Accreditation scheme to regulate growing online schools market gets green light

An accreditation scheme for online schools has been rubber stamped, with the government saying the coronavirus pandemic “provides further justification” for regulating the growing market.

In September, the Department for Education launched a consultation on plans for online providers to volunteer for inspection against measures similar to the independent schools standards. Those who meet the grade would become accredited providers.

The government said last year there were more than 20 online schools. They are typically settings providing full-time education for children educated at home or not in traditional settings because of parental choice, special educational needs or exclusion.

The DfE, in its response to the consultation published today, clarified the accreditation scheme will go ahead, but is only applicable for providers operating “online-only on a permanent basis”. It does not impact on schools delivering remote education during Covid-19.

But the consultation said the “circumstances created” by the pandemic “provide further justification for moving forward with the scheme”.

“We have seen the creation of several innovative solutions that have moved teaching and resources online at speed… We are aware that excellent and innovative online provision has existed for many years; endeavours forged under emergency circumstances further reinforce the idea of an agile and responsive sector that needs the foundation of minimum standards.”

All qualifying online providers will be encouraged to register for the scheme, which will start in September with an independent quality assurance body appointed in August.

Providers would pay for their inspections, which would take place between every two and four years. All reports would be published online.

The consultation said the scheme is a “defining moment… It marks the first time that the sector will have the opportunity to receive accreditation from the department and provide assurance to parents, pupils and local authorities about the minimum standards offered through online education services.”

The department added it wanted to “provide reassurance” they do not promote the idea that online provision is a “suitable alternative to traditional settings in all cases. However, the department is aware of specific circumstances where an online education is suitable and may represent a child’s best opportunity to receive a full and balanced curriculum.”

They said accreditation was the “most effective way” to delivering effective oversight of the market in the short-term, and will look at options further down the track at making the scheme mandatory.

Over 90 per cent of the 72 respondents supported both a quality assurance and accreditation scheme.

However, it will apply only to providers with a physical presence in the UK after concerns of regulating those based overseas. A setting is considered to be providing full-time education “if it is intended to provide, or does provide, all, or substantially all, of a child’s education”.

Providers covered by the scheme would mostly also be commissioned services that hold responsibility for the delivery of education services only.

The DfE told Schools Week that Oak National Academy, set up to help homebound pupils amid the coronavirus school closures, would not be eligible.

However the consultation states the government will assess whether to widen the scope to include part-time providers, tutors and alternative provision “extensively using online materials” as the scheme “matures”.

Baroness Berridge, academies minister, said it means “parents will have that information at their fingertips, in the same way they would for a physical school.

“All children deserve the best possible education, including the protection of vital safeguarding regulations that keep young people safe, and parents deserve the reassurance that the provider they choose is meeting those expectations.”