HEADTEACHERS are claiming that improvements in this year's literacy test results for 11-year-olds reflect softer marking.
The claim will fuel pre-election controversy over Labour's stewardship of schools as ministers seek to use improvements in national test scores as evidence that their policies are working.
A survey carried out this week by The TES suggests that the proportion of 11 year-old pupils reaching expected standards in literacy and numeracy has risen dramatically in the past year.
If repeated nationally, the improvements would make the Government's goal - 80 per cent of pupils reaching the expected literacy standard - achievable well before the target date of 2002. The improvements in maths scores suggest the Government's target - 75 per cent of pupils reaching the expected numeracy standard - have already been reached.
But John Illingworth, head of Bentinck school in Nottingham, said he had spoken to at least 10 other heads who believed that it was easier to get higher marks in English this year. He said: "There is anecdotal evidence that scripts were marked more leniently."
Another head, who did not want to be named, said a significant number of his 11-year-olds were awarded unrealistically high grades. "The problem is the importance being attached to these results. Schools are under pressure forpolitical reasons," he said.
One London head said the pupils he considered borderline all managed to get level 4, the required standard.
Results from The TES's sample of 75 statistically representative schools show the proportion of pupils reaching the expected level in English rose from 70 to 77 per cent, only 3 percentage points off the 2002 target. In maths, the proportion rose from 69 to 76 per cent, which would mean the magic number of 75 per cent has been exceeded.
Last year Education Secretary David Blunkett ordered an inquiry into claims that marking had been changed to give better results. But it gave the marking process a clean bill of health.
Rows over scripts are almost always over English, where marking is more subjective. Test critics point out that fine judgments must be made and that, in these tests, one mark can make a difference of 2 or 3 per cent.
Soundings taken by local authority advisers in Bath, Somerset and Brighton confirm that schools are reporting better results than last year.
The Department for Education and Employment said it was too early to speculate on the basis of a small number of schools.
The Qualificications and Curriculum Authority said "the national data has not yet been collected but there is every reason to believe that the marking was as consistent as in previous years."
Additional reporting by Nick Rodrigues and Toby Chaussaud