New proposals could see nursing homes subjected to more detailed inspections, with those that fail to do so at risk of losing public funding.
The new "excellence tests" - designed by the Care Quality Commission - will examine the staff training at care homes, as well as assessing daily resident activities and the general quality of care that patients receive.
Ministers are eager to overhaul the care system in order to make it more transparent for patients and their families.
All staff at "excellent" nursing homes will have to register with a new Health and Care Workers Professions Council.
Those that refuse to submit to such tests could have their public funding cut, although the scheme will initially be optional.
The results of the tests will be published to offer families better information about individual care homes.
More than half a million older people are in nursing homes - a number predicted to hit 1.3 million by 2050.
"CQC's role is to identify and react to signs that people may be at risk of receiving poor care," its chief executive, Cynthia Bower told The Independent.
"But this is not the same as saying other provider are offering 'excellent' care.
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