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Bar course pass rates drop 18% during pandemic

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Just 10% of BPTC grads started pupillage in 2020-21, new stats show

The coronavirus pandemic impacted both the number of students completing the bar course in the last academic year as well as those proceeding to pupillage, a new report released by the Bar Standards Board (BSB) has found.

Of students enrolled on the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) in 2019-20, 18% less completed the course in that year compared with the year before.

Meanwhile, just 10% of UK/EU graduates from this intake began pupillage in 2020-21, compared to 23% of the 2018-19 cohort who began pupillage in 2019-20.

The report, which provides an analysis of bar students over three academic years, further found that roughly two in five (40%) of those who enrolled on the course from 2015 to 2019 had started pupillage by March 2021. This figure increases to around 49% when looking at those enrolled from 2015 to 2018 only, as the BSB acknowledged “it can take time for more recent graduates to gain pupillage”.

The likelihood of gaining pupillage varies widely by degree class and BPTC overall grade, with ethnicity and first degree institution also appearing to be influencing factors.

In terms of ethnicity, UK/EU BPTC grads from minority ethnic backgrounds who enrolled on the course from 2015 to 2019 were less likely to have commenced pupillage than those from white backgrounds. For example, of UK/EU BPTC grads with an upper-second class degree and ‘very competent’ overall BPTC grade, 41% from white backgrounds had commenced pupillage, compared to around 23% of those from a minority ethnic background with the same degree class and BPTC grade.

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Teaching and assessment for the bar course moved online for the most part in response to the pandemic. This was not without challenges: there were numerous reports over the summer from students who encountered issues including 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.

Speaking to Legal Cheek about her experience completing the bar course amidst the pandemic, one student told us:

“Studying the bar course is known to be tough in normal circumstances, doing it completely online during the pandemic was the hardest challenge I have faced so far in my legal journey. Never stepping foot in the university, never meeting (or seeing) my classmates, not knowing if exams or teaching would be in person meant the year was incredibly self-reliant, as it should be to some extent, but at times was incredibly lonely and daunting.”

The BSB report is the seventh and final edition of its kind as the BPTC has been revamped. Next year’s analysis will focus on the new bar courses which began in 2020.

BSB director of strategy and policy, Ewen MacLeod, said: “The annual publication of these statistics gives us up-to-date data. This year’s report enables us to see clearly the impact which the health emergency had on those students starting a BPTC in 2019. We continue to work closely with the profession to make sure pupillage places remain available as the country recovers from the effects of lockdown.”

In February, the BSB announced the number of pupillages registered last year fell by 35%. It cautioned at the time that the pandemic looks set to affect pupillage numbers in 2021, although recruitment levels are “picking up”.

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