One in five education authorities fails to ensure that good quality education services are provided for adults, according to Office for Standards in Education inspectors.
A survey of 60 adult education services showed that 17 were "at least good", 11 were "highly effective" and in 13 were "poor". Inspectors also found that nine out of 40 youth services were poor.
Inspectors looked at how adequately education authorities fulfilled their duties under the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act. The Act requires them to review the quality of further education for adults and young people.
The report shows that quality control varied widely, as did adult education itself. Since the 1992 Act about one in four authorities has contracted out the service. Some run free-standing services, others work with a range of providers. Other authorities make it part of a community education service. Some have almost nothing on offer.
Where authorities had contracts with other providers, arrangements for quality assurance ranged from comprehensive and highly effective in Gloucestershire, Harrow, and Cheshire, to minimal in East Sussex, or non-existent in the Isle of Wight and Bradford.
Some contracts were imprecise or weakly monitored, as in Tameside. The inspectors added that Wigan, Doncaster Knowsley and Calderdale provided so little adult education that quality assurance was largely ignored.
Birmingham had a "clear staff development policy", a training programme, curriculum planning and regularly monitored provision by a central quality group. Liverpool and Northumberland also had effective systems.
Inspectors said that in weaker services "there is an unhelpful proliferation of methods of reviewing the quality of teaching and learning" with tutors and centre heads producing a variety of student evaluation and learning agreements.
Inspectors said that part-time tutors, who were key to providing effective adult learning, should be offered regular professional support so that they do not work in isolation.
The best services have established systems to record student achievements in non-certificated courses, but inspectors warned against overloading staff and students with paperwork.
Most authorities had targeted spending carefully. Some, like Hammersmith and Fulham, Buckinghamshire and Lancashire had gained extra funds through partnerships with training and enterprise councils, social services, colleges and businesses.
Only four out of 10 of the youth and community services visited by the inspectors had workable strategies for quality assurance; eight were of high quality and nine, poor.
Berkshire was praised for its annual business plan providing an overview of the service's purpose, legislative background, staffing and budget. The plan also identified objectives, targets and performance indicators.
The majority of the 40 authorities were aware of the importance of including young people in evaluating the service .
Quality assurance in local authority adult education and youth services is available free from OFSTED Publications Centre. Telephone: 0171 510 0180.