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BPTC Language Test Fudge Leaves Bar Hopefuls Mystified

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Surprisingly, non-native English speakers don’t have to sit a language test to gain admission to the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC). Lucy Pether investigates

To the uninitiated, this country’s quirky system of legal education is deeply confusing. This rule applies not just to the bigger picture, but also to the details, with the level of English language competence required of non-native English speaking wannabe barristers provoking particularly high levels of head-scratching. Indeed, a flurry of foreign students have recently contacted us in despair.

Do they have to do the ‘IELTS’ English language proficiency test in order to get onto the BPTC, they ask. And, if so, what score do they need (because there are all sorts of different figures quoted online)? The answer, oddly enough, is that thanks to a fudge in the rules, non-native speaking students don’t have to sit any language test at all to become barristers…

Such a requirement would be against European law, as the Bar Standards Board (BSB) found out in 2011 when it made – then withdrew – an application to make it compulsory for students to do the IELTS test (and score a 7.5 in it) before they could be admitted onto the BPTC.

The result is that we have been left with a bizarre situation where foreign students are allowed to do the BPTC if they themselves “consider that they have met” the IELTS 7.5 requirement and “sign a statement that they are aware that this standard is required of all students who enter the BPTC”.

The for-profit law schools which deliver the BPTC, meanwhile, “may also impose entry requirements in addition to those requested by the BSB.” Predictably, many haven’t.

Three years ago, this led to an extraordinary situation at Northumbria University, where five foreign students with a shaky grasp of English were admitted onto that institution’s BPTC – and subsequently found out, after a marking delay, that they had failed to score the required 7.5 grade in their IELTS tests.

Having initially taken steps to boot them out, Northumbria – which that year was reprimanded for enrolling more students on its BPTC than it had been accredited for – reconsidered and separated the five into another group where they were given extra language classes. Significantly, the rules state in situations like this that “the student is wholly liable for any costs incurred”.

After that farce, some law schools are believed to have erred on the side of caution. Speaking anonymously to Legal Cheek, one foreign student explained how she wasn’t admitted onto the BPTC by a provider this year despite attaining the required 7.5 IELTS grade because it felt that her writing ability wasn’t up to scratch.

Expect more odd stories to emerge as long as this situation remains unsatisfactorily resolved.

5 Comments

jrs

This sounds all too familiar to anyone who is or has been on the BPTC. Students who can’t speak enough English to get by cause problems for everyone else — and they’re all too common.

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f

The assumption that any seemingly foreign looking person cannot speak English is deeply patronizing and also a little racist, in the polite, happy British way that racism is deeply ingrained.

I am a BPTC student and I cannot count the times when I have been ‘spoken down to’ or spoken to as if I cannot speak English by both tutors and other students. It makes me cringe as I am actually an English born student.

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Dot

I do not understand this. In 2009 I made an enquiry with the European Commission under 226 and I received a response that this requirement was proportionate. Have not heard about any judicial review case concerning this requirement with a preliminary ruling to the ECJ, so how the BSB came to this conclusion. As far as I know this requirement stems from the Wood report, at least to what I have been informed by the BSB board. I was not sure about this conclusion as in this report it was stated that both foreign and domestic students struggle with oral advocacy, so not much justification for this requirement. Unsure about these findings, I contacted the BSB and I was told that this is because of certain comments students and teachers made about English abilities of foreign students. I can understand that certain people are not keen to work with foreigners, fair enough. But I just cannot comprehend why nobody publish any reports in this respect, this to my understanding bar any potential judicial review cases of students who were not able to take the course because of this requirement when it was mandatory. Is this transparent enough?

I understand the commercial reality of this, there are fewer BPTC places than LPC ones, so there is a pressure to give those places to domestic students, but would really appreciate more clarity in this matter.

For me this is not clear enough:
All students for whom English or Welsh is not their first language must demonstrate that they have attained a minimum 7.5 IELTS standard in all sections of the academic test or a TOEFL score of 28 in each section.

Individual Providers may impose additional selection criteria above these minimum requirements, so you should check the prospectus of the places you wish to apply to.

https://www.barstandardsboard.org.uk/qualifying-as-a-barrister/bar-professional-training-course/bptc-frequently-asked-questions/

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Sean

Simple solution – make every student prove they can speak English. Anyone who actually speaks English should have no objection to having to demonstrate this.

There are some dire students in every year (including the infamous “He no do it, he my mate” bail application student from 2011). Foreign students, and domestic students, must be allowed to proceed on merit rather than catering to the sensibilities of those who think it is unfair to impose language requirements on those wishing to become Barristers.

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David

An intake of foreign students is no bad thing on any course at university, including the BPTC and LPC. Non-British students can offer a fresh perspective and it is always healthy for domestic students to interact with people from different cultures.

Nonetheless, surely it is only fair on everyone for there to be a requirement that all students speak English to a high standard? After all, the providers will be marking everyone to the same standard. If a foreign national student has problems with English they will struggle to pass any of the modules on the BPTC, which require a high standard of written and spoken expression.

This mean that individuals will be forking out £11K+ in fees with no hope of obtaining a qualification at the end of the course. In addition, they will be unable to contribute fully in group sessions and may hinder other students who are partnered with them in advocacy exercises. This could potentially affect marks in e.g. the mock advocacy exams, where in a number of providers your partner plays the part of your witness.

At the risk of being provocative, poor English is not confined to foreign nationals, there are a few UK students who would struggle to get the highest marks in the English exams!

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