Area-wide inspection reports on Lambeth, Tower Hamlets, Coventry and Newcastle reveal weak or non-existent strategic planning, some poor A-level results and problems with dropping out and non-attendance.
Education and employment minister Baroness Blackstone said that in the case of Lambeth, south London, the inspection had revealed severe problems. "A pitifully small proportion of 16 to 19-year-olds resident in the borough seek their education or training there. Of those that do, under-achievement is rife, and the qualifications they do take are often at a low level. We need radical change, quickly."
She said one solution might be a new sixth-form college or institution for 16 to 19-year-olds to bring back those who had gone outside the area and provide better services for those who had stayed.
Lady Blackstone has asked Sir William Stubbs, chair of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, come up with some ideas. "There must be no inertia between now and early 2001: young people's life chances need to be improved as soon as possible," she said.
The inspection found that A-level performance was well below national norms, and the high proportion of candidates failing to pass was a major cause of concern.
The inspections were carried out by the Office for Stndards in Education in conjunction with the Further Education Funding Council and the Training Standards Council. For the first time they allow a picture to be built up of the total range of educational and training provision.
The inspectors found that low completion and success rates in some subjects across schools and colleges indicated that many students had begun A-level courses with little prospect of success.
Class sizes in schools were sometimes very small, and occasionally too large - affecting the quality of teaching and learning in both cases. But the majority of teaching in schools and colleges was found to be "satisfactory" "good" or "excellent".
In Newcastle, the proportion of young, unemployed people is well above the national average and rising - a cause for concern say the inspectors.
In smaller sixth forms the choice of A-level subjects is limited. In one school only two A-levels are offered.
Institutions are advised to look closely at the quality and viability of all sixth forms, and to consider joint arrangements, greater specialisation or even closures.
In a separate development, education consultant Simon Jenkin produced an independent report on the inspection findings for Hackney and Islington, published in April. His recommendations for the London boroughs include new institutions for sixth-form study and increasing the number and diversity of modern apprenticeships.