The fault appears to be a clash of incompatible systems, rather than the quality of students and teachers. Students "often find difficulty in adjusting to the styles of teaching and assessment at A-level which are narrower in scope and different from those they experience in their other areas of study", say the inspectors.
Their report on the survey, involving 40,000 students in more than 100 colleges, comes as Education Secretary Gillian Shephard is once more under pressure to open up A-levels to more modular and continuous assessment.
However, the inspectors praise the quality of A-level lessons and standards of teaching and quality of work done in colleges. In almost two-thirds of lessons, strengths outweighed weaknesses and the inspectors report many examples of "high-quality work".
Sixth-form colleges and many tertiary colleges "set high standards in their GCE programmes and these are reflected in healthy retention rates and the good exam achievements of their students". But those in the general further education colleges did less well, even when value-added factors were taken into account. Many weaknesses in colleges "stem from the traditional emphasis on single subjects at the expense of developing comprehensive A-level programmes for students," say the inspectors.
The lack of integration was often at its worst when A-levels were mixed with the new General National Vocational Qualifications.
"Colleges in the sector still have work to do in helping to build parity of esteem for alternatives to GCE A-levels," said the report.
Many criticisms reflect on the narrowness of A-level studies. The inspectors call for more attention to core skills of literacy, numeracy and information technology and criticise A-level for not recognising partial achievements of students who drop out of the course.
"A two-year programme, assessed by terminal exams, which is the norm for GCE A-level students, allows little flexibility," say the inspectors. While induction schemes for new full-time students were good, those for part-timers were "poor". The lack of core skills was particularly noticeable among science students with a poor grasp of maths.
GCE A-level and advanced supplementary qualifications - National Survey Report, is available from the Further Education Funding Council, Cheylesmore House, Quinton Road, Coventry CV1 2WT.