Schools competing for 16 to 19-year-olds are recruiting them on to unsuitable classroom courses rather than directing them to more appropriate work-based or vocational learning.
"The 11-18 schools concentrate too heavily on providing information about their own sixth-form provision," says a 16-19 area report for North Tyneside. "Students have to obtain information for themselves about other providers... There is insufficient guidance for those who would be best served by vocational pathways andor employment."
In Stoke on Trent, inspectors said pupils were often led to believe that continuing full-time education was the "only option". Similar criticisms were made of other areas, with some schools making it hard for the careers service to get access to their pupils.
But even when schools and careers service work well together, work-based learning is hard to sell. "There's a sort of English disease," says Sylvia Thomson, president of the National Association of Careers and Guidance Teachers. "It's the assumption that the best thing any child can do is to get A-levels, go to university and go into professions. We've got to shift public perceptions that have been entrenched for generations."
Graham Hoyle, chief executive of the Association of Learning Providers, says the prestige of higher education and "gold standard" view of A-levels mean only the less able get to know about work-based learning. "There's an assumption now that half of 14 to 16-year-olds don't need careers advice because they're staying on," he said.
"The Government wants to get people through work-based learning to higher education, but that needs the complete ability range. If only low achievers get information about it, it makes a nonsense of progression routes."
The North Tyneside report says work-based courses are stigmatised by being "mainly by those for whom other routes are closed - those who performed poorly or have a history of difficult behaviour."