Inspectors were making random checks at thousands of schools in an effort to catch cheats as national curriculum tests began this week.
Local authority staff have been instructed to visit 10 per cent of their schools - around 2,000 nationally - to check that new anti-cheating rules were being observed. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has contracted examination board staff to check up on grant-maintained schools.
Teachers have been told not to open sealed envelopes containing the question papers for seven, 11 and 14-year-olds until an hour before the tests are due to begin and headteachers have been asked to sign confidentiality agreements. Inspectors, mainly local authority advisers or in-service education and training staff, will be visiting schools before, during or after the tests to make sure that procedures are adhered to.
Last year, the QCA investigated 35 allegations that schools had cheated by coaching their pupils through the questions or allowing them more time but only 12 were proven. All the investigations concerned key stage 2 tests, which were introduced into school performance league tables for the first time last year.
Nick Tate, chief executive of the QCA, said that decisive action had to be taken to wipe out malpractice. "There were very few cases of abuse last year but, insofar as they were some cases, they were undermining the credibility of the tests."
Some teachers, who are also marking scripts, have said they were sent the papers up to two weeks before the test date.
In a letter to The TES, this week Margaret Litchfield, a secondary teacher in Devon, says this practice left the system open to abuse: "Either the teacher is inhibited by the knowledge of the test questions and the lesson is spent on other things, or the classes receive indirect help and an unfair advantage."
A QCA spokeswoman said they were confident that the new arrangements would exclude malpractice and that the authority was relying on the "professionalism" of teachers to prevail.
Mental arithmetic tests for 11 and 14-year-olds are also being launched nationally this week. Pupils will have five, 10 or 15 seconds to provide the answer to sums read out by Maggie Mash, a Yorkshire Television continuity announcer, in an audiotape being sent to schools.
Letters, page 18