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.

Secure your place: The UK Virtual Law Fair Series 2020

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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58 Comments

Anonymous

Christ, a new depth has been plunged. Wah, wah, effin wah.

Court sits for 3 hours without a break. No one ever died of toxic shock because of it.

(61)(11)

A. Student

Have you ever had to sit in court for three hours working rapidly in the August heat unable to drink water because if you do you may need to pee and fail an exam?

Or not be able to drink coffee on the morning of some of your biggest assessments because you may need to you the bathroom and thus fail and forfeit a career and 20k?

Then to repeat that gauntlet three times in one week?

Didn’t think so, so hush up.

(PS what the above does not mention is taking paper notes in exam on rough paper is an automatic fail. Another FU as we are often taught to diagram problems out for civil lit.)

(20)(24)

anon

You think Court rooms aren’t swelteringly hot and that you can just skip out because you need to take a piss. How have law students become such pussies in the space of 10 years.

(13)(8)

Anonymous

Bollocks, if you are absolutely bursting and can’t hold it you can ask for a comfort break without AUTOMATICALLY LOSING THE CASE

(12)(1)

Huhhh duhh

And how many times have you seen Counsel run that one fucko?

Anonymous

Lots of times shit head

Anonymous

“Biggest assessments”? It’s just the BPTC exams. They are basically colour by number exams.

(3)(1)

Rubyshire

Really? Just really.

(10)(3)

Anon

Does anyone know how long bar exams are??
I’m a future trainee so not clued you on bar.

(2)(2)

Anonymous

From this story you would think the answer was several weeks.

(2)(1)

Urgh

Thank you Sarah.

Funny how many of the people laughing here forget that they too may become ill and experience the bladder issues that come with diabetes, Crohn’s or certain cancers.

The BSB, as ever, assuming that successful bar students are males in the peak of physical health.

(41)(9)

Come on....

The BSB are not assuming anything. You are.

They are trying to put in place the fairest procedure possible. Of course there will be issues, but then again C-19 is an issue.

(6)(5)

Anonymous

Interesting how you just assume that no man might have childcaring responsibilities, even if they are in the peak of physical health.

(8)(5)

Fit Nanny

Believe me, if they make it at the Bar, they’ll make sure the childcare comes down to anyone else but them.

(12)(2)

Anonymous

It is absolutely ridiculous how students aren’t even allowed a single toilet break in a THREE hour exam. The measures taken have been draconian and highly unfortunate.

(25)(1)

Diversity is not just important, it is imperative

The BSB needs to seriously re-think this.

(7)(4)

Bob

Real or parody?

(2)(0)

Anonymous

Depends on whether the writer was a spineless victim-mentality moaner or someone with the sort of resilience needed to make it in the profession.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Just for context on these extreme measures. When I was doing the BPTC, we were told the course had the highest rates of expulsion for cheating of any university course in the country. In such circumstances its hard to think of what the better alternative would be.

(1)(1)

Anonymous

Absolutely incredible that people would pay £18k to cheat at the BPTC and get expelled for it. ‘Intelligence’ and ‘good judgement’ my arse, and I bet people have got away with it too.

Can the Inns kick students out for cheating? Has anyone ever got pupillage after cheating on the BPTC? Why isn’t this more widely discussed?

(6)(0)

Anonymous

Exactly. The course is full of hopeless wannabees who want the title and will cheat for it. The exams themselves are far too easy as it is anyway, they are embarrassingly simple and the social justice warriors keep wanting to dumb them down more and more.

(2)(1)

Just Anonymous

Doesn’t this simple point undermine much, if not all, of this complaint:

“Students with “agreed reasonable adjustments” may be able to sit their exams at a test centre.”

If, for example, a student has a urinary tract infection, I think that probably qualifies as deserving of reasonable adjustments.

Also, I sympathise with the point that these conditions may pose difficulties for students with childcare responsibilities. However, the reality is that an exam must be done, and however it is done, you will necessarily be separated from your child for that time. That is reality and I don’t see a way around it. (If I am wrong and there is a way around it, then please correct me.)

Also, I dislike gender being brought into this discussion unecessarily. Some complaints are sex-specific (ie, pregnancy and menstruation). However, as to the remaining complaints, if these conditions are wrong, they are wrong because they unfairly prejudice students with childcare responsibilities/urinary tract infections/incontinence etc. It may be that the majority of these students are female, but that fact is irrelevant. Any prejudice would be just as real and just as significant – and thus just as worthy of correction – if the majority of those students were men.

(27)(8)

Please just use your evaluative judgement

This could force people to have to travel for possibly hours on public transport in the Covid-crisis becuase they are unfortunate enough to have a urinary problem or childcare issues (which won’t magically go away by the way).

This just needs to be revised to make it fair, appropriate and not put people at risk.

(10)(9)

Just Anonymous

There is no such thing as perfection.

Any system has potential flaws and problems. Even without the particular problems posed by covid-19.

