The choice is yours

LIL' CHRIS steps out on to the stage and the crowd of more than 7,000 gets to its feet and screams as the 16-year-old teen rock star launches into his opening number.

Fresh from a tour supporting McFly, this is no ordinary gig for the up-and-coming musician. The audience, aged 10, are wearing school uniform and the show is taking place at lunchtime on a Wednesday in Edinburgh.

This is the first of 11 nationwide shows focusing on important life choices children face as they move from primary to secondary school, highlighting issues from drugs and alcohol to smoking, peer pressure and bullying.

Now in its third year since becoming a nationwide event, Choices for Life is expected to be seen by a record 65,000 P7 pupils across Scotland in 2007, with locations including Lewis and Orkney.

Organised by the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency, this year's event includes for the first time the powerful video story of Paul, who started smoking cannabis at the age of 12 to fit in with a crowd in the new area he had moved to, following the death of his mother. Now serving time at Polmont Young Offenders' Institution, he tells how he moved easily from cannabis to ecstasy and then to crime to pay for his habit.

The two-hour multi-media themed show sets out to contribute to the youngsters' wider personal, social and health education by increasing their knowledge and understanding so they can make their own decisions.

The messages are delivered through a mix of drama and music, ranging from a hard-hitting performance by PACE Theatre Company on drugs, bullying and peer pressure, to a quiz on the effects of drugs, based upon the popular TV show Family Fortunes, and live bands including Pacific Avenue and Bel's Boys.

Two hours are packed with information and messages, including one from Fiona Hyslop, the new secretary for education and lifelong learning, and advice from the young performers on how to make the right choices. The audience, most of whom are attending their first rock concert, go from roaring loudly and dancing in the aisles to silence as they listen intently and watch the TV monitors show plays about friends making difficult choices.

They haven't been told to "Just say no," says George Simpson, Lothian and Borders Chief Superintendent, divisional commander for the City of Edinburgh. "This is a softer message. We used to go into schools and say 'you must not do this, you must not do that'. This is about a softer message - you have a choice. This is about people the children can relate to. It shows them the consequences and what the wrong decisions can mean for them and their families. It is an enormously powerful message."

The emphasis is on prevention. According to the last Scottish Schools Adolescent Lifestyle and Substance Use Survey in 2004, 6 per cent of 13-year-olds and 19 per cent of 15-year-olds were regular smokers, while one in five 13-year-olds and 43 per cent of 15-year-olds had drunk alcohol in the week before the survey. In the month before the survey, 7 per cent of 13-year-olds and 20 per cent of 15-year-olds had used drugs.

The Choices for Life show was first staged in 1999 as a pilot in Strathclyde and rolled out nationally as a result of its popularity. Around 80 per cent of P7 pupils attend the pound;500,000 tour.

Detective Superintendent Gill Wood, national drugs co-ordinator for the SCDEA, says: "It is unique in terms of scale and impact. There is something very powerful about shared experience.

"The vast majority of P7s have been to a Choices show somewhere in the country. This investment in terms of effort and money has got to be about more than having a good day out and the day off school. Hopefully they take something out of it. It is about reinforcing what the kids already know.

"It is not going to be worth anything on its own. It has to be part of a whole lot of other things that are going on in schools."

Lynne Williamson, a P7 teacher at St Margaret's Primary in Pol-mont, was impressed with the show, which went down well with her pupils who had already been given facts about drugs and will do follow-up work on decision-making skills and resisting peer pressure.

"The kids thought it was great," she says. "It was put together in a funky way that caught their attention. They thought it was spot on for their age group."

Lil' Chris says he's excited to be taking part in the tour. "I was keen to get involved," he says. "They relate to someone their own age. All the way through school you have to make decisions. All my friends smoke. I don't. I made a decision."

Judging by the levels of enthusiasm, the message got home, only time will tell if it stays there.

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