BPTC students urge regulator to reconsider COVID-19 exam plans

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By Aishah Hussain on

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.”

Read the letter in full:

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