All you’re doing now is highlighting the ways a system could go wrong (without evidence that it actually has gone wrong for anyone) and then demanding perfection. Without offering any practical ideas or solutions yourself.

That is not a helpful way to proceed.

(18)(5)

Trainee solicitor

Yeah, I don’t understand why Sarah immediately jumped to the conclusion that the issues she points out would not qualify for reasonable adjustments.

It seems like there is part of both professions which always jumps to take a contrarian position on whatever the regulator does. Do they think this makes them seem smart or insightful? Isn’t part of the value of the independent bar that they are better placed to step back from a situation and see where the solicitor and/or client is jumping to unfounded conclusions?

(6)(5)

Anon

The problem witH UTIs is they can easily come on the morning of an exam, while certain individuals may be more prone to them, they can happen to anyone.

If a menstruating individual cannot change their sanitary products in a period of 3hrs and develops an infection in one exam. This may impact the exam they are due to sit later in the week. It’s increasing the risk of these problems for those people.

The single parent issue I believe would be covered by the reasonable adjustments.

(6)(2)

Cranberry juice a-gogo

To ‘Just Anonymous’ – you mention UTIs and then say that the BSB is taking a reasonable position by saying that “Students with “agreed reasonable adjustments” may be able to sit their exams at a test centre.”

The problem is that agreed reasonable adjustments have to be applied for way in advance of the exams.

Anyone who has ever had a UTI (and some women get them very regularly) knows that you don’t get a month’s notice. It is not fair to expect anyone to sit through a 3-hour exam in pain and/or severely distracted by physical discomfort because they didn’t give the BSB or their Bar provider sufficient warning. The same goes for any unexpected ailment or infection or source of pain (and not just menstruation).

(3)(1)

Anon

My reading of this is reasonable adjustments already agreed in advance, for example – extra time for sensory impairments or similar. That wouldn’t cover those with childcare responsibilities or UTIs.

(1)(0)

Chopper

OK, so a problem has been identified. But what about a solution? The BSB have legitimate concerns about proper invigilation, and given the situation they’re making a pretty good go of it. This article’s only function is to antagonise.

(6)(1)

Concerned

I do not think it is for a journalist to regulate. They have made the points very fairly. It is for the BSB to engage constructively and to re-think these unfair and discriminatory proposals

(10)(5)

What the BSB might say

We’ve thought about it, and we can’t see any practical way to make things better. We currently consider this the best we can do in these difficult circumstances.

Do you have any proposals or suggestions you would like to make for our consideration?

(4)(1)

Former Student

I am no fan of the BSB but it strikes me that they had two options here, either cancel the August sit as they did April, or come up with a way that people could sit the exams acknowledging that they couldn’t make it work for everyone.

There isn’t a magic option three that makes it work for everyone. You can have people taking toilet breaks in an exam hall because there is control. You know where someone is going and that they don’t have notes secreted around their own bathroom or anywhere else in their house. You don’t have that when people are in their own home.

You can’t just magically make these exams open book. They rely (wrongly I think) on people rote learning huge amounts of the White Book and Blackstones. If they had access to them you’d either have to make the pass mark so incredibly high or just let everyone pass which would make this sitting an anomaly. Could they write open book exams? Yes, but it would take a fundamental policy shift plus a re-writing all of the questions. Should they do that? Of course they should but it’s folly to think they can in a couple of months.

Added to that, people are being allowed to start pupillage without taking these exams as long as they sit and pass in December so that they can get called before their 2nd six.

Fascinating to see how many people are suddenly so gung ho to take these exams now. When I did the course, a large proportion of the cohort found ways to defer their sit. Much like the people who have bleated about lockdown and the inability to go out and do exercise that they didn’t do before.

These exams have high failure rates and should never have been closed book in the first place. But they are. The idea that one sit will suddenly become open book just won’t happen and the sooner BPTC students face that, the better.

I couldn’t sit still for 3 hours and would defer to December. The rules on no breaks or other voices are a nonsense but I would not be forced to take this sit. If I was in the tiny proportion with a pupillage, I would still be able to start.

(9)(2)

Just curious

You said that you wouldn’t be able to sit still for 3 hours if you had to take the exams at this time. What did you normally do during a 3-hour exam when you were a student? Would you go to the loo just for the chance to stretch your legs?

(0)(0)

Love a pee break

I do exactly this. One piss per exam, little luxuries

(0)(0)

Former Student

I’d go to the toilet as I was permitted. That was possible because the exam hall and adjoining toilets were a regulated environment, unlike my own home.

(0)(0)

Anon

But they are becoming open book from next year

(0)(1)

Former Student

It’s not that simple. In short, none of the existing questions will be used in the one open book civil paper.

From September 2020 Ethics will cease to be centrally set for new students and the Universities will set their own exam. Those who are taking BPTC resits will still have to do the closed book Ethics exam.

