The Department for Education wants to ensure that the growing number of online schools can be inspected amid concerns about the standards in some of these providers.
Ministers want to create a system that will allow parents to be able to identify which are the “strong and weak” online schools in what is an emerging and unregulated market.
The DfE estimates that there are now more than 20 online schools operating in England.
Quick read: Questions over the future of virtual schools
Research: Caution over benefit of 'flipped learning'
Comment: Could we have AI in our schools?
It has launched a consultation today on creating a new voluntary accreditation system for these schools, which would see them subjected to inspection.
A draft consultation document says this would allow parents to be “assured of a quality education and appropriate safeguarding arrangements in such settings – bringing this sector into line with other parts of the education system”.
Schools system minister Lord Agnew said: “There are few more significant choices for a parent than their child’s education, so it’s absolutely right that they have all the information they need when making those decisions.
“That’s why it’s important that an accreditation scheme exists for online providers, so parents can make informed decisions about issues that could shape their child’s life.
“Online schools play a growing part in making sure all pupils, particularly the most vulnerable, can access a rich curriculum, high-quality teachers and one-to-one support.
“Online schools can be a significant player as we continue to look for ways to maximise the use of technology in education and today’s proposals will only accelerate that, helping parents differentiate between the strong and the weak, and meaning more pupils have access to the high-quality education they deserve.”
The DfE has said that online schools cannot be registered as an independent school even if the education is full-time and for more than five children of compulsory school age.
This is because an online school that has no building where pupils are taught will not meet the Independent School Standards.
Instead, the department is planning to set up a new accreditation scheme for online schools.
It plans to appoint an independent inspectorate through an open competition.
The DfE's draft consultation document says the department also wants to better understand the online school market.
The department has said it believes that delivered to a high standard, online schools can be “a highly effective resource for parents and young people”.
However, it also has concerns that not all providers are operating to a high standard.