a relative of a member of our National Youth Orchestra who saw this an egregious example of sucking up to foreigners.

It is true that we could do more to promote our own musicians, but the Venezuelan youth orchestras are a rebuke to our entire education system. Our wicked fault has been to put "fairness" above "excellence". In Venezuela, an inspired pianist, economist and politician called Jose Antonio Abreu championed music as a social ladder as well as a gift. He devised El Sistema, a democratic musical education that would keep children out of trouble in their spare time – "the perfidious use of leisure" – and give them a chance of greatness.

He created a culture that was on show at the RFH. The musicians, aged between 14 and 19, were smartly dressed, girls in short sleeved, ink blue dresses, boys in suits. They showed enormous concentration and respect, along with obvious pleasure. They combined discipline and exuberance. As they launched delightedly into Beethoven's 5th – all 13 double basses, tubas, scores of violins, the Festival Hall rocked. Jose Antonio Abreu, in the audience, looked on with luminous satisfaction.

We have decided to approach social inequality with a cultural cringe. Our Prime Minister chooses Benny Hill's "Ernie" on Desert Island Discs. We must all pay homage to X Factor, elevating personal drama and emotional fragility above talent and discipline. We cannot tell the difference between fake and authentic.

There are supporters of an El Sistema in Britain, such as Julian Lloyd Webber, but it may be harder here than in Venezuela. There, they lacked only resources, whereas we have no will. Yet if you had seen the pride on the faces of the sensational players, you would have demanded that Nick Clegg turn over the entire contents of his "poverty fund". Give everyone the opportunity to aim high, but not everyone will succeed. What we have to learn from South America is not just the fiesta but also the struggle.

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the London Evening Standard