Civil for new students will combine Civil as is plus dispute resolution. One will be open book, one will be closed book. The open book exam will not use any of the existing questions. The closed book exam will use the existing questions.

Crime remains the same closed book exam.

All of this is on the BSB site.

(0)(0)

Yawnnn

The Bar exam is easy now. Just because you snowflakes..

(0)(0)

Bob

It is much easier for women to catheterise themselves than men. Discrimination!

(16)(2)

Concerned of Bury St Edmunds

Why not add a 5 minute toilet break in the middle? Split the exam in half. 50% of questions available to answer in the first half and 50% in second half. And give 5 minutes reading time at the start of each half (to allay fears of those that like to skim through the paper in first few minutes). Sorted.

(32)(0)

Voice of reason

And I bet ‘Concerned of Bury’ is not paid £100,000’s to devise such a simple and sensible solution (which those that are apparently could NOT)!

(13)(0)

Anon

Wow, just when you thought you had hit rock bottom…

(1)(0)

tommy

Rock on Tommy!

(0)(4)

Eternally Outraged

With the greatest of respect, if you cannot handle these exam conditions, you will struggle at the bar.

Judges will not give you regular comfort breaks, nor do they allow you to bring your children into court. Many female barristers will be familiar with the (literal) pain of a long day on your feet whilst menstruating, but plan accordingly and you get through it.

As others have commented, if you have a genuine need for reasonable adjustments, ask for them. Alternatively, defer your sitting of the exam. But whatever you do, please go into the profession with realistic expectations – three hours without a break / chance to check in on your children etc = an accurate representation of what day-to-day life is like in this profession.

(8)(3)

Hmmmm

1 in 8 men in the UK over the age of 60 develop prostate cancer.

I’m going to conclude that this figure presently includes a number of senior counsel and judges.

Are you really telling me that being unable to wait three hours for the loo destroys any chance of a person being able to earn an income at the Bar?

(6)(0)

Fair Comment But...

In theory you’re right. Sometimes you just have to plan ahead and crack on. It’s about being a professional.

However, I have seen hearings where counsel had contacted the judge in advance to request semi-regular 5-minute breaks (presumably for a health reason). Similarly, if a barrister thought they were about to faint due to pain (caused by menstruation or anything else) and asked for a “comfort break”, the judge wouldn’t throw a tantrum and decide for the other side on the spot.

The difference with the Bar exams this summer, is that students risk an automatic fail because a computer cannot make on-the-spot fair adjustments or grant momentary respite if the student is in extremis.

Imagine you have food poisoning or morning sickness. You can soldier through, but you may have to vomit at a moment’s notice. You fail the exam automatically if you disappear off camera. So what is the BSB’s position on your vomiting into a bucket on-camera and then continuing the exam?

(I imagine that they’d probably still fail you unless the bucket were transparent and you remembered to show the camera that you had no crib notes at the bottom of it…)

(1)(0)

Anonymous

In the interests of balance it would be good to see an article highlighting a prejudice against male students.

(5)(4)

Anonymous

I’m harassed having to read that moaning shite.

(1)(1)

Huhhh duhh

And how many times have you seen Counsel run that one fucko?

(2)(1)

Anonymous

It is only BPTC exams. They are embarrassingly easy.

(1)(1)

AFemailWhoRecentlySatA6HourExam

I would imagine if you were vomiting every 5 minutes you would postpone the exam (exactly as you would in an exam hall sitting) as the time constraints would make it unlikely you pass!

(0)(0)

LPC Student

BPP’s LPC exams have been made open book.
Every student gets 25% extra time to account for technical problems with the software.
Bathrooms can be used exactly as they would be during an exam.
Failing results in a resit treated as a first-attempt.
Grades will be uplifted if this year’s average is below last year’s average.

I never thought I’d say this, but bless the SRA.

(4)(1)

Bored

Yes, the situation for LPC students is good!

The BSB has said that the key difference between LPC exams and BPTC is that the SRA doesn’t “set” or mark a single LPC exam; it’s all up to the LPC providers. Conversely, the BSB sets and marks three BPTC exams: Civil Procedure, Criminal Procedure and Professional Ethics. These are the three exams rescheduled for August that will be taken via online proctoring.

It seems very odd to me that the SRA doesn’t set any exams whilst the BSB does (and vice versa). But there we are

(1)(1)

LPC Student

That’s interesting. It seems splitting off provision (marking) and approval had the effect of leaving the SRA with the options of cooperating with providers or going nuclear and vetoing proposals for specific exams. For example, there was a lot of wrangling over both Professionalism & Ethics and Solicitors’ Accounts. I can’t think that the SRA are simply softer than the BSB so presumably the providers actually stood their ground in students’ favour?

Again, I never thought I’d say this, but bless BPP.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

I stopped reading at “They also give rise to an inherent prejudice against female students, as the regulator has failed to consider”. I take it the rest was wittering bollocks?

(6)(3)

Bob

It was, but probably even worse than you might have thought.

(1)(0)

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