The free-school programme has led to the creation of institutions backed by pop stars and others where children can learn in multiple languages. And, from next September, students could attend a free school without ever needing to leave their homes, under plans submitted to the Department for Education for the first state-funded virtual school in England.
The Wey Education Schools Trust (West) wants to open the Wey Ecademy, an all-through school that would provide an entirely web-based education accessed by pupils from their homes. The group wants to offer greater choice to parents who are unhappy with their local schools, but the vast majority of interest has come from parents who choose to home-educate their children.
According to a spokesman for West, home educators have signed up "in their hundreds" to enrol their offspring.
"Currently, these families have very little choice with regards to formal education, do not have the means to pay for private tuition and are faced with trying to create a curriculum from scratch," the spokesman said. "The ecademy gives children access to lessons delivered by a fully qualified teacher, which will be genuinely interactive and hugely beneficial to students as every lesson would be recorded and available to revisit."
Under the plans, children would log on to their computers at 9am for a register to be taken. Classes would have no more than 20 students, who would follow the lesson via an audio link and a connection to an interactive whiteboard. Students would be able to speak to the class using an instant messaging service and questions could be posed to the teacher via private messages.
"Ofsted has said that 20 per cent of lesson time is lost due to pupil behaviour, but this is totally eliminated in the ecademy," the spokesman added. "Up to half of a child's day is taken up by getting to and from school as well as breaks and moving between lessons, whereas there is no such issue with a school like ours."
A fee-paying virtual school, called InterHigh, has been in operation in the UK for nearly 10 years. Last year, plans for an online-only sixth-form college were abandoned after the project failed to get the green light from DfE officials, but West is confident that its plan can succeed.
So-called virtual schools have been in operation for some time in the US, with hundreds of thousands of students enrolled. Thirty-four of the 50 states currently have online schools, but varying levels of success and claims that they are siphoning off public funds have led to criticism. One of the major players in the movement is the for-profit charter-school operator K12, which was set up by a former Wall Street trader.
The Wey Ecademy will be registered in Buckinghamshire, chosen because of its central location and its relatively low per-pupil funding rates, which West hopes will be a cost benefit to the taxpayer.
Ian Addison, ICT leader at Riders Infant and Junior Schools in Hampshire and a prominent blogger on education technology, said the idea of a virtual school was an "interesting one" but there was little substitute for "face-to-face interaction".
"We always seem to assume that the school of the future will be led by videoconferencing and robot teachers, but I think that the face-to-face interaction with other children and with adults can't be replaced by this `school'," Mr Addison said.
The New Schools Network, a charity that helps groups to submit free-school applications, said the free-school policy was designed to encourage such innovation.
Natalie Evans, director of the NSN, said: "Innovation is not an end in itself, but free-school applicants that have strong support from parents have already set up new schools that are open nearly all year round, offer bilingual education or use internationally successful models."
The virtual Wey Ecademy would be the latest unorthodox institution to open under the free-school policy.
In 2013, Judith Kerr Primary, a bilingual English and German school, opened in South London.
The London Academy of Excellence, a selective sixth form in East London, was launched in 2012 with the backing of a group of elite private schools including Eton College, Brighton College and Highgate School.
Eton is also supporting Holyport College, a co-educational day and boarding school in Berkshire that opened in September.
A new technical college, East London Arts and Music, also opened this autumn. It was set up by Will Kennard, one half of dance music duo Chase and Status.