BPTC student raises bias and privacy concerns over exam proctoring

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By Aishah Hussain on

BSB says online exams aren’t ‘discriminatory’ but union have come out in support of students wanting to pursue potential legal action

A student on the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) has raised concerns about privacy and bias with proctored exams.

A number of law schools have moved teaching and assessments online in light of the coronavirus pandemic, with most turning to remote proctoring software to examine students. The Bar Standards Board (BSB) announced in March that the three BPTC centralised assessments will take place under remote online supervision next month.

Writing in The Guardian yesterday, Meg Foulkes, a part-time BPTC student at BPP Holborn, says that companies’ goal, that their technology ensures “integrity” in the examination process, is “laudable” but that the software (the BSB has chosen to go with Pearson VUE which uses “face-matching technology”) can be intrusive and discriminatory.

Foulkes, who manages the Open Knowledge Justice Programme alongside her studies, writes:

“Remote proctoring has been designed for the BSB’s ideal candidate. This white person passes the facial matching checks without a hitch. They don’t have any of the disabilities the BSB tells us to warn the remote proctor of at the beginning of the exam, in case uncontrolled movements flag suspicion.”

“They have a fast internet connection”, she says, “and no dependants on lockdown who will make noise, or have the cash to hire a socially distanced childminder to watch them.” Nor do they have noisy pets, she adds, or they can hire a petsitter. “Oh, and they certainly have a strong bladder, because the system prohibits leaving your computer — for any purpose,” she concludes.

In guidance published by the regulator last month, it was established that students can complete exams remotely, or at a physical test centre if they require “reasonable adjustments”, where they will be permitted to take breaks.

A BSB spokesperson said today:

“The BSB has taken great care to ensure that the arrangements for sitting centralised assessments in August take account of our duties under the Equality Act and we do not believe that the arrangements we are making or the technology we have chosen — a system which has been successfully used by Pearson VUE, who deliver more than 16 million exams around the world every year — are in any way discriminatory.”

They added: “Human invigilators are also involved throughout the online proctoring process.”

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However, barrister members of the Legal Sector Workers United (LSWU), a trade union, have come forward to say that they will back bar students in any potential legal claim for discrimination they may bring against the BSB.

In an open letter (below) published this week, they reference problems with the exam booking system the BSB implemented last month and say they are “deeply concerned” by the treatment of students requiring adjustments in the run-up to the exams. Some were unable to book slots, for example, while others were allocated early morning exams in test centres far away from their homes.

“Let us be clear: this is discrimination. If left unresolved, it will make a mockery of the notion of ‘diversity’ and ‘social mobility’ at the bar — a profession in which disabled people are already vastly underrepresented,” the union writes.

The BSB issued an apology last week and said today that “most students have now booked their exam slots for the August centralised assessments”.

Yet, the LSWU call on the BSB to accommodate students “properly, now and in future”, and to move assessments to an open-book format.

Further, they ask chambers’ pupillage committees to waive requirements for incoming pupils to achieve a certain BPTC grade, and to disregard the grades of prospective candidates in the next application round, particularly at the “paper sift” stage.

The regulator’s decision to move exams online has previously been challenged by students.

In an open letter to the BSB last month, ‘Students Against The BSB Exam Regulations’ (SABER) alleged the new format is “discriminatory” and “unfair”, particularly towards disabled people, women and those with caring responsibilities.

Foulkes told Legal Cheek she is pleased to see the issue is gaining traction. “I very much hope this interest leads to action,” she said.

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