AS MANY as 35,000 "home-schooled" children in England 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 child at the kitchen table, a quarter of home-schooled children are doing little or no work, the officials claim.
"The situation is crazy," Tony Mooney, a home education inspector with seven years' experience, said. "Schools are told in such fine detail what they need to teach, yet parents can get away with doing nothing at all."
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, as parents are not obliged to agree to home visits.
Eunice Spry, the foster mother in England convicted two weeks ago of abusing her children by forcing them to drink bleach and beating them with a metal bar, had withdrawn her children from formal schooling.
Around 150,000 children in England are home-educated, according to estimates, although figures are inexact because families are under no obligation to notify their local council.
The official Scottish figure puts the number of home-educated children north of the border at 700, although campaigners dispute this because it only includes those known to the authorities.
Although many home-educators are committed individuals who see home schooling as a way of developing their child's interests, inspectors in England state, around a quarter are providing 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Myra Robinson, an inspector with nine years' experience, regularly sees children who have been withdrawn from school for an inadequate alternative.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 were "a real cause for concern".
Recent cases included a home-schooled boy with learning difficulties who was unable to speak coherently by five or write his name by 10, and received no visible support.
Other pupils are unable to produce work samples on demand or demonstrate an understanding of the basics, despite parents' claims about their level of education.
"One girl said she worked in the library, but didn't seem to know where the library was," Ms Robinson said.
Ironically, as the Scottish Executive comes under pressure in its review of home education to relax existing restrictions, the law in England is more relaxed and inspectors would like the Government to tighten it. In Scotland, parents have to apply to withdraw their children from school and then wait until permission is granted.
But parents in England can simply notify their education authority of their intentions and pull their children out of school straightaway.
In a report on home education in February, the Scottish Consumer Council recommended that the more relaxed English approach should be introduced in Scotland.
Anne Newstead, spokeswoman for the charity Education Otherwise, admitted some parents were using the home-schooling label as an excuse. However, she added: "We shouldn't all be tarred with the same brush."
In England, she claimed, some schools were 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," she said.
The Department of Education and Skills said it had been considering proposals to change the regulation of home schooling in England, but it had no plans to publish them in the near future.