The Government announced yesterday that it was tightening up arrangements for national curriculum tests in English, maths and science for 11- and 14-year-olds. The move follows allegations that schools opened papers in advance and coached pupils for this year's tests - one headteacher resigned after confessing that he had done so.
From next summer, schools will not be allowed to open papers until one hour before they are used and local authorities will carry out new spot checks to make sure that the papers have not been opened before the test date.
Papers will be sent out only a few days in advance of the tests instead of a fortnight early, and headteachers will have to sign declarations that tests in the three subjects for 11- and 14-year-olds have been administered properly and fairly.
At present, heads may open papers early if they have permission from the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, which oversees the tests. They are allowed to do so if they need to make special provision for pupils, for instance translation in maths and science for children who do not speak English.
Ministers need to ensure that the tests are rigorous because the Government has staked its reputation on achieving challenging targets based on national test results. Estelle Morris, the education minister, said that she was sure that the overwhelming majority of teachers did not cheat but the Government needed to have absolute confidence in the results.
Government exam advisers who investigated cheating allegations after this year's tests in May looked into 35 cases in which examiners were suspicious because pupils in the same school were giving very similar answers. In five cases, including that of the head who confessed, there was clear evidence of cheating. In a further 13 there was some evidence but not enough for local authorities to discipline a teacher.
One reason why reports of cheating are much more widespread than this may be that schools are so nervous about their position on the league table that they accuse others of breaking the rules. Officials who this summer investigated an anonymous letter accusing a Shropshire school of cheating found that it had no foundation.
Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said that schools must not break the rules but added: "The fact that the Government has seen fit to act indicates the impossibly high stakes attached to the tests."
Ms Morris said: "Rigorous tests together with teachers' assessments of pupils are essential in monitoring progress towards our demanding literacy and numeracy targets.
"We regard the integrity of tests as paramount and it is essential that they are fair - and seen to be fair - to all pupils."
But David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "No one in their right mind would object to any reasonable steps by the Government to tighten the administration of next year's tests but there is a danger that the Government is taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut."