Followers of a modern religion are planning to spread the word about the success of their teaching methods, reports Michael Shaw
Scientologists are starting a drive to persuade British teachers to use educational techniques developed by the cult science-fiction writer who founded their religion.
Supporters of the sect hope to capitalise on the successes of Greenfields school, in Sussex, which is run by Scientologists and has been praised by inspectors for using these methods.
An education organisation which promotes the teachings of L Ron Hubbard, founder of the religion and author of the self-help book Dianetics, this week opened the Effective Education Centre in East Grinstead, where teachers from other schools and parents can come to learn about the techniques.
The move has alarmed critics of the Church of Scientology, an organisation which has attracted various celebrity supporters, despite its reported belief that mankind has been influenced by the actions of an evil alien warlord.
The TES was given special access to the new centre this week, and to Greenfields school, which is situated in picturesque grounds on the edge of the Ashdown Forest.
The school was founded by Scientologists in 1981 and is five miles away from the UK headquarters and former global base of the religion at Saint Hill Manor, near East Grinstead.
Staff estimate that 90 per cent of teachers and 80 per cent of pupils - who range from 18 months to 18 years old - are from Scientologist backgrounds.
But they said the school is non-denominational, welcomes children of all faiths and follows the national curriculum.
Martin McQuade, Greenfields' deputy head and former director of training for Scientology in the UK, said: "The teaching techniques we use are based on the writings of L Ron Hubbard, as is the school's code of ethics, but we do not teach our pupils the religious philosophy of Scientology. People say, 'Are you a front group?' No. I'm proud to be a Scientologist, but there is a distinction."
The influence of Mr Hubbard, who died in 1986, is strongly apparent in the school's classrooms. Each features at least one cartoon-illustrated poster summing up the founder's theories, while his books are in frequent use, and several include black-and-white photographs of the author.
The school, which was visited about 10 years ago by celebrity Scientologist John Travolta, also displays pictures in its reception of Isaac Hayes and Tom Cruise - who, it was rumoured, had considered sending his children there and who has met Mr McQuade on several occasions.
Greenfields, which charges fees of up to pound;3,000 a term for day pupils and pound;5,000 for boarders, has made its use of Mr Hubbard's "study technology" one of its main selling points (see box).
Staff were encouraged by a report by the Independent Schools Inspectorate last year which said "the school's approach to teaching pupils how to learn (study technology) enables them to achieve increasingly high standards".
The school, which has only six pupils in its sixth form, was also listed by the Financial Times for having the most improved A-level results for an independent school in England, ranking it 46th last year compared with 342nd three years ago.
The school bases its moral code on The Way to Happiness, a self-help guide written by Mr Hubbard which includes commandments not to do anything illegal, to be industrious and to show respect for other faiths.
Veronica Tupholme, headteacher, said pupils had opportunities to discuss Scientology alongside more mainstream faiths in religious studies.
When asked if children were told about Scientology's reported belief in "thetans", the spirits of aliens, she said: "We don't go into that level of detail."
Mrs Tupholme said students were allowed to make up their own minds about homosexuality, although it is considered wrong by the religion.
She said it was right for the school to feature prominent pictures of Mr Hubbard. "He was a humanitarian, a photographer, an educator," she said.
"He was brilliant."
Mr Hubbard's name was mentioned in many of the speeches given at the opening of the Effective Education Centre, which will be inviting schools in Sussex and other parts of England to attend training.
Paul Rogers, 16, a Greenfields pupil, was cheered and applauded by more than 100 Scientologists as he gave a speech explaining how "study tech" had transformed his life and helped him to overcome dyslexia.
"I found the answer to all my problems - it was study technology," he said.
"It was like a miracle had occurred."
Applied Scholastics, a Scientology-linked group, has been stepping up its work in training teachers in other countries, including the United States, India, the Gambia and Zimbabwe, where an estimated 17,000 teachers have been taught the basics of study technology.
Ian Howarth, general secretary of the UK's Cult Information Centre, said teachers should be wary about following L Ron Hubbard's techniques until they have learned more about Scientology. "Teachers need to keep in mind the 1984 judgement of Justice Latey, who described Scientology as 'corrupt, sinister and immoral' in the High Court," he said.
SOME BASICS IN PRACTICE
The basic principles are that pupils are hampered by three barriers to learning. The first is the "absence of mass", a lack of a physical object relating to the subject being studied. The second is "too steep a gradient"
when pupils find it hard to progress because they did not master an earlier skill. The third is "misunderstood words".
To counter these barriers, Greenfields school places an emphasis on pupils using dictionaries and pair-work to check that they know the definitions of every word they read. They are also given clay baskets full of random objects, called "demo-kits", which they can use to make models or illustrations of the theories they are studying.
"Some people think it's simplistic," said Martin McQuade, deputy head.
"But it was by using these approaches that John Travolta learned how to fly planes."
THE RISE OF A MODERN 'CULT' * Scientology was founded in 1954 by Lafayette Ron Hubbard, an author of science- fiction novels and Dianetics.
* Mr Hubbard had previously told a convention of writers in 1950 that "if a man really wants to make a million dollars he should start his own religion".
* Former members of the church say that higher-level followers are taught that 75 million years ago an evil alien warlord named Xenu put 13.5 trillion beingsfrom overpopulated planets on to Earth, dumped them in volcanoes and blasted them with bombs. The radioactive souls of the aliens, or "thetans", later attached themselves to humans, causing many of the world's problems.
* The group makes an estimated pound;250 million a year from its followers and claims it has more than 10 million members worldwide, though critics say 200,000 at most is more accurate.
* Scientology was denied charitable status in the UK in 1999 because the Charities Commission said it did not benefit the public.