Bar exams: Research highlights attainment gap between white and ethnic minority wannabe barristers

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By CJ McKinney on


As Oxbridge grads clean up across the board

Reformed bar exams still put ethnic minority students at a disadvantage, Bar Standards Board (BSB) research shows.

Changes to the Bar Course’s centralised assessments in 2016 failed to close the attainment gap between white and non-white candidates.

The report also shows that going to Oxbridge or another Russell Group uni is a significant predictor of bar exam performance.

These differences are after controlling for other variables, such as how well someone did on their degree.

BSB number-crunchers looked at the bar exams in civil litigation, criminal litigation and professional ethics. Between 2011 and 2015, these all involved a mix of multiple choice and problem questions. From 2016 to 2019, they changed to multiple choice only for the two litigation exams and problem questions only for ethics.

Previous research had found, under the old format, ethnic minority bar candidates scored 4.7 points lower than white students. The new format seems to have done little to improve that, with the report stating:

“Those from Asian/Asian British, Black/Black British, Mixed/Multiple ethnic backgrounds, and from other ethnic backgrounds were all predicted to do worse on the assessments than White students on each centralised assessment, even when controlling for other variables such as prior academic attainment.”

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The 2016 format change “did not appear to lead to a consistent change in differential outcomes”.

This is not, the report cautions, down to non-white people being inherently worse at exams. “Ethnicity per se is most probably not the effective variable affecting students’ success on the BPTC”, the statisticians write. “Instead, it is a proxy for other factors correlated with ethnicity that are not controlled for in the analyses that have been undertaken; these are likely to relate to socio-economic status and psychosocial-cultural experience (including family and other support networks), and differing behaviour towards those of different ethnicities.”

Meanwhile, Oxbridge types tend to do better across the board. Graduates of Oxford and Cambridge scored 14.4 points higher in civil litigation, 12.3 points in criminal and 10.1 points in professional ethics (again controlling for other variables).

Graduating from a non-Oxbridge Russell Group uni was also a predictor of higher exam scores, although to a lower extent.

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