Fifteen departments and curriculum areas in 12 colleges were targeted for action during the first 100 college inspections in 1993-94. Student recruitment was frozen on each course, while efforts were made to improve staying-on rates, assessment quality, teaching and the level of resources.
Lecturers' low expectations were blamed for much of the poor performance. They were also accused of paying insufficient attention to basic skills.
In all the departments, inspectors said, "weaknesses clearly outweigh the strengths" and in one case - hairdressing at Bromley College, south London - there were "many weaknesses and very few strengths". Each department was given a year to turn itself round.
The prospect of a failing department or college is causing considerable nervousness in the FE sector, given the decision of ministers last week to remove the "failing" Hackney Downs comprehensive from local authority control.
But the strategy adopted by the Further Education Funding Council inspectors appears to be working. Only one of the 15 departments failed to reach standards considered satisfactory or better. Hendon College in north London has since decided to pull out of the areas of science and maths criticised by the inspectors.
Bromley, which had been given grade 5 in 1993, the lowest possible, achieved a grade 3 after a new head improved staff relations and strengthened management.
Four departments went up from grade 4 to grade 2, showing that "the strengths clearly outweigh the weaknesses". The rest all achieved "average" standards and, while still needing to make improvements, were no longer under threat.
Terry Melia, chief inspector for the FEFC, said: "These results clearly show that we are enhancing quality and that the public is getting value for money in the further education sector."
About 30 departments caused concern in the second round of inspections, double the 1993-94 figure, he said.
"This is in line with the increase in the number of colleges we have been able to inspect. The grade profiles across the sector are also pretty similar to last year's," Dr Melia said.
Reinspection of curriculum areas 1994-95 - Report from the Inspectorate. Available from FEFC, Cheylesmore House, Quinton Road, Coventry CV1 2WT, tel; 01203 863000.