Guest post by Paul Philip, chief executive of the Solicitors Regulation Authority
It is a year since the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) – the biggest change in legal education for three decades.
We introduced the SQE for two main reasons. Firstly, the old legal practice course (LPC) route – with multiple providers setting and marking exams, and thousands of firms assessing competence – risked inconsistency.
That’s a problem because it is so important for public confidence, the reputation of the profession, the administration of justice and the rule of law that solicitors all meet the standards of competence and practice that are needed.
The solution was a single, rigorous assessment – the SQE – offering greater assurance for everyone that those entering the profession have all met the same, high standard.
Secondly, the LPC training route was prescriptive and expensive. Aspiring solicitors had to gamble many thousands of pounds upfront on the course with no guarantee of a training contract. We want to open up new routes into the profession, so that talented candidates from all backgrounds have a range of opportunities to qualify.
Progress so far
This month has seen commentators assessing how the first year has gone. Many chime with my views: much has gone well, but there are areas for improvement.
With more than 4,000 candidates across 26 countries, there has been good demand for the SQE and we know numbers will increase significantly over the years. All the analysis, including from the SQE’s independent reviewer, shows that the SQE is meeting standards of international best practice in assessment. It is fair, valid and reliable.
We are getting in-depth feedback from candidates. While most have had a good experience, not everyone has, with difficulties for some in getting their results and others having problems at particular assessment centres.
We are working closely with Kaplan, our assessment provider, to make sure there is an ongoing process of learning and improvement, while addressing issues when they arise.
It is still early days. It will be years before we can fully assess the SQE’s impact. So it is a good time to reflect on what is next, with a lot of work still to do to make sure the SQE fulfils its potential.
Understanding the attainment gap
One area of concern is that Black, Asian and ethnic minorities as a group have generally not performed as well on the SQE. We anticipated that this would be the case as it has been a longstanding and widespread pattern in examinations in the legal and other sectors.
The challenge is to understand why this is happening. Extensive measures have been taken to ensure that the SQE itself is fair and free from bias, and the independent reviewer has confirmed he is satisfied that it is.
So we have commissioned major research from Exeter University to understand what are likely to be complex reasons and multiple underlying factors for the picture we are seeing.
By finding out why certain groups do not do so well, we can increase understanding and look at how best to work with others to address some of the factors, helping to close the attainment gap. We will share progress on this early next year, with the final findings due the year after.
SQE in Welsh
We also think it is important that people in Wales should be able to get legal support in their preferred language. Not all professional assessments are available in the Welsh language. We think the SQE should be, as it will help support the availability of legal advice through the medium of Welsh.
We are already offering the written parts of SQE2 in Welsh. By 2024, every part of the assessment will be available to take in Welsh. We will be working closely with Welsh speakers to make sure we get this right.
Evaluating the SQE
We have a 10-year programme of evaluation to assess whether the SQE delivers on the promised benefits. The first phase of that begins this October as we send out a survey to firms, candidates and training providers – we want to hear your views, so we can understand how you have found the SQE so far.
This includes looking at how the training market is developing. There are some good initial signs, with a wide range of options. Even with exam fees, many are significantly more affordable than the LPC route.
We will share the results of this review next year, while we will also be publishing the first annual report on the assessments.
A big advantage of the SQE is the creation of a consistent, richer data set, helping us to identify issues and trends. Data could also help inform the choices of candidates and employers.
We plan to start publishing data by the end of 2023. It is not straightforward and we have a lot of work still do – for instance, nothing can be published that could identify individuals – while also making sure data is as robust and useful as possible.
A leading international legal centre
In conclusion, this is an important change and it is vital we get it right. We have made a positive start, but it is only a start. In my view, rigorous evaluation is key so we can understand what’s working and what’s not.
We need to focus on that attainment gap for minority ethnic groups and what can be done to help. There is a more positive picture when it comes to social background and I have been heartened to see that the first-ever solicitor apprentices have performed really well.
However, it will be some time before we know whether the SQE is truly helping increase social mobility into the profession.
What about qualifying work experience? I have heard positive feedback on the more flexible approach. Candidates like the opportunities to earn as they learn, while some firms and in-house teams, which could not commit to training contracts, see opportunities around recruiting and promoting staff. But is this a general trend?
Finally, we must not forget the international dimension to this. UK plc has a big challenge kickstarting its economy, post-Brexit and hopefully post-Covid. We need to remain as competitive and outward looking as possible.
The UK is the leading international legal centre, home to excellent lawyers and world-leading firms, but maintaining that status is not a given. The SQE – as a world class, modern, robust assessment – should help to further bolster that reputation in the years to come.