Pupils should not switch to home education "simply to resolve difficulties in schools", Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman has said.
Pupils are being pulled out of school to be home educated with as little notice as one day, according to an Ofsted report that says some parents view home education as the only option.
Inspectors have warned that for many parents home education is a last resort brought about by a communication breakdown between schools and families, rather than the parents’ preferred choice.
Off-rolling: 1 in 10 pupils have ‘unexplained exits'
Ofsted's report – based on a small-scale study of families in the East Midlands – says that special educational needs, behavioural issues and medical needs were all reasons why children had moved from secondary school to home education.
Data suggests that, as of autumn last year, there were an estimated 58,000 pupils being home educated – an increase of 27 per cent compared with the previous year.
Rise in home education
The report says that parents “commonly viewed home education as the only option for them".
Some families had tried other schools, but had found these unsuitable for their children. Some parents had also moved their child into home education despite not wanting to or being scared to do so.
The report warns that children can be moved to home education in a very short space of time.
"The period between a parent finding out about the possibility of home education and their child leaving school can be as little as one day," the report says.
It adds that schools and councils are “rarely” told about a child switching to home education before they leave school, with some schools only notified that this is a parent’s intention by letter.
"In extreme circumstances, moving a child to home education took as little as a day," the report says.
"For example, after one parent heard about the possibility of home education, their child said, 'Mum took me out of school the next day.'"
The study also considered the issue of off-rolling, in which pupils considered to be problematic or academically low-achieving are removed from school rolls.
"Our research did find examples that support other evidence that parents have been coerced into moving to home education," the report says.
"For example, one local authority had previously received letters from parents asking to move a child to home education that were written on school-headed paper but signed by parents."
Fears about off-rolling
It adds: "Where inspections identify pressure being applied to parents to game the system in the interests of the school, directly or indirectly, we will consider this to be off-rolling.
"Unfortunately, our evidence suggests that letting children go can be an easy option for schools. Participants were aware that schools can also apply pressure to parents or children indirectly."
Ms Spielman said: "Home education is a legitimate parental choice and can be a positive decision when parents are well equipped to provide a good education.
"However, children should not be moved to home education simply to resolve difficulties in school.
"Schools, local authorities and parents need to work together before such a decision is made, to make sure that home education is genuinely in the interests of children and not just the best thing for schools or parents.
"It's vital that parents are fully informed about the alternatives, and that they understand all the implications and costs of home educating their child."
Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "Home education, when entered into for the right reasons, can be a positive choice for families.
"However, this report suggests that some children may be being educated at home for reasons that are not in their best interests.
"This is obviously concerning, particularly given that this particularly, according to the report, affects children with complex needs."
She added: "School leaders work tirelessly with young people and their parents to ensure they receive a high-quality education, and to support children who are having difficulties at school.
"However, cuts both to school budgets and to wider support services make it increasingly difficult for schools to provide the high level support that some children need, which can lead to frustration and friction between schools and families.
"In addition, places at pupil-referral units or other alternative provision are woefully lacking in many areas, limiting the options available for supporting children with complex needs."
Councillor Judith Blake, chair of the Local Government Association's Children and Young People Board, said: "We share Ofsted's concerns that an increasing number of families of children with complex needs are
being encouraged to educate their children at home.
"We believe that the vast majority of children with SEND would benefit from a mainstream education and are therefore pleased that Ofsted are raising awareness of this practice.
"However, inspectors should go further and consider levels of mainstream inclusion when grading a school, while mainstream schools should be incentivised and rewarded to provide a more inclusive education environment for children with SEND."