Greece's neo-fascist Golden Dawn party is aggressively targeting teenagers and schoolchildren in a bid to consolidate its recent extraordinary rise in support.

The vigilante far-right movement has begun aggressively spreading its anti-immigration message in schools and youth clubs, and through online social media networks

The party has been able to capitalise on the harsh austerity that has been imposed as a condition of Greece maintaining its Eurozone membership. As Greece's economic fortunes have plummeted, so Golden Dawn's fortunes have soared.

Standards of living have diminished for the middle classes, while the nation has seen its sovereignty ceded to foreign creditors.

Campaigning on a platform of expelling immigrants, Golden Dawn took seven percent of the vote in general elections last June, having polled just 0.2 percent in the previous election in 2009. This gave Golden Dawn 18 seats in parliament.

That marked a breakthrough for the party, which was founded in 1993 but had long been regarded as too extreme. Since then, it has seen its popularity double again, currently polling in third place behind the conservative New Democracy and the main opposition party, the radical leftist Syriza.

The collapse of the ruling conservative-leftist coalition could leave the route open for Golden Dawn to capture second place in a snap election, say pollsters.

The party has attracted votes from across the political spectrum, wiping out the more moderate nationalist LAOS party and winning support from the communist KKE party.

It has also stolen a march on New Democracy, which appeared indecisive on the international bailout keeping Greece afloat, and later lost popularity when it imposed harsh spending cuts instead of relief measures.

Golden Dawn's core supporters are disaffected urban men, but the party is gaining ground among women and the elderly, particularly the unemployed.

Mobilising grassroots support is the party's preferred method of gaining recruits, with Golden Dawn taking a close involvement in neighbourhood initiatives, particularly those in areas with rising crime or high numbers of immigrants.

Gyms, athletic and martial arts clubs are seen as ripe recruiting grounds, while the party now boasts a patriotic supporters' club, known as Galazia Stratia, or the Blue Army.

Its trademark campaigns of violence and intimidation now appear to be spreading to the playground, with nationalist graffiti, slogans and swastika emblems beginning to appear around schools.

"It's the feature of vitality, a need to show they're strong, young and fresh and are creating something new - be it a new party, a new country," said Vassiliki Georgiadou, a professor at Panteion University and an expert in far-right nationalism, who has studied Golden Dawn for years.

"They discard the label of Nazism and instead play up the nationalist card. They use ancient Greek history as a camouflage to hide their true identity: that they're fans of Hitler, anti-Semitism."

Over 50 teachers, parents and teenage students from schools in Athens have backed up his claims, telling The Independent that the party's increasingly fashionable image meant it was gaining a fan-base among young people.

One youthful supporter, Stavros, 16, admitted to the paper that he had thrown rocks and fruit at the homes of Pakistani immigrants.

"I did this to get them to respect our country because I love Greece so much," he said. "Golden Dawn kids are not killers but people who are worried that we won't be able to find jobs because of all those illegal immigrants."

Another young supporter, Evdoxia, 16, told the paper: "Golden Dawn is not a descendant of Nazism. Whoever thinks it is, doesn't know what the party's really about.

"Golden Dawn is trying to offer solutions amid difficult times. Contrary to other parties, they actually do what they say they will."

Ernesto, a youth of Albanian origin, described how his classmate Kostas fell into company with the shaven-headed, black-vested youths who support Golden Dawn.

"Kostas felt he was different by hanging out with them. They were the mean, cool guys that everyone was afraid of. They hated immigrants and even taught their dogs to growl at Africans. It was crazy."

The party denies it advocates Nazi-inspired racial violence, but several of its MPs recently participated in a co-ordinated attack on immigrant market vendors, whose stalls were smashed up in Athens.

The daughter of the party's leader was arrested over a racist attack last June, while another Golden Dawn MP Ilias Kasidiaris achieved notoriety when he was filmed slapping Liana Kanelli, a communist MP, across the face.

Ioannis Vouldis, the Golden Dawn MP who heads the party's youth branch, refused to comment. "At present, there is a decision not to talk to the press," he said.