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BPTC students urge regulator to reconsider COVID-19 exam plans

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93% of bar hopefuls surveyed believe BSB’s proposals will negatively impact their performance

Students on the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) have called on the regulator to reconsider its proposal to conduct examinations online and without breaks in light of COVID-19.

The ‘Students Against the BSB Exam Regulations’ group (SABER) wrote to the Bar Standards Board (BSB) yesterday alleging the proposed exam format may be “unfair” and “discriminatory”.

“We have concerns about the lack of prior consultation, the ongoing lack of information about the exams and the potentially unfair and discriminatory impact of the current proposals,” the group writes in an open letter (in full below) addressed to the BSB, and which has so far received the backing of over 300 signatories.

The exams are scheduled to take place in August. Last month, the BSB confirmed that the three centralised assessments — civil litigation, criminal litigation and professional ethics — will be delivered online using Pearson VUE’s remote proctoring software. The exams were due to take place in April but were postponed by the regulator a month prior due to the pandemic.

Under the current proposals students with “agreed reasonable adjustments” can sit their exams at a test centre. The rest must take their exams at home, and must do so in a private and quiet room in front of their computers as they will need to be filmed from their webcams for the entire duration. They mustn’t break at any point since moving away from the webcam will result in automatic test termination. Each exam typically lasts between two and a half to three hours.

“The current arrangements for the centralised exams appear to include strict security measures,” the missive continues. “Whilst we accept the need for students to be assessed to a high standard, these measures put those with particular protected characteristics at a disadvantage.”

Specifically, the letter raises issues of the discriminatory impact of the no-breaks policy, which it says would disadvantage women, and requirements for disabled people to travel to a test centre to be granted reasonable adjustments, which may be difficult at this time and may put them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19.

To add leverage to their concerns the group carried out a survey across eight different bar course providers. Of the 335 students that completed the survey, 93% felt that the current arrangements would negatively affect their ability to perform in the exams.

A further 79% of respondents said that they were concerned that their internet might cut out during the course of a continuous video-stream. Three quarters (75%) said that they do not have access to a quiet room which they could guarantee would remain quiet for the full exam period.

The BSB has permitted students to defer their exams until December this year. If they are due to start pupillage in the autumn they can do so before receiving their results provided their chambers is happy for them to do so. Seventy-eight percent of students said deferring their exams until December would cause issues for reasons such as they are due to start a masters or full-time employment around this time, or cost implications.

Further, sixty-one percent of students felt adjustments, if required, would be inadequate.

In order to address these concerns, the students have suggested a move to open book conditions with provision for breaks. A move as such would bring the August exams in line with the administration of most other BPTC exams during the lockdown period and is an approach similar to the solicitor’s Legal Practice Course, SABER argues.

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Margo Munro Kerr, a BPTC student at City Law School and SABER founding member, told Legal Cheek:

“The BSB didn’t consult with students so we conducted a survey ourselves to assess the impact the proposed exam format will have. We hope the results will force the BSB to reconsider their hasty decision to awkwardly transplant the old format of the exams into this new reality. They must tackle the problem head on and design a fair solution. It is unacceptable to instigate a widely discriminatory policy in the name of rigour.”

Katie Louise Baker, a BPTC student at The University of Law, Bloomsbury, added: “There is a lot of talk about improving wellbeing at the bar, but all I see is talk; this is a prime example of not taking into consideration the wellbeing of BPTC students. The BSB’s proposal for the exam format is unnecessary and adds layers of stress to what is already a highly emotive and exhausting process. For someone who already suffers from anxiety, the proposed format fills me with nothing but dread. The BSB must listen to and support the future generation of barristers.”

In response to the concerns a spokesperson for the BSB said:

“Scheduling the exams as computer-based examinations in August means that students can progress as planned to pupillage or other study/employment in the autumn. We know that some BPTC students will be anxious about taking their exams in this way, 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. BPTC providers will be in contact with students shortly to discuss their individual needs with them in the first instance. We are working closely with the BPTC providers and Pearson VUE.”

They 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.”

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29 Comments

Anonymous

It only the BPTC. Those exams are a walk in the park however they are set. If you are worried about how you will do in them, you really do need to reconsider your career choices.

(11)(27)

Bella

Even if they were a walk in the park, which they are not (see the pass rate) does it justify a discriminatory approach?

(27)(8)

Anonymous

It isn’t discriminatory. These students are just whining snowflakes.

