Having just sat the Bar Course Aptitude Test (BCAT) — which must be taken by 31 July for entry to Bar school this year — wannabe barrister Amjad Iqbal finds himself little wiser about his chances of pupillage success, and £150 poorer…
So how difficult is it to pass the BCAT? Honestly, not very. The test — which comprises 60 multiple choice questions — has a pass mark that has deliberately been set quite low so that only the weakest candidates would fail. Anybody with a bit of common sense can answer most of the questions. And in the unlikely event that they get them wrong, candidates can retake the test an unlimited number of times.
Here’s an example of a practice question…
If you have been awarded a 2:1 in law you are not going to fail this test…
Accordingly, having very recently taken the BCAT in preparation to start the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) in September, I can say with confidence that it will not be enough to stop weaker candidates from spending a huge amount of money pursuing the blind hope that they can make it as a barrister.
In reality, what the BCAT means is having to pay an additional £150 on top of Bar fees, Inns of Court fees, BPTC application fees and up to £17,350 in BPTC tuition fees (not to mention accommodation and living expenses).
Don’t believe me? Try this practice test for yourself. It takes around 40 minutes to complete.
The weakness of the BCAT leaves prospective barristers in a difficult position, with little, if any, assistance in helping them to decide whether the BPTC is a risk worth taking. Like every Bar aspirant I am aware of how hard it is to qualify as a barrister. I am aware of the risk of incurring huge debts and spending years making pupillage applications. And I know the alarming statistic that every year somewhere between 1600-1800 students take the BPTC, with just 450 (and falling) pupillages available at the end of it — some of which will go to the enormous backlog of past BPTC graduates.
I applied for pupillage for the first time this year. I have a 2:1 from a good university, all the required extra curriculars and some pretty impressive experience. I even passed the BCAT. You would think that I would be a strong candidate, but no. As of yet, I have received little interest, and in my inquiries I have found that chambers are unable to provide any feedback as some receive in excess of 300 applications for a single pupillage.
Personally, I am committed as ever to a life at the Bar and will commence the BPTC in September. But for many it would certainly have been helpful to have an aptitude test that gave them a genuine chance to assess their potential.
It’s now too late for the incoming BPTC class of 2013-2014, but I think most students in my position would like to see a solution to this mess. My view is that the only way forward is to cap BPTC numbers. Then I would have BPTC providers, which are best placed to assess a candidate’s strengths, decide who they admit to the course. At this point figures from each institution could be published to show the success rate of their graduates obtaining pupillage.
This course of action would be unpopular among law schools (who make healthy profits from the BPTC), but something major needs to be done to change a situation that is unfair on students.
Amjad Iqbal will start the BPTC at Manchester Metropolitan University in September, having graduated in law from Hull University in 2012. He is currently working at the European Parliament.