BPP joins the SRA to discuss the challenges and opportunities under the new regime
The Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) has been in force for nearly two years now, with over 7,000 candidates sitting SQE1 or 2 so far. Candidate numbers are expected to grow significantly in the coming years, and so Legal Cheek partnered with BPP University Law School to host an event with the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), in which the speakers took stock of the new training regime and considered the challenges and opportunities ahead.
• Jonny Hurst, Head of Outreach at BPP and former City law firm partner
• Julie Swan, Director of Education and Training at the SRA
• Richard Williams, Policy Manager at the SRA
1. The SRA’s perspective
SQE1 is comprised of 360 multiple-choice questions (MCQs) testing functioning legal knowledge which candidates must complete over two assessment days. The SRA’s Julie Swan, who appeared on the panel, described student feedback on the exam format as “mixed”. Whilst some prefer the MCQ-style to “hours of writing essays”, others fall into the trap of assuming this format is easy, she remarked.
SQE2, meanwhile, examines legal skills such as drafting, advocacy and research. Swan noted that candidates tend to view this assessment as predominantly skills-based, which is true, but she stressed the importance of demonstrating these skills in the context of a legal scenario. So, calling upon knowledge from SQE1 to complete these tasks is crucial, she added.
Swan also said that students can benefit from the wide range of prep course options available at SQE providers. The SRA does not prescribe a particular course or provider, and so students are able to study part-time, full-time, in-person, online or even independently, by purchasing course materials. However, while the SQE’s predecessor, the Legal Practice Course (LPC) assessed candidates to the level expected of a day one trainee solicitor, the SQE has “gone up a notch or two”, said Swan, assessing them against the standard of a day one qualified solicitor.
Addressing the minimal amount of SQE1 sample materials provided by the SRA, with just 90 questions on its website, Swan revealed that there were “no immediate plans” to expand this bank, given time and resource constraints. Swan also expressed reluctance to publish a full past paper, concerned that students might become over-reliant on this. However, a potentially useful tool is the SRA’s analysis of candidate performance in different areas of the assessment. Also helpful is their blueprint on approximately what percentage of questions will be from a certain topic area. Both are available on the SRA website.
2. SQE1: a ‘low’ pass rate?
The latest SQE1 pass rate for the January 2023 sitting is 51%, a decline by 2% on the first two sittings, where the pass rate was 53%. Responding to concerns, Swan compared this to the LPC completion rate in the last year before Covid hit. This was fairly similar, she said, at 58%. However, as Jonny Hurst, chair of the discussion, pointed out, the SQE-LPC analogy doesn’t compare: he explained that whilst LPC completion rates include 100% of the LPC population (whether or not they sit all or any of their assessments) the SQE1 pass rate is just the pass rate for one part of the SQE and excludes SQE2 fails and those who start the SQE journey but never sit an assessment. It like comparing “apples with pears”, he observed.
Swan also said the SQE is yet to see “a typical cohort of candidates”, as previous assessments have consisted of an unusually high proportion of foreign-qualified lawyers, although Hurst took issue with that assertion as the January 2023 sitting of SQE1 included a significant proportion of recent law/PGDL graduates who started full-time SQE courses in September 2022. Overall, it seems that we need more data from future cohorts of students to better understand the SQE’s pass rates and how these compare with the LPC. On a more positive note, pass rates for the SQE2 are far higher and in the 70s, but that is mainly because the overall standard of candidates is higher because most of them cannot attempt SQE2 without having first passed the SQE1.
3. The ‘attainment gap’
SQE data shows that White candidates significantly outperform those from a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) background. Sixty-three percent of white candidates passed SQE1 in January 2023, compared to 29% of Black students. Swan recognised this issue was not unique to the SQE, as there are marked differences between the attainment of white and BAME students under the LPC and in higher education more generally. The SRA has commissioned research from the University of Exeter to explore this so-called “attainment gap”, with the first stage, comprising a literature review, published last month and the second stage underway and due for completion this year.
Swan noted that after every SQE1 assessment “there is a detailed analysis that examines whether each question has been particularly easy or difficult for particular groups of candidates” with no such finding having arisen thus far. Candidates are also sent a questionnaire after every SQE assessment and can join a focus group about their experience or have a one-to-one chat, she said.
4. Cost concerns
Students starting the SQE in September 2023 will have to contend with an 11% fee increase, bringing the exam fees to nearly £4,600. Swan noted this was “regrettable”, but unavoidable due to inflation.
When pressed by Hurst about whether it is not within the SRA’s remit to increase the SQE’s financial accessibility, Swan said the SRA has attempted to do this by not prescribing a particular course or provider. However, it does not itself have any schemes, such as scholarships, available to mitigate the impact of cost increases.
And on whether candidates may be tempted to enter shorter, cheaper courses which leave them less well-prepared for assessments, Swan said the SRA plans to publish data regarding the relative success rates of different providers towards the end of this year.
5. Understanding QWE
The inclusion of Qualifying Work Experience (QWE) as an alternative to the training contract route is good for social mobility, Richard Williams, who appeared on the panel alongside Hurst and Swan, pointed out. It serves to “address the significant barrier of insufficient TCs to meet demand in order to qualify as a solicitor”, he said. By instead allowing candidates to undertake work experience with up to four different legal organisations, the route to solicitor qualification becomes a lot more accessible. Students can also accrue this QWE before, during or after the SQE.
In terms of how much change can already be seen in the shift to QWE, Williams characterised it as a “mixed picture”. While many firms continue to go down the traditional TC path, there is steady movement towards firms offering a variety of QWE. models, including graduate apprenticeships.
So, students embarking on the SQE have a lot to consider. With more upcoming assessment sittings and an increasing number of candidates, greater clarity on the new regime is likely to come with time.
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