(16)(27)

Brown Snowflake

Love the idea that IBS makes you a snowflake

(14)(5)

Anonymous

None of these students have IBS, save at most for a tiny minority.

Those that do are already entitled to reasonable adjustments.

Nothing more is required.

Anonymous

Exactly, 6:55, I bet 95% at least of those moaning have no real reason to object to having sit still and work for three hours. Just whinging snowflakes.

Anonymous

They are a “walk in the park” if you are good enough. The pass rate shows nothing on course filled with the deluded and those with no intention of practising in the UK.

(9)(2)

Me

I reckon I could smash the Bar Course now… or my LLB… or my A Levels… or my GCSEs. These things always seem a lot easier after the event. If it were easy for those who get pupillage, every barrister would have an outstanding on their website profile (they don’t). In any event, it seems the right thing to allow students the best chance to do well rather than putting additional hurdles in their way.

(7)(2)

Anonymous

No one cares about vocational results. They are just there to be suffered. I would never record my “outstanding” on my web-bio, doing so feels a touch desperate.

Anon

I anticipate that many people will consider this as whining but just sit back and think…global pandemic, everything has been turned upside down, loved ones lost and many professions have had to make urgent adjustments so that it does not strain them in a negative way. Now with many colleges and universities, they have eased the previous rules and regulations, they have allowed safety net policies for students, or allowed extra time or changed the method an exam is to be taken…now BSB not only made it hard by keeping the timing relatively the same (usually timing increases), they have said that you can’t eat (usually we can take food into exam room), they won’t allow breaks (usually you can go bathroom), and they will monitor you throughout the exam. The people who don’t have to experience this will consider it whining but to people who has invested a lot of time and effort into the BPTC will be affected. the BSB don’t really care, if a couple of kids can sit the exam in this manner then the BSB will use it as ‘majority of students can sit it so no problem here folks’. Anyways BLM.

(12)(11)

Anonymous

So your complaint is that you have to do a three hour exam without food or going to the loo?

Newsflash, snowflakes. You’re training to enter a profession where you will have to conduct court trials, potentially going three hours (10:00 to 13:00) without food or going to the loo.

If this bothers you, then maybe you’re training for the wrong profession.

(28)(10)

YawnSMH

Agreed. Just some snowflakes whining yawnnn.

(3)(3)

Anonycounsel

It is absolute nonsense to say that barristers cannot go to the toilet during trials. This is another example of the garbage which is talked about the profession which simply serves to put applicants off. You simply ask the Judge for a comfort break. It is as simple as that. You can usually guarantee that the Judge will say yes (even if the timing is awkward). I can only recall hearing about one occasion where a Judge initially said no and their behaviour was universally condemned. I appreciate that the BSB and the providers are doing their best in a difficult situation. But asking students (many of whom will have a pupillage riding on the outcome of the exam) to either (1) fail the exam or (2) soil themselves is completely unreasonable. This is a three-hour exam we are talking about.

(14)(6)

Real Weaklings say ‘Snowflake’

1 in 8 men in the UK over the age of 50 develop prostate cancer, one of the symptoms being frequent urination.

Do people really think that there are no judges/senior counsel with prostate cancer, diabetes, Crohn’s or other conditions that require comfort breaks?

There are some absolute idiots signing up for legal training these days. Fingers crossed they never get anywhere near clients.

(9)(6)

Anonymous

And how many of these students actually have cancer, or Crohn’s disease, or diabetes etc?

At most, a tiny number. Who can be accommodated by reasonable adjustments at test centres.

The rest are just able-bodied snowflakes who apparently have a problem doing what professional people in the real world do all the time.

No

‘Many’ of Bar students affected will not have pupillage. There are approx 1200 upwards Bar students this year, and as you surely know, maybe 300-400 of those will be due to start pupillage if not less. For anyone else, you can sit later in the year. Those with pupillage moaning about needing the loo – go to a Pearson centre. You’ve been accommodated. How did you plan to sit these exams before COVID? Honestly, you just want an easier open book exam when you’ve already had far longer to revise than normal, and it’s so transparent. Stop moaning and get on with it.

(8)(2)

Former Student

Nobody has a pupillage riding on the outcome of taking the exam in August. Everyone with a pupillage is able to take the exam in December and start their pupillage on time.

(4)(0)

*sigh*

Incorrect. You need to be able to have a practising certificate for your second six. To do that, you have to have exam results. A December sit may not be marked in time to obtain your practising certificate for your second six. No one I know who is starting pupillage in Sept (which I am) would dream of deferring too December.

