Comment

Bar regulator’s COVID-19 exam proposals could prejudice female students

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Former BPTC student and future barrister Sarah Ismail considers why

In March 2020, the Bar Standards Board (BSB) confirmed that, in light of the government guidance issued due to the coronavirus pandemic, the three centralised exams on the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) would not go ahead as planned.

They have since informed students of how they plan to move forward with the sitting of these exams.

Students with “agreed reasonable adjustments” may be able to sit their exams at a test centre. The rest must sit their exams at home using software that will provide remote invigilation through session monitoring, browser lockdown and recordings. The BSB has confirmed that these students will not be allowed breaks, including toilet breaks, for the duration. If any third party is detected or overheard in any manner through movement or noise, the test will be terminated and the student will not receive any score.

If students do not believe that they can sit each exam in these circumstances, they must wait until December, which will delay their call to the bar.

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At best, it can be argued that the proposals present an undesirable, yet halfway workable solution for some students. However, for many students, these proposals pose legitimate cause for concern. They also give rise to an inherent prejudice against female students, as the regulator has failed to consider:

• That women are more likely to be single parents to babies/toddlers/small children and cannot call on childminders or family members to babysit whilst social distancing guidelines apply.
• That those who menstruate must exercise fastidious personal hygiene as they are at risk of infection, or worse, toxic shock syndrome.
• The needs of pregnant women who experience frequent urination.
• That urinary tract infections and incontinence are more common in females.

It is unfortunate that the BSB do not appear to have considered these issues whilst drafting their proposals, not least because the percentage of female BPTC students has increased year-on-year, to the point where they now fill the majority of seats. As a profession, we cannot pride ourselves on social inclusion if we do not try our best to achieve basic gender parity at entry level.


In response to Ismail’s concerns the BSB said: “We know that some BPTC students will be anxious about taking computer-based exams this year and, since we have had to change the way in which the exams are delivered, we have asked the BPTC providers to conduct an urgent reassessment of their students’ needs. Your BPTC provider will be in contact with you shortly and you should discuss your individual needs with them in the first instance. We are working very closely with the BPTC providers and Pearson VUE [online proctoring system that will deliver the exams].”

It continued:

“We are very conscious of the need to ensure that the arrangements we have made are fair for everyone and we are committed to working with relevant experts, providers and others as we prepare to deliver the exams, in line with the Public Sector Equality Duty and our duty to make reasonable adjustments and our wider commitment to accessibility. We will also be publishing further guidance for students around these issues shortly.”

Sarah Ismail is a former BPTC student and future pupil barrister.

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