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Anger and confusion as hundreds of students unexpectedly fail the BPTC ethics module

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Exclusive: Litigation is in the air as the Bar Standards Board refuses to review the marks

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Hundreds of wannabe barristers have spent the weekend anxiously scratching their heads after unexpectedly failing the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) ethics module.

The cause of the disastrous results are a series of “short answer questions” that were part of this year’s centrally set ethics exam. Students and at least one senior BPTC academic are claiming that the questions were worded extremely confusingly.

According to documents seen by Legal Cheek, 223 out of 409 of BPP University Law School’s bar students failed the short answer question section of the ethics exam — which results in an automatic fail on the overall ethics paper. Students must pass all modules in order to complete the BPTC.

Students at other BPTC providers are understood to be similarly affected.

The unlucky throng will now face a resit later this summer. Regardless of their performance in that exam, they will be excluded from getting the top grade of ‘Outstanding’ on the course, which is only available to those who pass first time. With a host of star students understood to be among those who flunked the exam, this is said by insiders to be a particular source of anguish.

The average mark on the paper, when the controversial three short answer questions were not counted, was apparently 77%. Yet the Bar Standards Board (BSB) is standing by the exam, issuing this statement this morning:

The First Sit 2015 BPTC Ethics exam was set, marked and moderated in accordance with the same stringent processes which we apply to all centrally assessed BPTC modules. We are confident that this examination, like all of those comprising the centrally assessed modules, was a fair and appropriate assessment.

Legal Cheek understands that a formal request was made to the BSB by BPP to review the marks and intervene prior to their publication on Friday — but that this was refused.

Since the results were announced, an email has been circulating that was sent by BPP BPTC director James Welsh to students that describes the ethics paper short questions as “not a fair assessment instrument”. It states:

There was one particular SAQ where many students thought that the question wanted a discussion of X when in fact the question was seeking a discussion of Y and many students picked up no marks for what were, in our view, relevant responses to an ambiguous question.

The email, which was sent in response to desperate student pleas for help to launch legal action against the BSB, goes on to advise on the taking of legal advice before initiating a judicial review, or any other challenge of the body’s decision not to intervene.

The email continues:

We think what you would be best placed doing would be to represent that no reasonable exam board would fail to adjust the marking in light of the mark profile of this assessment … We have identified a good barrister who specialises in JR in education cases and would take the case on direct access for you if you wanted. This would be a good way of ensuring that your case is very well put, but clearly there would be cost implications.

This isn’t, of course, the first time there have been problems with the BPTC ethics exam. Ominously for those affected by this year’s paper, the 2013 ethics exam featured questions from a past paper that some students had already seen — yet the BSB decided that it was “not invalid”.