The 1944 Education Act expects the parent(s) of every child of compulsory school age to 'cause him to receive efficient full time education suitable to his age, ability and aptitute, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise'.

A growing number of parents in the UK are choosing the 'otherwise' option and educating their children at home. No-one knows exactly how many, for the simple reason that parents who choose not to send their children to school at the age of five have no legal duty to inform the local authority. In America, where it is also increasingly popular, , it is estimated that up to 1.6 million children are now home-educated.

Jane Lowe is an advisor for the Home Education Advisory Service(HEAS). She has been involved in home education for the past ten years and has seen a steady rise in the number of enquiries she receives. It now stands at about 200 a month.

"There is a huge diversity of people opting for home education but they fall basically into two groups - those who are forced into it by circumstances, and those who are drawn to it for philosophical reasons.

"Bullying at school is very high on the list of reasons and so is school phobia, which children may develop for various reasons. And some parents are simply dissatisfied with the standard of education the schools provide.

"Then there are those who take a positive view of home education as a lifestyle alternative. And there are those who want a form of education that reflects their religious beliefs. One group I've only recently become aware of, for example, is an Amish community in Leicestershire which is educating its children within the community."

If motives vary, so do methods. Some parents adopt a formal 'classroom' approach, perhaps getting together to hire tutors for group lessons. Others choose an unstructured approach, which in extreme cases verges on anarchy. And there are the 'hothousers' who believe in pushing their kids harder than the schools are prepared to do.

But for the parents who need it there is plenty of support. HEAS. a charity to which parents can subscribe, runs an advice line and provides regional lists of its subscribers to promote contact between them.

Subscribers can also get also get reduced-entry rates to places of educational interest such as galleries and museums. HEAS maintains good relations with the formal education system and stresses that it is not 'anti-school'. Another key group is Education Otherwise, a self-help organisation of home educators.

Yvonne Cook