Awards to show how sporty schools are have been deliberately watered down, allowing the numbers gaining one of the accolades to quadruple in a single year.
Changes to the Sportsmark and Activemark awards have been made to help meet government targets for school sport, which the Prime Minister has said will help Britain's chances at the 2012 Olympics. In a letter to PE coordinators, a government official said the awards' criteria had been "refocused to reflect this ambition".
PE teachers said the move was clearly designed to improve the figures and exaggerate the quality of sport in schools.
There are now 2,122 schools with the Sportsmark award, which is given to secondaries. Only around 500 had it this time last year. The numbers gaining the equivalent award for primaries, the Activemark, doubled during the same period from around 7,000 to 14,603. The criteria for both awards were suddenly reduced in November to the same, single sentence: that "90 per cent or more pupils across the school were doing at least two hours high quality PE and school sport a week" - the normal target for schools.
Previously, schools had needed to meet that target plus at least two other separate sets of criteria, including holding a sports day, and that aspects of their sports work were better than the national average.
A school sport partnership development manager told The TES: "This is clear evidence that the awards have been watered down. Unfortunately, the people who suffer the most here are the children because they are not getting the amount of sport they deserve. Surely, with 2012 around the corner, we should be trying to raise the bar."
Sportsmark was first announced in 1995 by then Prime Minister John Major as one of a series of proposals he said would create a "sea change in the prospects for British sport, from the very first steps in primary school right through to the breaking of the tape in an Olympic final".
Schools then had to apply for the award, which was overseen by Sport England, and 362 gained it in the first round. Activemark was introduced in 1999.
Both awards were relaunched by the Government in 2006 as a "new gold standard for school sport".
Andrew Adonis, schools minister, said then that the scheme would "help raise the profile of PE and sport and acknowledge the dedication of the many PE teachers and coaches who go the extra mile to run out-of-school activities".
But those out-of-school activities were dropped as a criteria the following year.
Rather than filling in an application form, schools are now automatically considered for the awards based on the findings of an annual survey of school PE.
A small panel, including representatives from the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, decides each year what standard schools need to demonstrate - but only after the survey results are in.
PE teachers have also raised questions about the reliability of the survey, as just 10 per cent of the schools are inspected to see if their responses are correct, and that methods used to fill it include getting teachers to ask pupils for a show of hands during lessons.
They have also pointed out the difference between schools time-tabling two hours of sport a week and actually providing it.
Tam Fry, a board member of the National Obesity Forum and chair of the Child Growth Federation, said: "We would be concerned by any fiddling of the figures to paint a rosier picture of school sport".
A spokesperson for the DCSF defended the criteria changes. "Sportsmark and Activemark Awards play an important part in driving up PE and sports participation in schools, and many schools have welcomed the clarity that the awards have brought to their provision," she said.
"The DCSF has not `watered down' the criteria to improve the figures. Our performance data on PE and sport is collected annually by an independent market research company, from data that schools themselves provide.
"The criteria for the awards were changed to reflect the need to ensure that as many young people as possible were taking part in at least two hours high quality PE and sport each week. The revised criteria place a much greater emphasis on the two-hour target to encourage schools to increase their provision."