The number of school attendance orders issued to home-educated pupils by councils across England has soared, as pressure mounts on politicians to approve plans for compulsory registration of home-schooled children.

A survey by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services revealed a 171 per cent increase in the number of school attendance orders issued in relation to the suitability of home education. 1,400 such orders were issued by 61 local authorities in 2018-19, up from 515 in 52 councils in 2017-18.

This is only the children that we know about, the actual number is likely to be higher

Councils can issue school attendance orders when they are not satisfied education is being provided outside a school setting. Failure to comply with them can result in a fine or prosecution.

As a result of initiating the order process or issuing a formal SAO in 2018-19, 902 children returned to school-based education.

The ADCS, which represents the highest-ranking education officials on local authorities across the country, estimates that 78,781 children across England were in elective home education at some point in 2018-19, up slightly from 78,466 in the previous academic year.

Elective home education is a process whereby parents choose to take their children off a school’s roll. However, those responsible for pupil welfare in local communities fear the system is sometimes abused by schools keen to remove troublesome children before exams, or by parents who want to send their children to illegal settings.

The government consulted earlier this year on plans to develop a compulsory register of home-educated pupils, which would be maintained by local authorities. However, the response to the consultation has been delayed by the upcoming election.

Gail Tolley, who chairs the ADCS’s educational achievement policy committee, said: “It is simply not good enough that we have no way of knowing whether all children and young people being educated at home are safe, receiving a suitable education and that their health and social development needs are being met. At the most basic level we need to know how many children and young people are being home educated in this country.”

According to the ADCS survey, the cumulative total of children and young people known to be home educated at any point during the 2018-19 academic year in 125 councils that responded was 64,787. If that average was expanded to include the authorities that did not respond, it would mean a total of 78,781 pupils had been home educated.

However, there is some in-year variation. For example, in one council area in the south west, 365 pupils were known to be home-educated on the last day of term in July, whereas 714 children were in that position at some point throughout the year.

The main reason for pupils being home-educated is a “philosophical or lifestyle choice”, followed closely by health or emotional health and “general dissatisfaction with the school”, the report found. However, many councils also reported that parents often did not provide a reason.

“In many situations children have a suitable and nurturing learning experience at home, however, we are worried that the decision to home educate can, at times, stem from a breakdown in the relationship with schools or be used as a cover by parents to send their children to illegal schools, rather than being a well-informed, considered decision based on the child’s wishes,” said Tolley.

The report follows a warning from Ofsted last month that home education is often the “last resort” of parents of secondary school children with complex needs after their relationship with school has broken down.

School attendance orders are expected to be central to proposed stricter rules on home education, proposed earlier this year.

Such orders are currently used by local councils if it appears parents are not providing a suitable education. They give parents 15 days to provide evidence of they have registered their child at a specific school or that home education is being delivered. Those who don’t comply can be prosecuted or fined.

The last government wanted to extend these powers to cover parents who fail to register under the new laws, who could face fines or prosecution.