Post-16 students should have their literacy and numeracy skills assessed before they start college and sixth form, rather than struggling later on an unsuitable course.
Just under a fifth of further education students needed help with reading and writing and 45 per cent with number work, according to an Estyn survey of 8,773 learner assessments. However, there were few sixth-formers with basic skills needs: just 3 and 5 per cent respectively had problems with literacy and numeracy.
Schools generally found that those with less than a C grade in GCSE maths and English needed extra help. "However, in a few cases, learners are identified with basic skills needs who have a C or above at GCSE," reports Estyn.
Since July 2005, post-16 providers have been required to assess the basic skills levels of all learners on accredited courses of more than five hours a week, and then provide help to those identified as needing it.
Learners with basic skills needs have literacy and numeracy skills below the equivalent of GCSE grades D-G (level 1), according to the Assembly government. Estyn found most providers now offer support to learners struggling with basics but found "too much variation" in the quality of support and the systems put in place to measure if it made a difference.
A minority of colleges currently assess learners at interview to help make sure they end up on an appropriate course. Elsewhere, though, assessment often takes place at the start of courses.
"Many learners find it is too late to change if they are enrolled on a level of course that does not meet their needs or match their abilities,"
fforwm's chief executive John Graystone said the association was "delighted that the report notes the significant investment FE colleges make in helping learners with support".
He added: "Most college staff are appropriately trained and most learners at college are positive about the initial assessment process. All colleges offer one-to-one support in well-equipped learning resource centres as well as extensive on-course support.
"Most supported learners have an individual learning plan to track and monitor their progress to ensure their support closely matches their needs.
We look forward to building on the positive findings of the report across FE."
Estyn also found around half of the providers do not use qualified staff to carry out assessments, leading to variable quality of feedback to students.
One school did not give feedback to learners for fear of reinforcing their sense of failure, even though learners need to know how to improve, according to Estyn.
Meanwhile, colleges found learners "too embarrassed" to take up "one-to-one" support in their own time, even though it was the most effective way of improving basic skills.
Instead, some have assigned basic skills staff to courses, so learners receive guidance as part of their normal timetabled lessons and do not feel singled out.
In the best colleges, staff measure the impact of support on retention rates as well as attainment, says Estyn. One found accreditation rates rose to 95 per cent for learners with basic needs receiving additional support, compared with 82 per cent of those who missed out on extra help.
Susan Lewis, chief inspector, said: "Ensuring that learners receive the support they need to improve their basic skills is vital.
"Basic skills initiatives are helping people to improve, but they do not yet involve enough people to tackle the skills gap fully, or to make significant numbers of people more employable than they were in the past."
Post-16 basic skills provision; basic skills initial assessment, support and monitoring systems www.estyn.gov.uk