Pupils who have been bullied or who seek greater flexibility in their studies are combining home and college study with magical results. Lucy Ward reports Children as young as 12 are attending college as growing numbers of parents opt for education out of school.
One in 10 enquiries to the national home-learning association Education Otherwise is now from parents hoping to send their children to college before they reach the age of 16.
The association knows of an estimated 250 pre-16 students now in college around the country, including around 30 13-year-olds and one child who enrolled at 12. The total numbers are higher - others have enrolled independently.
Reasons for the move are varied, but the youngsters include victims of school bullying, school phobic children and a high number of home-educated teenagers who turn to college courses for subjects they find difficult or impossible to teach themselves.
Others have left private education through a change of family circumstances but prefer to go to college rather than a state school.
Education Otherwise, which reports a "dramatic" growth in parental interest in the possibilities of the further education sector, cites the flexibility of part-time courses as a key advantage over schools.
It says the "adult atmosphere" at college suits the independence of home- taught children while also removing the pressures on once-bullied youngsters.
For schools, however, evidence of a growing number of families demanding a different kind of education for their children has potentially worrying implications.
Already in competition with colleges for sixth-form students, schools could begin to find they are battling to hold on to younger pupils too.
At present, Government funding policy for the FE sector prevents any potential exodus of pupils from schools - the Further Education Funding Council explicitly does not fund colleges to educate children of compulsory school age.
The responsibility for educating those up to 16 lies with local authorities, and some, Education Otherwise has found, are extremely reluctant to permit any transfer of funding for individual pupils from school to college.
Eileen Wilson, national enquiries coordinator for the association, describes funding as "a sore issue for a lot of authorities", and calls for a coherent national policy on the issue. "Logically the money should follow the child. "
However, while about half of the association's parents sending their pre-16 children to college end up paying their own fees, the rest do manage to secure funding - either from the local education authority or from the college's own non-FEFC coffers.
In the North-west, Wirral Metropolitan College and Wirral authority have worked together this year to devise a funding mechanism to cater for school-age children hoping to attend college.
All such applications are now channelled through the local pupil referral unit - which usually deals with permanently excluded students - which can then sub-contract teaching to the college, using LEA funding.
At present, six pre-16 students from Education Otherwise families are enrolled at Wirral - including one taking a performing arts course and another studying pottery.
The college also runs other schemes bringing in a range of disaffected students for part-time courses while they are still studying at school or at the referral unit.
Jim Teasdale, director of students at Wirral College and a key force behind the services for pre-16s, points to the college's links with local schools and stresses the result is collaboration, not competition.
"There is a blurring of boundaries and a growing partnership between us and the schools. We simply have more flexibility and can offer a service to meet the needs of schools and young people."