TOP inspection grades in humanities - the most popular courses in further education - have plunged in three years.
The proportion of grades 1 and 2 - outstanding and good - fell from 77 per cent in 1996-97 to 60 per cent this year, according to a Further Education Funding Council report. At the same time, the number of poor and unsatisfactory grades - 4 and 5 - rose from 1 per cent to 6 per cent.
And colleges grossly overestimate their performance - in self-assessment they thought 87 per cent of provision was good or outstanding - nearly 50 per cent more than inspectors found.
FEFC inspector Sara Mogel said that humanities had fallen victim to its own popularity. It had brought new people into FE but it did not always support them properly. The report says that "pre-course guidance and tutorial support for part-time students is frequently inadequate".
She added: "Humanities is a massive programme area. It is one of its strengths that it is attracting students who are normally under-represented in FE. But colleges haven't always got the strategy right for dealing with the mixture of students they find in front of them."
Problems with students dropping out were another factor. "Retention is a major weakness in this area. It's not just that it is low but that it is declining."
The increasing use of part-time teachers had an effect on quality of teaching - lessons taught by them were generally graded lower and more poorly attended. Some part-timers were isolated from their colleagues and were not able to get involved in curriculum or staff development.
Humanities courses - ranging from A-levels to access courses and sports coaching to sign language - three-quarters of a million students last year and account for more than 14,000 qualifications offered by colleges - almost a third of the total.
English remains one of the most popular humanities options and "recruitment is buoyant". But the report says that "too many GCSE lessons are dull and rushed", they "often fail to motivate students" and suffer from poor attendance.
Modern languages are still popular with adults. The report suggests that effective marketing can help increase recruitment even further, but is "in decline" among 16 to 18-year-olds.
Sports coaching awards and courses which prepare recruits for careers in the armed forces, police and other public bodies have proved particularly successful in attracting people who might not otherwise have enrolled at college.
The general humanities - geography, history, government and politics, classical and general studies, law and teaching certificates - scored highly with 78 per cent of lessons observed rated good or outstanding. The weakest subject area was social sciences, including sociology and psychology.
Despite the problems Ms Mogel said: "We shouldn't lose sight of the fact that there is a lot of high quality teaching and learning going on."
The report says that many humanities teachers "devise imaginative and demanding activities" and students produce coursework of "high quality".