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Bar Council brands BSB aptitude pass mark rise ‘inadequate’

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Bar’s regulator and representative body in stand-off over BPTC entrance exam

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The Bar Council has said that changes to the Bar Course Aptitude Test (BCAT), which include raising the pass mark to filter out weaker wannabe candidates, do not go far enough.

Yesterday, the Bar Standards Board (BSB) confirmed a number of changes to the BCAT, including upping the pass mark by eight points, from 37 to 45 points.

With the rise coming into force in 2017 — pending Legal Services Board approval — the BSB argues that the change would ensure weaker candidates don’t start a course they might well fail.

However, the Bar Council has now waded into the debate, branding the rise as “inadequate”. Clashing with the BSB, the bar representative’s policy analyst, Alex Cisneros, suggested that more needed to be done.

To act as an effective “gatekeeping function”, Cisneros argues in favour of a pass mark that would go one step further, and “filter out students who have no reasonable prospect of obtaining pupillage or practising as a barrister”.

Echoing the sentiments of Cisneros, Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC, chairman of the bar, also argued in favour of raising the, er, bar. Citing the high number of BPTC graduates who have little or no hope of securing pupillage, she said:

One of the messages I hear consistently on circuit visits is that the system is producing large numbers of applicants who have little or no prospect of obtaining pupillage or practising as a barrister. These arrangements build false hope for too many students at too high a cost.

Further changes unveiled by the BSB yesterday included students being provided with an actual assessment score, not just a pass or fail indicator. This, according to the regulator, will allow aspiring barristers to gauge how well they will perform on the BPTC.

The aptitude test, that costs already cash-strapped students £150 a pop, has been met with fierce criticism since its introduction in 2013. Many students have suggested the exam is almost impossible to fail, and simply another excuse to squeeze yet more cash from those pursuing a career at the bar.

In light of the changes, it appears public opinion hasn’t changed. When announced on Legal Cheek yesterday, news of the pass mark rise was met with a wave negative comments.

One reader described the entire set up as a “scandal”, while another pointed out that the BCAT — that re-opens on 4 April — is also the deadline for accepting first round offers from several BPTC providers. Continuing, they said:

I am being asked to pay £150 for a test in order to make an informed decision on whether to proceed with a course I’ll have already put down hundreds of pounds for in deposit. In what world does this make sense?

BSB director of education and training Dr Simon Thornton-Wood told Legal Cheek:

The BCAT is an excellent indicator of how well a student is likely to do on the BPTC, and we are now making the score available to students so they can make an informed decision as to whether they want to proceed to the BPTC. More than 70 per cent of students in previous years took the BCAT in April or even later, which makes this year’s timing not significantly different from previous years.

He continued:

The BSB does not control the number of pupillages available, nor can we restrict how many places universities offer on the BPTC — subject to providers meeting minimum resourcing criteria, we are obliged to leave the number of places on offer to the market.

Previously:

Aptitude test pass mark raised to ‘exclude’ weaker wannabe barristers [Legal Cheek]