Their targets used to be university students, but today fringe religious groups are believed to be recruiting school-aged children. Lynne Wallis reports
If one of your pupils became distant, distracted and antisocial, your first thought might be that they were experimenting with drink or drugs. But religious cults pose another danger to young people, and one from which it can be equally difficult to extricate them.
Although the notion of children being lured into fringe religious organisations might seem far-fetched, it does happen. In the past few years, there have been numerous scares with such groups attempting to gain a foothold in UK schools.
This year, it was discovered Narconon, the Scientology-linked group, has been invited into British schools to lecture pupils on drugs, and the organisation's outpost in East Grinstead - known as the Effective Education centre - attempts to coach mainstream teachers in some of the precepts of Scientology, which advocates a form of self-help invented by its founder L. Ron Hubbard.
Scientology reportedly teaches that mankind are the product of an explosion by an alien warlord called Xenu. It has won extra exposure with its support from Hollywood idols Tom Cruise and John Travolta, which critics believe give the organisation a bigger profile and added attraction to young people.
In 2000, schools in Birmingham were put on red alert after reports that groups linked to the International Church of Christ, a fundamentalist Christian organisation, had been contacting schools offering to perform songs and sketches.
And in 1994, three staff were fired from the Bridgewater School, an independent school in Salford, after they were recruited into a bizarre religious cult called Livewave, whose founder, John Yarr, kept a harem of 30 women (the son of footballer Eric Cantona was a pupil and there were fears children could be targeted too).
While there is a degree of debate about what exactly constitutes a cult - INFORM, the Home Office-funded charity, stresses that not all new religious movements are damaging to their members - cult-watchers warn families to watch out for aggressive recruiting techniques and attempts to part young people from their family, friends and ultimately their cash.