Vocational courses aimed at teenagers unsuited to an academic curriculum are failing young people because of poor organisation and low expectations, the Office for Standards in Education said this week.
More than 40,000 14 to 16-year-olds are now studying in further education colleges or working with employers as well as going to school as part of a pound;40 million scheme. And almost half of England's secondary schools and three-quarters of FE colleges are taking part in the project, which started in September 2002.
But inspectors say the government programme of partnerships between schools, colleges and employers has been beset by problems and that too many pupils are placed on unsuitable courses.
They have produced a damning report on the first year of the Increased Flexibility Programme, which aims to enhance vocational and work-related opportunities for 14 to 16-year-olds.
It reveals that more able pupils are insufficiently stretched and not enough support is given to those who find learning difficult. Courses offered include vocational GCSEs but inspectors found these "often lacked clear vocational authenticity" as partners did not collaborate enough.
Attainment was unsatisfactory in a quarter of lessons in schools and a third of work-based providers. The programme also had little impact on the course choices made by girls and boys, inspectors said.
David Bell, the chief inspector of schools, said there was still much to consolidate.
Ofsted praised the programme, which gives each partnership up to pound;100,000 a year, for encouraging schools to offer a broader curriculum and says pupils have responded positively to the wider opportunities. There is evidence of improvements in attitude, behaviour and attendance for a significant number of pupils. But a rush to introduce the programme had led to "a number of weaknesses in the early implementation of the programme," the report said.
The comments echo those of Mike Tomlinson, former chief inspector, whose inquiry into A-levels criticised the speed with which ministers reformed the exams and introduced AS-levels.
Inspectors found organisation unsatisfactory in a quarter of partnerships and identified problems in lesson timetabling, choice of courses and information sharing.
Other weaknesses included advice, opportunities for further learning and assessment of progress. The latter was unsatisfactory in more than a third of partnerships. Ofsted also called for cuts in administrative costs to allow more funds for the courses.
Judith Norrington, Association of Colleges' director of curriculum and quality, said: "The IFP will have made a real difference to many young people's lives. Students are motivated by being in the college environment which means being given more choice, treated as an adult and given much more effective preparation for the rest of their lives," she said.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said it was vital that schools and colleges share information on pupils.
"It can be hard even for an experienced teacher to distinguish between a pupil's ability and level of disaffection," he said.
A Department for Education and Skills spokesman said: "We are addressing the concerns raised by working with Ofsted and other partners to raise standards across the programme."
FE Focus, 6 Increased flexibility programme at key stage 4: evaluation of the first year is available at www.ofsted.gov.uk