AS MANY as 35,000 home-schooled children are not receiving even a basic education from their parents, according to inspectors, prompting calls for a change in the law.
Despite the stereotype of creative middle-class parents educating their children at the kitchen table, a quarter of home-schooled children are doing little or no work, officials claimed.
Tony Mooney, a home education inspector with seven years' experience, said:
"Schools are told in such fine detail what they need to teach and yet parents can get away with doing nothing at all."
Local authority inspectors fear some families are using home education as an excuse to evade problems with bullying, poor attendance or disruptive behaviour. They are also concerned that child welfare could slip through the net because parents are not obliged to agree to home visits.
Eunice Spry, the foster mother convicted last week of abusing her children by forcing them to drink bleach and beating them with a metal bar, had withdrawn her children from formal schooling.
Up to 150,000 children in England are estimated to be home-educated.
Figures are inexact because families are under no obligation to notify their council.
Although many home-educators are committed individuals who see home-schooling as a way of developing their child's interests, inspectors estimate about a quarter of parents provide nothing.
Myra Robinson, an inspector with nine years' experience, regularly sees children who have been withdrawn from school for an inadequate alternative.
"All the rights are in favour of the parent," she said. "But who is going to stand up for the rights of the child?"
The circumstances of a significant proportion of home-schooled children are "a real cause for concern", she said. Recent cases include a boy with learning difficulties who was unable to speak coherently by the age of five, or write his name by 10, and received no visible support.
Other pupils were unable to produce work samples on demand or demonstrate an understanding of basic skills, despite parents' claims about their level of education.
"One girl said she worked in the library but didn't seem to know where it was," Ms Robinson said.
Laws on home-schooling are relaxed and parents are under no obligation to follow the national curriculum, set a timetable or agree to a local authority inspection. Inspectors would like the Government to tighten the law. But home-schooling organisations are keen to protect parents'
Anne Newstead, a spokeswoman for the charity Education Otherwise, admitted some parents were using the home-schooling label as an excuse, but said:
"We shouldn't all be tarred with the same brush.
"We know, for example, that some schools are encouraging parents of persistent truants to register as home educators to get their attendance figures up. This sort of thing isn't good for the majority of parents who do the right thing."
The Department for Education and Skills said it had been considering proposals to change the regulation of home-schooling but had no plans to publish them in the near future.
Home truths, page 20