Further education - or 16 to 19 learning - has come in for much flak in recent years, especially from employers who say it does not prepare young people adequately for the world of work.
A 2014 report by Ofsted on efforts to transform 16 to 19 education and training found a lack of "work-related" learning at all levels, including when it came to work experience placements with local employers.
The extent and quality of careers guidance for many students "was not good enough" and the availability and take-up of traineeships and supported internships was poor.
Ofsted's annual report for 2016 shows much variation in the quality of provision between different types of provider.
There has been a drop in the proportion of further education (FE) colleges rated "good" or "outstanding" from 77 per cent in 2015 to 71 per cent in 2016. This is in contrast to sixth form colleges and independent learning providers - including employers - where the proportion rated good or outstanding increased in the same period. In 2016, 89 per cent of sixth form colleges and 82 per cent of independent learning providers were rated good or outstanding.
Ofsted inspected 82 FE colleges in 2015/16. Most that were previously rated good remained good but "a large majority" previously rated "requires improvement" or "inadequate" did not improve their rating.
"All of the colleges judged inadequate this year were characterised by systemic weaknesses in leadership and/or governance," says Ofsted's report. "Strengthening leadership capacity within the sector remains a priority."
Only 52 per cent of FE colleges inspected in 2015/16 were rated good or outstanding for leadership and management.
In all, 71 per cent of 16- to 18-year-olds continue with full-time education, according to the report. The government has made it a requirement to provide these students with a tailored study programme that takes into account their education and career aspirations.
Those who do not already have GCSEs in English or Maths at grades A* to C must work towards those qualifications. Students should also get careers guidance and take part in work-related activity.
According to Ofsted, the main providers of study programmes are FE colleges (484,000 students), school sixth forms (433,000 students) and sixth form colleges (157,000 students).
Ofsted ratings for September 2015 to August 2016 show study programmes at 54 per cent of the 82 FE colleges inspected during that time were rated requires improvement or inadequate.
More generally, the report also highlights an ongoing divide in the quality of provision for those on academic and vocational courses.
Across different types of providers, Level 3 academic study programmes are "working well". More than 90 per cent of students who progress to the second year of A-level successfully achieve their qualification.
"Inspection evidence shows that students on Level 3 academic study programmes typically undertake challenging and well-planned extra-curricular activities," says the report. "These support their personal development and future employment goals. Students also benefit from focused and relevant work experience."
In contrast, the report says many technical and vocational courses inspected last year were "simply not demanding enough".
"Too much work consisted of task-based activities, often conducted through basic computer research, which inspectors often judged to be more suited to Level 2 work, rather than Level 3," says the report.
Meanwhile, schools and colleges show "continued weakness" in providing a technical and vocational curriculum "appropriate to meet the needs of the economy".
"Too few providers liaise sufficiently with employers or with local enterprise partnerships to design a curriculum that provides the knowledge acquisition and high-level skills that Britain needs," says the report. However, some like Derby College (see case study) are working closely with business and industry to shape the education and learning opportunities they provide.
Study programmes at Level 2 and below are generally less successful than those at Level 3 "with the core principles of the programmes not always met".
Ofsted's report suggests the quality of apprenticeships is improving but still variable and a lack of availability is hampering take-up.
In July 2016, the government published its plan for post-16 skills following a review of technical and vocational education by Lord Sainsbury.
Plans to reform apprenticeships include a move away from qualification frameworks to industry-defined standards. However, Ofsted says progress in this area has been "too slow".
A programme of area reviews by the FE commissioner - instigated by government - could help improve provision, including ensuring the best colleges work with those that are struggling educationally or financially.
However, these reviews do not include school sixth forms, which "limits their effectiveness in providing a strategic perspective on the provision within an area", says Ofsted.
The reviews are a chance to ensure the curriculum more closely matches local, regional and national employment priorities but so far have focused mainly on proposed mergers to support colleges to survive or tackle inadequate provision, according to the report.
Employer partnerships key to Derby success
Derby College | Good overall | April 2016
The jump between school or college and the world of work is "absolutely vast", says April Hayhurst, deputy principal for employer and economic affairs at Derby College, a large general further education (FE) college.
"Not only do young people have to make that transition from the very prescriptive, close-knit, safe environment of school and college, they're going through natural changes for their age," she says.
Derby College has set out to bridge the gap between education and employment by working very closely with employers.
"The involvement of employers in designing and developing the curriculum is outstanding," according to the college's latest Ofsted report published in April 2016.
All full-time students - whether studying for A-levels, GCSEs or taking more vocational qualifications including doing apprenticeships - will do extra-curricular activities related to employment, such as projects, work placements, workplace visits, and attending talks. They also take part in entrepreneurial and enterprise activities.
Since 2015, the college has worked with groups of employers from specific sectors such as construction, engineering, hospitality, catering, healthcare and finance to create 16 "employment and skills boards".
The responsibility for providing activities such as specialist speakers, help with mock interviews and CV-writing is shared, with board members often calling on industry colleagues to help out. In total, more than 2,800 employers have been involved in providing work-related activities.
In addition, companies and organisations can become "employer academies". Students apply to join and gain specific skills and knowledge related to that employer's needs with the chance to gain a job or place on an apprenticeship at the end of their studies.
There are currently 25 employer academies but up to 40 in the pipeline with employers lining up to get involved, according to Hayhurst. Employer academies include a large rail academy, which brings together rail businesses from across the East Midlands.
"We work in partnership with the National Skills Academy for Rail to make sure we are meeting the current and future needs of the sector," says Hayhurst.
"This is not just about students gaining work experience, it is also about co-creation and co-delivery."
Others include the Derby Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust Academy, which gives learners an insight into the broad array of possible careers in healthcare, and the Bespoke Inns Hospitality Management Academy.
Employers "don't feel like visitors, they just feel part of college life", says Hayhurst, and students are "very aware" of the businesses the college works with as they are "exposed to them constantly" resulting in a more businesslike or professional atmosphere overall.
Feedback from more than 8,000 student surveys shows 100 per cent felt they benefited from work experience, 99 per cent said industry visits enhanced their learning and 98 per cent said work placements boosted their knowledge of the sector in question.
Responses from 495 employer surveys shows 100 per cent who employed a learner from Derby College felt they had the right employability skills and 99 per cent felt they had the right attitude to work.