Colleges have come in for stinging criticism from Ofsted and the Adult Learning Inspectorate this week for not working closely enough with employers.
Local colleges are the largest single suppliers of skills training to employees and employers. But the first joint annual report from the two inspection bodies, says further education in much of England fails to meet the "real-world" needs of many students.
Courses should provide what local employers want says the report. David Bell, Ofsted's chief inspector, said: "The range of provision should meet the needs of young people of all abilities and address skills needed locally and regionally."
But colleges immediately accused inspectors of "confused and biased" conclusions. The Association of Colleges said it was expected to do things that were largely outside its remit and inspectors had failed to take into account "the many factors that inhibit what colleges can achieve".
Inspectors assessed results from 23 area-wide inspections and visits to more than 100 colleges. They gathered evidence on access, student standards, the curriculum, quality of teaching and learning, support and guidance for students, management, strategy and cost-effectiveness.
While results were mostly positive, the quality of work-based learning was said to be "poorer than other college provision", with 43 per cent of provision "unsatisfactory or very poor".
"Usually this was because the college and the employer had not created a sufficiently close working partnership to provide work-based learning and assessment in a co-ordinated way," the inspectors said. "The result is a mismatch between learners' work-based activity and their studies in college."
Sixty-eight per cent of lessons for adults were considered good or better, compared with 63 per cent for 16 to 19-year-olds.
The best grades were in visual and performing arts, where 71 percent were good or outstanding, while the lowest grades were in construction and information and communications technology, where only 33 and 37 percent, respectively, were good or outstanding.
The report said: "While local learning and skills councils are beginning to establish structures intended to bring about better and more collaborative planning, patterns of provision ... reflect no principle of design, and can lead to inequality.
"Higher-attaining learners usually have a satisfactory choice of courses, but the less able often have inadequate access to education and training opportunities."
With around 70 per cent of learners in colleges aged over 19, David Sherlock, ALI's chief inspector, said FE offered many adults a "second chance".
"Standards of teaching are often good and colleges are making considerable efforts to deliver courses which fit in with the other commitments most adults have. But there is sometimes a lack of connection with employers and employment which means some courses ... fail to meet the needs of adult learners or the economy," said Mr Sherlock.
"This is where general further education colleges should now focus their efforts."
Mr Bell said: "Action is needed to rationalise provision in many areas and more effective collaboration is needed between schools, colleges, local education authorities, learning and skills councils and employers."
However, David Gibson, chief executive of the AoC, which has launched its "Colleges at the Heart of Business" campaign, defended FE colleges as "the main engines of local skill development in most communities".
He said: "The average college directly serves some 200 businesses in its community and far larger numbers of individual employees taking responsibility for their own upskilling."
Colleges faced many obstacles in developing local skills, he said. "These include the LSC capping the numbers of adults which colleges can recruit.
Colleges across the country are having their bids for adult student numbers rejected because there are insufficient LSC funds.
"Local learning and skills councils have still not approved colleges' development plans for this September - including their plans for expanding work with employers.
"There is a lack of incentives for individuals and companies to take up training. For example, there is as yet no successor to the individual learning accounts scheme. And there is too much rigidity on the nature of courses which colleges are allowed to offer employers," Mr Gibson said.
The AoC's campaign will include lobbying MPs "to ensure that we are funded to provide the courses employers need," he said. An AoC survey of 100 colleges had identified 65 with "very good practice" linked to industry.
THE GOOD AND NOT-SO GOOD
* Ninety per cent of lessons satisfactory or better, but the proportion of unsatisfactory lessons "too high".
* "Too much unsatisfactory teaching" in independent specialist colleges for young people with learning difficulties andor disabilities.
* Good to outstanding standard of education and training provided for adults.
* Rapid expansion of courses for adults for whom English is not their first language.
* Low pass rates for key skills qualifications.
* More strategic planning of 16-19 education needed.
* Many students do not complete their key skills portfolios and do not take key skills tests.
* 50 per cent of learners have to make do with barely adequate resources, at best.
* Almost a fifth of general FE colleges were inadequate.
* Half of all courses in colleges were good or outstanding.
* The grades awarded to sixth-form colleges were significantly higher than those given to other colleges.