The market for online education services has grown and developed rapidly in recent years, not least with the enforced transition to remote learning during the pandemic. While parents have traditionally looked to services such as online tutoring and short-term virtual courses to supplement or enhance their child’s formal schooling, there is growing demand for options on a full-time basis.
The Department for Education’s (DfE) position is that full-time online education is not a suitable alternative to traditional settings in all cases or for all children. However, following consultation, it has acknowledged that in limited and exceptional cases online provision may “temporarily represent a pupil’s best opportunity to receive a full and balanced curriculum with the intention of returning to school as soon as possible”.
The DfE has therefore launched the Online Education Accreditation Scheme (OEAS) to regulate this rapidly expanding market, with a view to giving parents greater confidence in the standards, quality of teaching and safeguarding arrangements of online education settings. It’s worth noting that the OEAS is relevant only for providers of full-time online education to compulsory school-age children in England. The scheme does not apply to formal education settings which deliver remote education on an ad-hoc or exceptional basis, although it will be interesting to see whether some providers choose to operate in accordance with OEAS standards and principles, even where not directly covered by its scope.
In this article, we provide an overview of the OEAS for online education providers and offer thoughts on what providers should be doing now to prepare for the launch of the scheme this year.
What is the Online Education Accreditation Scheme?
The OEAS is a non-statutory scheme, and it is not legally binding: the DfE is encouraging all eligible providers to engage with the scheme on a voluntary basis. The DfE will also encourage parents to only use accredited providers from Autumn 2023 so that they can be assured of the provider’s standards, quality of teaching and safeguarding arrangements. So, a failure to secure accreditation may result in providers losing key customers, as parents may look to enrol their children with alternative, accredited providers if the scheme is to become the sector’s “kite mark” of quality assurance.
The OEAS comprises two elements:
- Non-statutory standards for providers (the Standards), which are available here. These cover education quality (curriculum and teaching); pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development; welfare, health and safety; suitability of staff and proprietors; provision of information; complaints handling and leadership, and
- Inspection of providers against those standards by Ofsted, whose handbook is available here.
Which providers are eligible to join the OEAS?
The OEAS is open to providers that:
- Teach online only on a permanent basis,
This requirement excludes providers whose pupils “frequently and regularly” attend a normal (ie in person) education setting for all or part of their schooling (eg daily, weekly or monthly lessons – or where attendance is otherwise mandated).
However, providers will be eligible for the scheme if they offer:
- “occasional and optional” opportunities for pupils to attend in-person activities, outside the normal course of their schooling (eg trips and visits or sports);
- non-educational activities which are delivered at the pupil’s home (eg private music tuition); and / or
- in-person education offered on a time-limited basis for a small number of pupils (eg to assist pupils with a planned return to mainstream education).
- Provide a full curriculum or represent a child’s main or only source of education,
This requirement excludes providers such as online tutoring services or virtual academies or courses who supplement a child’s main source of education.
- Have at least one full-time pupil of compulsory school age on their roll (ie age five to 16), based in England (regardless of the number of pupils based overseas),
“Full-time” means education provided for more than 18 hours a week, or less than 18 hours a week provided that it still constitutes all – or substantially all – of a child’s education (eg if they have a health condition which limits the amount of time they can spend in education); and
- Have a physical presence in England, registered with Companies House and / or the Charity Commission.
How can providers apply for accreditation?
It is now possible for providers to apply for accreditation under the OEAS. An application form requiring information about the provider and the online setting is available on the DfE website.
All applications will be sent by the DfE to Ofsted for suitability checks unless, on receipt of the application, the DfE decides that the applicant is ineligible for the scheme (based on the information provided or, for example, where there is a history of breaches of other regulatory requirements or standards).
Subject to the satisfactory outcome of the suitability checks, Ofsted will then carry out a two-day accreditation visit to assess the provider’s compliance with the Standards. (A fee will be payable to Ofsted for both the suitability checks and the accreditation visit).
After the accreditation visit, Ofsted will share its draft report and the final report with the provider and with the DfE. Providers will be entitled to comment on the report.
Once finalised, Ofsted will publish the report and set out which Standards the provider has met and which it has failed to meet (if any). This report will be published on Ofsted’s website. This report will also be published even if the provider subsequently withdraws its application or if accreditation is refused.
The DfE will normally confirm its decision about whether accreditation has been awarded on the same day that Ofsted publishes its report. The DfE retains absolute discretion as to whether to award accreditation to a provider. Providers will only be accredited where the DfE considers that:
- They are eligible for the scheme,
- They have complied with, and are likely to continue to comply with, the terms and conditions of the scheme,
- Those who have decision-making responsibility for the provider are suitable to manage a service offering full-time education to school-age children in England,
- The Standards are likely to be met for the duration of the term of accreditation,
- The provider has not engaged (and is not likely to engage) in conduct that would undermine public confidence in the OEAS or in full-time online education more generally.
The DfE may also decide not to accredit an applicant even if they are found to meet the above criteria if they have reason to believe that granting the accreditation would not be in the “public interest”.
If granted, the standard term of accreditation will be 3 years and the provider will be added to the Get Information About Schools website. Providers can then describe themselves as “accredited by the Department for Education as a provider of online education” and use the DfE’s logo in accordance with its branding terms.
Providers must re-apply for accreditation between four and six months before the expiry date of their existing accreditation. The DfE may also withdraw accreditation if there is a reasonable justification for doing so (eg if there is evidence that the provider does not meet the Standards consistently).
Can providers appeal a decision by the DfE not to award accreditation?
Providers can request that a decision not to award accreditation is reviewed within 10 working days of the DfE giving notice of its decision.
Providers may make representations in writing to a review panel, which will not include the original decision-maker. The decision of the review panel will be final. However, providers will be entitled to apply for accreditation again.
What other accreditations or registrations might an online education provider need?
Depending on the offering, some online education providers may also need to register as an independent school. It is a criminal offence to conduct an unregistered independent school (and any person who does so is liable to a fine and / or imprisonment). It is therefore important that providers take advice on this.
What should online education providers do now?
Before applying for accreditation, providers should:
- Read the eligibility criteria and ensure that they meet them,
- Read the Standards and ensure that they can comply with them. If necessary, providers may need to vary their existing contracts with parents and / or third parties to ensure compliance and / or prepare or amend policy documents (eg in respect of admissions and complaints); and
- read Ofsted’s Handbook to prepare for the accreditation visit.
This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.
© Farrer & Co LLP, April 2023