Dundee urged to postpone plans while El Sistema sex abuse allegations are investigated
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The introduction of an international music programme for deprived children in Dundee should be postponed while allegations of widespread “sexual abuse” are investigated, according to an MSP.
In an explosive new book, academic Geoff Baker outlines claims that El Sistema, which has a partner organisation in Scotland, fosters “relationships between teachers and students”.
He cites an unidentified ex-member of the orchestra as saying that “young musicians regarded the trading of sexual favours as an unremarkable, even humorous, subculture (within the group)”.
Now Alex Johnstone MSP has called for the initiation of the programme in Dundee to be postponed while the allegations are investigated.
He said: “These allegations are deeply concerning and any proposals to bring El Sistema to Dundee should be postponed until these claims are fully investigated.
“If true, there is absolutely no place in Scotland for this kind of teaching and I urge those advocating El Sistema to challenge the system and ensure it is above reproach and fits with modern teaching techniques.
“Parents and carers must have confidence that this is a bona fide programme that truly aims to help disadvantaged young people achieve their potential, and not the system that this book claims it to be.”
Dundee’s education convener, Stewart Hunter, said the matter needs to be investigated but emphasised at this stage they were just allegations.
He said: “This is of great concern. The right authorities in Venezuela should be looking into these allegations.
“How that would affect Dundee bringing El Sistema to the city, obviously that is something that I would want to see more information on before we make any decision.
“I certainly think this is something that we will have to take on board and have a look at.
“Obviously part of the whole project is that the kids go to Venezuela as well so that will give us great concern and I’m sure the parents of Dundee would have a great concern about that as well.”
Mr Baker cites an unidentified former member of the orchestra in his book, who describes the programme as a “chain of secrets and favours — like a secret society”.
She adds: “Young musicians regarded the trading of sexual favours as an unremarkable, even humorous, subculture within the orchestra.”
So-called pretty boys would appear with brand-new, expensive instruments, the source said, adding: “You think, there’s something more going on here than just talent.”
Mr Baker describes El Sistema, which was founded in the 1970s, as a “cult”.
He recently wrote: “El Sistema, rather than being ‘the future of music’, as (famous conductor) Simon Rattle believes, is a throwback to the past, raising serious questions about much-heralded efforts to transplant it to the UK.”
El Sistema has risen to prominence because of its apparent success in using music to foster confidence, teamwork and pride in children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Sistema Scotland, which describes itself as an “official partner” of El Sistema, launched its first Big Noise orchestra in Raploch in 2008, while another Big Noise orchestra in Govanhill, Glasgow, was launched in 2013.
Big Noise Torry will launch in Aberdeen next year and the group is in discussions to bring an orchestra to Dundee after the city council backed the plans in March.
Sistema response: ‘child protection taken extremely seriously’
Sistema Scotland spokesman George Anderson said the group robustly disputes Dr Baker’s description of their official partner.
There was “an extremely detailed plan”, Mr Anderson said, to ensure children visiting Venezuela from the Raploch Big Noise orchestra were secure “from all potential risks”.
Mr Anderson said: “Based on our own experiences in Venezuela, Sistema Scotland does not recognise Dr Baker’s description of El Sistema.
“Any evidence of abuse should of course be reported to the relevant authorities. We can only speak in detail about our own work in Scotland.
“Child protection is something we take extremely seriously. We take steps to hire the right people, and then to work in ways which close down opportunities for abuse to take place.
“Our work is done in wider partnership with social work and education departments in the local authorities where we work, so our procedures are open to full scrutiny by them.
“When we took the Raploch orchestra on a visit to Venezuela in January there was an extremely detailed plan in place to keep children secure from all potential risks, broken down step by step through airports, hotels and orchestra centres.
“Every space and circumstance of the trip was checked out in advance.”