Learning and skills chiefs are to investigate the huge differences across the country in the proportion of 17-year-olds in education and training.
This week England surged above Italy in its post-16 participation rate, but otherwise, it is still only better than Greece, Mexico and Turkey. In Scandinavia, 98 per cent of 17-year-olds stay in education and training.
As the Learning and Skills Council published its corporate plan with tough new participation targets, John Harwood, its chief executivesaid it had to find out what motivates young people to stay on.
The council has pledged by 2010 that young people and adults will have knowledge and skills matching the best in the world. "But there is nowhere in the country that is yet in that category," said Mr Harwood.
"The highest participation rate is in Cumbria, at 85-90 per cent. I expect this is because of peer-group pressure over the last 20-30 years. We have to get everyone to over 90 per cent by 2010."
He suggested even affluent areas were under-achieving. "Parts of the south-east are not as good as you would expect, considering their socio-economic status," he said.
He suggested that young people might be leaving school or college because of relatively high levels of pay at work. "We need to find out what we need to do to change cultural aspirations, and how we get people to change their decisions," he said.
The latest figures show that only four out of 47 English local learning and skills councils boast 80 per cent or higher participation by 17-year-olds in their areas: CheshireWarrington; Cumbria; Hertfordshire; and North Yorkshire. There are four local LSCs where less than 70 per cent are in education or training: Cambridgeshire; Essex; London and the East Country; and the Black Country.
Mr Harwood said another challenge facing the post-16 sector, was to raise the quality of teaching and learning. "Whether it is sixth-form colleges, colleges or work-based learning, far too much of it is not of the standard required." He said that 10 per cent of the FE sector was world-class, about 50 per cent "could get there" and 40 per cent needed "very serious help."
Advice and money would be available to help colleges in need. The local learning and skills council would be a "critical friend" to help colleges improve themselves.
Nevertheless the LSC was a planning and funding body. "We should not be shadow directors for any institution" said Mr Harwood.
Local councils would review the performance of post-16 providers in their area each term. This would flag up problems before a formal inspection, which could be four years away.
"A little bit of unease, or the threat of unease in the relationship (betwen local LSCs and colleges) might not be a bad thing," said Bryan Sanderson, the LSC chair.
He added that the biggest problem FE had was its lack of status, which reminded him of the divide between grammar and secondary modern. Vocational achievements should be just as celebrated as academic ones.
Mr Harwood said FE should not always parade itself as the sector for those who needed a second chance. "We should be talking about the first time round. We are not an ambulance service. We are talking about being in the forefront, and producing the best workforce in the world."