Current Student

I’m not sure if conducting trials is an appropriate analogy. I have represented clients before the tribunal and participated in mock trials, and didn’t take a break while those were ongoing.

Think of a time when you were doing work in chambers, rushing a deadline. You’re not allowed to visit the bathroom. Not allowed to make notes on paper. Oh and if you leave your computer for any reason you’re fired.

(1)(3)

Anonymous

Well said!

(0)(0)

Anonymous

The summary of their position seems

1. The remote exams, even with reasonable adjustments to acknowledge additional needs, will not be fair.

2. Deferring the exam until December will not be fair.

3. Requiring physical attendance at a test centre during pandemic will not be fair.

I’m sorry, but what options are left? None! It either takes place now remotely and with adjustments as necessary for individual candidates or it takes place at another time

(15)(5)

Anonymous

Having read their moans, the BSB should knock 30 mins of the exam length. That would shut the up. They exams have way too much time allocated to them anyway.

(5)(2)

Hmm

I know one barrister who was allocated 5 hours to type his opinion writing exam, owing to an educational psychologist report from when he was aged 6.

Funny how they can use a pen when a client is paying them to do so in court.

(4)(2)

anon

Is it true Alex and Tom make more than top commercial silks these days?

(3)(0)

Concerned

This is typical of the BSB. Totally overpaid and under delivering as usual! There are some really important issues here and they just stay in their ivory tower and ignore the voices of reason and fairness.

(21)(4)

Former Student

Where to begin? I say all of this as someone who thinks the exams should be open book but acknowledges the reality that you can’t make a closed book exam, open book and say that it has parity with any other sit.

335 students out of the 1600 (approx) who take the course each year.

Nothing to demonstrate that the 335 are representative of the views of the entire cohort so no, we can’t use them as a sample and say 93% of Bar Course students feel it will negatively impact them.

Did anyone read the survey? For a group of people who want to make a living out of asking questions they were leading in the extreme. The questions wouldn’t even begin to have the appearance of a balanced survey.

The pretence that open book exams are the only answer is patent nonsense. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that open book will make what are challenging exams, far easier. They aren’t challenging intellectually, but they are challenging from the point of view that you have to remember vast amounts of two books. Is that a good test? No, it’s absurd but it is the way the exams have been written.

‘Students must take their exams’ – No, no no. They are not obligated to take these exams. The BSB are letting them defer. There is a big difference between obligating people to take an exam and it being an opportunity to take a sit.

Are you a current student reading this thinking ‘You don’t care because it doesn’t affect you?’ – I care about there actually being a consistent standard. Where is your care for the student who failed the course last August but could have passed an open book exam?

If and only if the BSB had said it was sit for three hours at your computer, nothing else and if you don’t take the exam, you can’t start pupillage, I’d be waving a placard on High Holborn with the rest of you. Well, a placard on Zoom.

But they are providing other options which offer an alternative way of sitting (or not as the case may be) including not being obligated to take the exam. Whether it’s your intention or just a happy accident, a remedy that makes the exam easier is (a) not going to happen and (b) undermines your argument.

(3)(1)

Current Student

Personally I wouldn’t mind if the exams were still closed book, but not being allowed to visit the bathroom seems draconian and ridiculous. Also, I like to scribble and work out solutions on paper (e.g. to work out Part 36 offers etc.), but this is also not allowed. The open book format was proposed by students, I believe, to address the BSB’s concerns on cheating.

I do want a fair assessment. I do not wish to have paid 18k to gain a worthless BPTC qualification.

BSB exams aside, I have been doing online advocacy exams in lockdown, and I worry that I have not been performing well in this format. Students have the ‘choice’ of (i) taking advocacy exams now in lockdown conditions (while mental health is declining) or (ii) take them later but studies show, we’re told by our providers, that performance dips when you take them later. Course providers have not provided a safety net policy with regard to our grades, as this is not permitted by the BSB. Before lockdown, I scored 2 Outstandings and 1 Very Competent. I’m not sure what my lockdown grades will look like.

It seems that the ground is continually shifting for our cohort.

So the question is – what is fair for this year’s students?

(3)(1)

BSB not fit for purpose

This is just crying out for a major re-think.

(4)(0)

Anonymous

Yes, there needs to be a cull of who gets onto the BPTC course if so many of them lack basic resilience.

(4)(2)

Comments are closed.

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