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Life and death choices

Martin Whittaker looks at a day of activities designed to confront pupilswith the realities of anti-social behaviour, such as stoning firefighters

The days of the community policeman going into school to talk to pupils about crime prevention may well be numbered. In Liverpool, concern over levels of anti-social behaviour has reached such a pitch that emergency services, schools and transport firms have joined forces to seek a more effective alternative to the traditional school visit.

The result is a day-long citizenship conference called Your Choice. It consists of a series of fun activities to engage 11 to 13-year-olds, including music, drama and interactive workshops. Its aim is to teach them the consequences of anti-social behaviour. The most recent conference was held at Parklands City Learning Centre, part of a new multi-million-pound school campus in Speke, eight miles south of Liverpool city centre.

Speke's housing estates suffer many typical urban deprivation problems, combined with other disadvantages such as isolation and lack of services.

It has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe and, in 2004, unemployment was more than four times the national average.

Crime is a big problem. This state-of-the-art learning centre recently fell victim to ram-raiders, who crashed through the door and stole new plasma television screens. Other serious problems, found across the city, include the deaths and injuries of young people playing on railway lines, hoax emergency calls and stonings of fire engines and ambulances, and vandalism of buses and bus shelters.

About 140 Year 7 students from Shorefields School attended the recent citizenship conference. The opening, designed to engage them immediately, featured booming rap music and a drama called Charlie's Choice. Charlie is a 12-year-old and, to his mother, he can do no wrong. But Charlie is no angel. He talks eagerly about how he and his mates bunk off school to play on railway lines and throw stones at cars and buses. Disturbingly, Charlie is a big hit with his audience. Students laugh as he boasts about his exploits, particularly when he talks about getting the fire engines out on hoax calls. But they quieten down when a firefighter talks about his job.

"Saving lives - that's the best part," he says. "The worst is some of the things you have to look at: burned bodies; people mangled in car wrecks; men, women and children suffocated by smoke. And sometimes while we're trying to help people, we get spat at, called names and even have stones thrown at us."

Act One of the drama ends, to be continued at the end of the day. The pupils then split into groups to rotate around a series of workshops.

One session is called Win a Million, based on a familiar-sounding TV quiz.

In a learning centre ICT suite, pupils push buttons on handsets to vote for answers to multiple-choice questions flashed on screen in front of them. A chart shows the percentage of votes for each answer, and the notional prize money starts at pound;100 and doubles for every one the group gets right.

How many 999 calls are made to the ambulance service in Liverpool on a Saturday night? Only 9 per cent get it right - the answer is 937. A large number of these will be hoax calls, explains the quizmaster. Another question asks for the average proportion of hoaxes. The answer is 40 per cent.

In another workshop, pupils go outside for practical demonstrations by emergency services and to look around their vehicles. One demonstration features sniffer dogs looking for drugs. And aboard a fire engine, pupils hear about the dangers firefighters face when youths stone their vehicles.

Back inside, other workshops involve pupils in drama, rapping and a web-based detective trail.

The Your Choice conference is run by Speke Garston Education Action Zone (EAZ), in partnership with Liverpool's emergency services and the transport company, Merseytravel. Jill Murphy, an education consultant with the EAZ, says the event was designed using accelerated learning techniques to engage as many pupils as possible.

"We don't want to give the impression that these are the perpetrators of anti-social behaviour," she says. "But we wanted to make it real. All the transport agencies and emergency services have the same kind of problems and they were trying to address them independently."

Does it work? Murphy says it is too early to tell whether Your Choice is reducing incidence of anti-social behaviour, but an evaluation of the first conferences two years ago drew positive reactions from pupils and staff.

"It was a different day," says Natalie, from St John Almond High School. "I learnt to stay away from railways and don't vandalise the bus."

But will they all relate this to real life when they wake up at the weekend? Can a day of music, drama and game shows really teach youngsters the consequences of anti-social behaviour? Whether these messages stay with them in the long term remains to be seen.

One powerful message comes at the end of the day, with Act Two of the drama, when Charlie's actions backfire on him with tragic consequences. He throws stones at a bus and it crashes, but unknown to him, his mother is on board. Meanwhile, a hoax call by Charlie and his mates has diverted the ambulance and fire engine away from the accident scene. They arrive too late to save her.

Pupils sit in open-mouthed silence. "That's how these things happen," says the narrator. "No plan - just people's choices. This was Charlie's choice."

lSpeke Garston EAZ has produced a guide to Your Choice for anyone wishing to stage their own conference. The guide is free, but postage costs pound;5. Contact Dave Woodhouse, South Liverpool Learning Network Manager Tel: 0151 427 4148

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