The government needs to "shine a light" on the "neglected" FE sector, according to Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw, who this week delivered a damning verdict on the performance of colleges and other providers.
The watchdog's annual report found that 35 per cent of all colleges had been rated inadequate or satisfactory in their most recent inspection, up from 30 per cent three years ago. Of the general FE colleges inspected this year, 16 per cent were found to be inadequate, with 49 per cent only satisfactory.
In 2011-12, 13 colleges - collectively serving 82,000 learners - were rated inadequate, compared with four the previous year. For the second consecutive year, not a single college was judged to be providing outstanding teaching and learning. Exeter College did receive the top grade in a pilot no-notice inspection but this was not included in the report.
"For general FE colleges, the overall picture of inspection results has worsened over the past year," the report said. "In our inspections, we have seen that often the quality of teaching is still not good enough; not enough young people secure good skills in English and mathematics; and providers generally do not adequately measure how well young people and adults are being equipped with skills that are closely matched to local and national labour markets."
It was not just general FE colleges that came in for criticism. No sixth- form colleges were rated outstanding, and of the 10 that had their inspections brought forward because of Ofsted's risk assessment process - which identifies providers where evidence suggests areas of concern - nine saw their overall grade drop, with three slipping from good to inadequate.
Independent learning providers also came in for criticism, with 10 per cent of those inspected this year rated inadequate and 34 per cent satisfactory.
"The further education sector is a real concern for me at a time when the nation needs skilled and qualified people entering the workforce more than ever before," Sir Michael said when launching the report. He criticised the Department for Education for a lack of focus on FE. "We are saying to government very clearly you have got to shine a spotlight on performance, particularly given youth unemployment," he said. "The FE sector's got to get better. And I think this is a neglected sector; we need to worry about it a great deal more."
The chief inspector added that the decline in standards could be partially attributed to the diversity of provision within the FE sector. "A lot of these colleges have grown exponentially," he said. "Over the past few years we've got colleges with (as many as) 50,000 learners, running a multiplicity of different sorts of courses from different sites for different types of learner. Some handle that really well, really outstanding colleges do really well. But a lot don't, and it's a bit like schools: unless leaders focus on the quality of teaching, the quality of provision, monitor it very effectively and do something about underperformance effectively, these places continue to fail."
The government has "got to intervene much more effectively and do what's necessary", Sir Michael added.
Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said the fact that 65 per cent of colleges had been rated good or outstanding in their most recent inspection was a "solid achievement" in the light of a "challenging" inspection framework and funding cuts.
He added that the results were "skewed" by Ofsted's risk-based approach to inspections, but admitted that the report contained "difficult messages". "Colleges are delivering what government has asked of them and we are interested to discuss how college performance might be better reflected in a wider basket of measures," he said. "But if the goalposts are being shifted by Ofsted, we at least need to know the rules of the new game."
A DfE spokesman said: "Standards across all colleges and school sixth forms must be higher. We are making a series of much-needed reforms to the post-16 sector to ensure this happens and to weed out underperformance."