ANYONE reading between the lines of the first annual Office for Standards in Education report on colleges would think the 1990s were a lost decade for further education.
The years of chasing targets and boosting student numbers at all costs have taken a terrible toll on the very thing colleges should exist for - teaching and learning.
David Bell, the chief inspector and author of the report, would not put it so bluntly. But, he says, while the auditing system under the Further Education Funding Council inspectorate covered everything from financial health to departmental audits and the state of accommodation, "this is not what educational institutions are about".
Ofsted helped carry out 23 area-wide inspections where staying-on rates were low and achievements at 16 poor. "In none of the areas inspected was there at the time of inspection, a clear strategy based on a detailed audit of local need."
Speaking to FE Focus as his report was published, Mr Bell said: "We have focused on what matters, on education. For the first time we are able to speak about the quality of teaching and learning post-16."
The result was a sector still begging for reform. "There is a lack of coherent shape or pattern for 16 to 19-year-olds. Our evidence is that level 3 (A-level) students are doing pretty well, with a range of good advice and guidance. But at levels 1 and 2 (GCSE), they often have a more fragmented offering," he said.
There were contradictory messages - an over-complex jungle of offerings with too narrow a range to suit individuals.
"The reality is that if you are doing two or three A-levels for university, there is good scope, but if you have to do vocational qualifications, to mix and match, it's more of a patchwork."
That said, the inspectorate did reveal a clear way forward in the light of the new 14-19 developments.
A particular area Mr Bell highlighted was Knowsley in Merseyside, where secondary schools have merged interests to ensure coherent timetabling.
Also, the FE college and schools have created a collegiate with shared governance to bring unity.
"Creation of a 14-19 basic skills college could be a way of addressing this issue." If post-14 reforms were only about students spending a day here or there at school, college and work, it would lead to greater fragmentation, he reckons. "Here you have them in one place and can attend to a range of basic skills needs over time.
"Since the Government has no national 14-19 blueprint, emphasis can be on local initiatives."
But the annual report points to something deeper than the range and coherence of provision. The best colleges focused primarily on curriculum leadership and management, nurtured consistent and compatible teaching styles, and made sure all staff were properly supported at all levels.
Alarmingly, despite evidence that best-led colleges rank alongside top-performing multinational companies, "about one in four have inadequate leadership".
The best colleges displayed these qualities, he said (see box), as did former failing or underachieving colleges which had made good recoveries.
To reinforce his message, the chief inspector warned that the same level of inadequacy in the management of the curriculum, teaching and learning are emerging in the second year of college inspections.
His conclusions are also reinforced by the generally "good to outstanding performance of sixth-form colleges" - even those serving areas which were very deprived socially and economically.
"Though sixth-form colleges are smaller institutions, we are not making comments about size and scope. However, it is an issue one needs to consider when the inadequacy rate in FE is running at 20 per cent," he said.
"The reason for such inadequate performance is to do with that complexity of provision I mentioned. Because there was an overriding focus on expansion in the 1990s, people were led to think that good management was about growth, and that did not always sit squarely with the curriculum."
Far more FE provision was good than was unsatisfactory. But comparison with sixth-form colleges showed too much variation, he said.
"The quality of provision that is very good to excellent in sixth-form colleges is 38 per cent - compared with 28 per cent in general FE.
Provision that is unsatisfactory or poor is 9 per cent in general FE compared with just 5 per cent in sixth-form colleges.
"I don't think that for the past decade there has been proper emphasis on teaching and learning. Ofsted has focused on that provision in a way that was not always prominent when the emphasis was on increasing student numbers."