A successful college is one that counters the effects of social deprivation, mentors students and invests in information technology - at least as far as the inspectors are concerned.
Mentoring is part of the winning formula at Loreto College, an inner-city sixth-form college in Manchester. It is one of the elite group of 21 best-performing colleges in England that the Office for Standards in Education praises in its annual report (see box, above).
Achievements are impressive, given that two-thirds of the 1,100 students come from disadvantaged areas. Last year, Loreto had a 95 per cent A2-level pass rate and this year seven students have been offered Oxbridge places.
Loreto's efforts to raise student aspirations focus on mentoring and analysis of individual learning needs, with vigilant tracking of progress towards personal targets.
Every student is analysed from the start to find out how they learn best.
This forms a profile to help teachers understand their learning styles.
Some mentors work with the highest-ability students to ensure they have suitably challenging work. Others, from the local community, including retired professionals and Martyn Stewart, Young Mancunian of the Year 2002, work with students to target their ambitions. Mr Stewart also works with boys and ethnic groups to counter male underachievement.
A "buddy" mentoring programme allows former students at university to email current students and advise those thinking of going on to higher education.
Learning support tutors also work individually with students struggling to develop their writing, reading, study and communication skills.
Investment in IT has paid off for the college and was praised by Ofsted as being "cutting edge". "We've invested significantly in IT because it is the medium our learning profiles show students prefer learning with," said principal Ann Clynch.
Additional support and tuition for all students is something that has led to success in other colleges praised by Ofsted.
At Holy Cross Catholic sixth form college, Bury, all departments offer support lessons out-of-timetable.
Principal Mike O'Hare sees this as a key factor in the college's impressive 97 per cent A-level pass rate. "It's not just for students that are struggling but for students across the spectrum of ability," he said.
Many principals from other colleges in the top 21 believed extra help, together with student profiling and effective use of predicted grading, was vital. Setting targets for individuals based on predicted grades and profiles also motivated students and staff.
Ensuring the highest standards of teaching is imperative for the nation's top colleges and embracing a culture of rigorous monitoring to counter complacency reaps dividends. At Barton Peveril sixth-form college in Eastleigh, Hampshire, every area of the curriculum is looked at every two years. Ten or 12 lessons during the monitoring process are observed over a week by trained school staff, and students are interviewed. Action plans to improve teaching and remedy any deficits are then developed.
However, big institutions do not necessarily equate with a lack of quality.
The inclusion of City of Bristol College - which has 35,000 learners - in the top 21 proves even the largest FE colleges can meet standards just as high as their smaller counterparts.