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Bar exam bosses apologise for last summer’s chaos after damning independent review

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Outside experts heavily critical of online set-up that left some students locked out and others urinating in bottles and buckets

Organisers of last summer’s chaotic bar exams have issued grovelling apologies after the findings of an independent review were released today.

The Bar Standards Board (BSB) and Pearson VUE were inundated with complaints by distressed candidates trying to sit their Bar Professional Training Course exams in August 2020. Issues reported at the time included students being unable to book an exam slot, being locked out of the online system on the day and having to urinate in bottles and buckets because no breaks were allowed.

The review by two outside experts has now substantiated many of the complaints, with both organisations coming in for heavy criticism.

It found that there was no one cause of the exam chaos, but rather a “perfect storm” of challenges and screw-ups.

The BSB has apologised, welcomed the review’s recommendations and published an action plan for improvements. Pearson VUE has also issued an apology.

The exams in question were the three centralised asssessments in ethics, criminal litigation and civil litigation. Originally due to take place in April 2020, the onset of the pandemic meant that they were rescheduled for August 2020 and largely took place online, except for candidates who needed reasonable adjustments.

After widespread complaints about how it all went down, top boffins Professor Rebecca Huxley-Binns and Dr Sarabajaya Kumar were commissioned to investigate. They delivered their report in March 2021 and it was published today.

The duo concluded that the BSB was right to move the exams online and acknowledged that the pandemic made life difficult for all concerned.

Two decisions turned out to be crucial: sticking with closed-book exams and not allowing unsupervised breaks. This lack of flexibility meant that when things went wrong, they went really wrong.

Take the students who were unable to use the toilet during the exams. Technical glitches meant that instead of being sat in front of their computer for a manageable period, they were there for four or five hours. BSB Director General Mark Neale told the review:

“I am sorry that we did not provide for a break in the examinations to enable students sitting the examinations at home to move away from their desks for a short period. I do not believe the lack of a break would have mattered had all the students who wanted to been able to book a place at a testing centre and had all the examinations started promptly. It’s not unusual in many aspects of professional and personal life to have to manage three hours without a break. But the lack of a break clearly did put unnecessary pressure on some students, especially when there were also severe delays in signing in. Avoiding the pressure and indignity that resulted would have been worth the extra administration and cost.”

The review slates Pearson VUE on several fronts. On the exam bookings, “it is clear that the Pearson VUE booking system was chaotic. The combination of a lack of capacity and trained staff, together with the change from a telephone to an email booking system, led to unnecessary distress and considerable anxiety among the candidate cohort, and especially for those requiring reasonable adjustments, who were further disadvantaged”.

The company blamed candidates for problems logging on to the online exam platform. But Huxley-Binns and Kumar aren’t buying it. They quote the head of IT at Gray’s Inn, who personally checked the internet settings of several students and concluded that “the technical failure was with the online platform itself.”

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Evidence of widespread tech issues was met with “surprise and denial” and an “apparent lack of interest in finding out what could have caused the problems”.

As the BSB struggled to work out what was going on, the stats that came back were less than helpful. In response to the question “of the 828 people due to complete exams on Tuesday and Wednesday [11 and 12 August] how many actually did so?”, Pearson VUE replied:

“The exams scheduled to be taken on Tuesday and Wednesday = 830 — 23 candidates ( all OP ) our records are showing without a result being received so 807 exams were taken, the 23 affected exams happened during yesterday. The 98 cases raised so far relates to OP & test centre deliveries and this number will increase and decrease as the events continue — should these case figures be used to calculate the stat’s for delivered exams or success rates, as some of these cases can be for informational purposes, its the 23 candidates that couldn’t start or complete their exams that require investigation.”

BSB bosses described this response as “utterly baffling”.

Nevertheless, the regulator issued a notorious statement on 14 August claiming that “89% of our exams have been delivered without any reported incident and 97% of exams have been successfully completed in all”. The BSB now admits that only 75% of all exams taken over the period were completed.

Chair Tessa Blackstone said: “I should like to apologise again to all those students who faced difficulties completing their exams last August. The BSB had to move from pen and paper based assessments delivered by training providers to arrange computer based assessments in a very short period of time in the middle of a global pandemic. Ordinarily such a change would have taken at least 12 months to plan and to pilot. I am pleased that the report finds that the BSB was right to seek to offer computer based assessments and right to contract with Pearson VUE to deliver the exams, including to run remote proctoring for the students sitting the exams online and to book testing centre spaces for students unable to take the exams remotely.”

A spokesperson for Pearson VUE told Legal Cheek:

“Pearson VUE fully supports the ‘Independent Review of the Bar Standard Board’s management of the August 2020 sittings of the Centralised Examinations’. The in-depth findings appropriately bring attention to areas where Pearson VUE did not fully meet the expectations of the BSB or its candidate cohort. Pearson VUE is deeply sorry for any stress and frustration experienced by BSB candidates.”

The continued: “As indicated within the review, our global test delivery operations were challenged throughout 2020 due to the conditions of the pandemic; test centre closures and social distancing requirements (as mandated by local governments) limited test appointment availability. Complex arrangements and quick decisions were made by both the BSB and Pearson VUE in difficult circumstances. As a result, aspects of our handling and communications fell short.”

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19 Comments

Archibald Pomp O'City

Urinating in bottles? Good legal practice starts with good toileting habits. If today’s students didn’t act as though they lived in a blocked gutter, then perhaps they will become tomorrow’s lawyers.

(4)(56)

Ew.

Pretending to be a cynical wise guy is getting old. Drop the act.

