HALF the schools in the London borough of Wandsworth were given leaked details of this week's national curriculum tests, in the biggest exercise in cheating since testing was introduced five years ago.
Wandsworth has suspended three education officers amid fears that a systematic attempt to brief the borough's teachers had been sanctioned at a senior level.
The Government's tests body, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, responded with a campaign of spot checks on all 60 Wandsworth primary schools. Both the QCA and the council have promised an investigation.
The QCA is maintaining that the leaks, which related to Wednesday's reading tests for 11-year-olds, were not extensive and are unlikely to affect Wandsworth's results. The borough's papers will be scrutinised.
But it is a blow to the credibility of the testing regime. Until now, despite widespread rumour that schools bend the rules, there has been little evidence to support it. Last year, for example, there were 250 allegations of cheating but only three were proven.
The irregularities came to light after a number of headteachers complained that they had been telephoned by a Wandsworth officer who unexpectedly gave them details of the English comprehension test.
The same details - including advice to revise the theme of "spiders" - were given out at an in-service training course run by the borough. The reading test, which took place on Wednesday, included a factual piece on spiders' webs, a poem on spiders and a prose discussion of the Little Miss Muffet nursery rhyme.
A QCA spokesman said the test had not been compromised because the leaked material was vague. It would not boost children's chances as knowing that the test was about spiders would not increase children's reading ability.
"Heads were asked whether they had heard the rumour. Half said they had, but said they had disregarded it because the information was so general and because they felt it would be unprofessional to act on it."
It is not known how borough officials came to know about the test questions in the first place.
The QCA learned of the security breach at the end of April, but decided to continue with the existing test papers. A different set of papers, produced at short notice, would have cost in the region of pound;1.5 million.
The spot checks on Wandsworth's English tests - a largely separate matter -gave the borough a clean bill of health although one school had opened the test packet early.
The chair of Wandsworth's education committee, Malcolm Grimston, promised firm action against anyone who has "contributed to speculation". The borough expects to announce the outcome of its inquiry into the affair next week.