Chief inspector says colleges meet local needs, reports Joe Clancy.
Colleges were this week praised by David Bell, the chief inspector, for providing training that consistently matches the requirements of local employers.
He said companies that complain that general further education colleges do not tailor training to demand are wrong. Their contention, he added, "is not entirely supported by evidence".
A survey carried out by the Office for Standards in Education shows three-fifths of colleges provide a significant amount of training for individual employers, often tailoring it to meet their needs.
Mr Bell said: "Colleges offer an extensive range of courses which provide at least a satisfactory match to the needs of employers, and the range of activities is usually adequate to enhance the general employability of learners."
He added, however, that although colleges usually consider employer and labour market requirements as part of their review of course portfolios, only half did so in a substantial way.
The chief inspector, in his report for 20034, was again critical of the overall failure rate of colleges, which he described as "a national disgrace" in an interview he gave to FE Focus last November.
The report says: "There are too many inadequate general further education colleges and this is unacceptable when one considers the critical role these colleges play in providing post-compulsory education in their local communities."
It cites five main reasons for "endemic inadequacy". The reluctance of the best managers to take on the most difficult colleges, and staffing difficulties were major reasons for failures. Strong competition from school sixth-forms, and weak governance also contributed.
The fifth reason cited was the weakness of local learning and skills councils in holding colleges to account.
The report said 13 colleges were rated inadequate last year out of the 82 inspected, compared to 10 the year before. Mr Bell added: "If the present rate continues, the proportion of colleges judged to be inadequate will exceed 10 per cent by the end of the four-year inspection cycle. Given the critical importance of FE colleges, this is far too high, and worryingly shows no sign of falling."
Inadequacies in the vocational sector were cited in the report as being a constraint on the success of the post-16 sector.
Mr Bell said: "Vocational education is insufficiently distinctive. The structure is excessively complex and it continues to lack sufficient esteem."
He does, however, praise "the continuing success of sixth-form colleges in almost all aspects of their work", with 16 of the 24 inspected rated outstanding.
The chief inspector also lavished praise on the Connexions service, which is due to be dismantled in the face of overwhelming criticism.
Of the 12 Connexions partnerships inspected last year, eight were rated good or better, and the remaining four were satisfactory.
Mr Bell said: "The partnerships were well led and managed, and highly effective in fulfilling their remit to provide support and guidance to all 13 to 19-year-olds, while giving particular help to the most vulnerable."
In Wales, the chief inspector Susan Lewis voiced concern about standards in work-based training. She warned that funding could be withdrawn from the 20 per cent of providers rated unsatisfactory or poor by Estyn, the Welsh education inspectorate.
She said: "I'm particularly concerned because developments at 14 to 19 will depend on this mixed economy of school, college and trainer provision. It is a genuine lack of understanding about what constitutes quality."