(65)(0)

dude you just posted cringe

🤢

(3)(0)

Jane

At least our family’s ability to urinate anywhere might come in handy one day – out on expeditions in huge forests as teenagers, naked swimming as a family etc – never knew that would be so useful.

(2)(0)

Shambolic - You Have The Right To Be Livid

I feel so much sympathy for what these students went through.

It’s absolutely awful that it’s taken an independent report to finally shame the course providers into doing something. £18k+ for what exactly???

Grow up about the bottles – as if any barrister practicing now would have thought that the perfectly acceptable thing to do, or would want their children doing the same for their BPTC.

(57)(2)

A bar course student

Have you read the report? The providers get lots of things utterly wrong but this was the BSB. They ran the exam, not the providers. The report even details how the BSB were telling students one thing and providers another. My provider ran the exams themselves online last month and nobody had to go in a bottle as far as I know.

(5)(0)

Anonymous

Reading between the lines, the review highlights how at risk the BSB is of successful legal challenge regarding the public sector equality duty and data protection law. They highlight the independence of the report, which is a good thing, but I found the sections on the BSB’s own failures to give proper regard to equality and data issues shocking. These issues, as well as the BSB’s failure to agree a proper contract for the exams and follow basic principles of project management, suggest a degree of incompetence which can’t be delegated to Pearson Vue. Given that our regulator is itself regulated against a set of statutory objectives, I would be interested to know what the Legal Services Board thinks of the report and what powers it has to take action in response.

(38)(0)

Touker

Pay cuts or dismissals of these overpaid shysters and partial refunds for affected students should be the MINIMUM remedies given. These apologies are empty considering how often these types of errors keep happening

(14)(0)

BIRDSEEER

For those wondering about how breaks could have been done better…

1. Create a ‘I’m taking a break’ button on the top right of the screen. Once the candidate has clicked it, they get a ‘reasonable time’ (say, 3-5 minutes) during which they can go off-screen. You can add a ‘green light’ system where an examiner has to approve the request but the BSB tried that and it ended in tears.
2. Make the exams open book and adjust the difficulty of the questions accordingly. Let people take as many breaks as they want, within reason. Not much to fear if the candidate has access to all of the notes and statutes they need anyway. The only risk is that they’ll have a mobile device stashed in the bathroom, but, really, how much useful information can you obtain in the space of a few minutes on your phone?
3. Allow candidates to announce that they are taking a break and require that they explain the reason for it. Flag all of these instances automatically (e.g. through voice recognition). Get a human to go through some or all of these instances.

Here, it seems like students faced a badly-thought out policy (no breaks, period) combined with bad IT and a bunch of other HUMAN ERRORS. This screwup was by no means inevitable.

(8)(0)

Lived to tell the tale

In a world where candidates are allowed to leave exam halls to go the loo, it was always absurd that the BSB banned unsupervised breaks during proctored exams.

(6)(0)

Lucien

I imagine it’s more problematic when the break is in an uncontrolled environment.

Exam centres can be reasonably sure a student hasn’t covered a toilet cubicle with revision notes in their own buildings. Not so much in students’ own homes.

Closed book exams are based on the idea that no one has access to the course materials during their exam.

The sensible solution would have been to convert to open book exams and allow as many breaks as needed.

(3)(0)

Bazza

I remember certain comments on here when the students were trying to make their voices heard. Hopefully they’ll now be eating humble pie since it turns out they were right.

(9)(1)

Anon

A mistake in the middle of an extraordinary situation. It’s understandable. Not a big deal as students could have attended the exam in person. The number truly affected by medical issues will be a tiny fraction of the number online moaners most of whom had nothing to gripe about really.

(1)(8)

Anonymous

You clearly haven’t read the report and your “tiny fraction” comment is ignorant. It only takes one person to mount a successful legal challenge on the grounds of discrimination. Had you read the report, you would know that far more than one person was adversely impacted by the actions and inactions of the BSB, at a critical and expensive stage of their career. Educate yourself before you comment. Failing that, stay in your cave.

(7)(1)

Anon

Yes, I read the report, though god it droned on far too much. Nothing seemed that big a deal. People need to accept we were and still are in a unique situation and things go wrong. 90% of those doing the exam and moaning either need to grow up adapt to adversity or they really need to think about their career choices.

(1)(6)

LOL

If you think barristers never ‘moan’ and fully adapt to ‘adversity’, you’re going to get quite a fright if you follow some of their Twitter accounts.

*shudders*

(3)(0)

dude you just posted cringe

Oh god, we have another internet hardo with a bladder of steel. Ladies, please pay more attention to Anon, he’s such a strong and adaptable individual. So strong that he needs to flex his strength and adaptability in the comments section of a humorous website aimed at 19 year olds.

(3)(0)

Lived to tell the tale

It was an absolute marathon for most people to try and get a slot at a test centre. Gruelling for those who absolutely needed to be present in a test centre for medical reasons, but also at times impossible for candidates who simply needed access to a test centre because they lived in a noisy or cramped flat where absolute silence would be impossible. (There was a lot of stress for people leading up to the exams themselves, as we had absolutely no idea how unforgiving the proctors would be of uncontrollable background noise.)

Add to that: (a) some candidates obviously were not living in big cities, having returned to rural homes during lockdown, so the nearest test centre was hours away; and (b) someone living in Northern Ireland was told that Dublin was their only test centre option .

(4)(0)

Anon

Horrific.

At least barristers get paid very good money to schelp around the country and have the privilege of being taken seriously when they open their mouths.

You deserved so much better.

(3)(2)

Comments are closed.

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