Parents who educate their children at home should be forced to register with their local authority, school inspectors said today.
A report by Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, calls for new legislation to avoid making it possible for children to "disappear". Otherwise, inspectors argue, councils will be unable to fulfil their legal obligation to ensure children in their area are safe.
The inspectors also want council officials to have the right to undertake an annual home visit – which should involve the opportunity for a private discussion with any children taught at home.
The report, compiled after visits to 15 local authorities, ruled that councils were unable to perform their legal responsibilities for the safeguarding and welfare of children in their area under the present system.
"Authorities cannot carry out their responsibilities effectively because they do not know of all the children in their area or where they are being educated," it adds. "There was no reliable way to establish how many children were resident but 'invisible'."
The report threatens to reopen old wounds with home educators – many of whom resent the intrusion of local authority officials into their affairs.
The last government set up an inquiry, headed by Graham Badman, former director of children's services at Kent County Council, with a brief that included examining "the extent to which claims of home education could be used as a 'cover' for child abuse".
The inquiry said it found that the percentage of child educators whose children were on child protection plans was double the rate of all children – and recommended similar legislation to Ofsted.
However, the findings were criticised by the Commons select committee covering education, which said there was not enough evidence to substantiate the claim as no one knew how many children were home educated. It added that home educators felt an annual visit from council officials was "like being guilty until proved innocent" of child abuse.
Legislation tightening up the regulations was lost in the run-up to the general election. Now, Ofsted says: "The current legislation around home education severely hampers local authorities in fulfilling their statutory duties to safeguard children who are educated at home and ensure the suitability of their education."
It acknowledges that many parents who educate their children at home shared a "passion for their children's upbringing" and were willing to give up "significant amounts of time to be their child's educators".
However, it added: "The local authorities told inspectors of their concerns about a very small number of parents who, they believed, withdrew their children from school to be companions rather than to educate them at home. The authorities were concerned at the mental health of some parents and their ability to meet their children's needs."
Others, it said, had withdrawn their children from school because of bullying. It concluded: "It was not possible to comment on whether children are kept at home and not registered in order to conceal abuse or neglect. What was clear, however, was that the failure to register all children with the local authority... contributed to making it possible for young people to disappear."Reuse content