Bar students call on regulator to waive exam requirement

Neale: Trying to organise resit for September

A petition calling on the Bar Standards Board (BSB) to waive the requirement that Bar students complete the centralised BSB exams has attracted more than 1,000 signatures on its first day.

This is despite the regulator saying it hoped to organise “pen and paper” resits next month for those who have not been able to take them remotely or at a Pearson VUE test centre.

As reported extensively on Legal Futures over the past week, some students on the Bar professional training course (BPTC) have faced difficulties taking two of the centralised exams sat so far – ethics last week and civil litigation this, with criminal litigation to follow.

In the first week, according to Pearson VUE – contracted by the BSB to handle the exams in the light of Covid-19 – 89% of students did not have any problems, while 97% successfully completed their exam even if they did encounter some difficulties.

But complaints have continued and an interview by BSB director-general Mark Neale with Legal Futures this week, as well as a statement on the BSB website later the same day, have not stemmed the flow.

The group leading the criticism – Students Against the BSB Exams Regulations (SABER) – published its petition yesterday morning, saying that a blanket waiver was “the only fair solution left at this point”. As of last night, it had attracted 1.050 signatures.

SABER argued that certain groups had been discrimination against as a result of the problems: disabled students needing reasonable adjustments, “who were forced to endure an extremely inefficient, costly, and time-consuming process when attempting to book their exams”; international students, many of whom have had to pay to use test centres overseas and/or travel long distances to attend these centres; and “working class students with limited resources available to meet many of the unreasonable burdens placed on all students”.

SABER added: “If access to the Bar, equality and wellbeing at the Bar are to mean anything, a waiver must be implemented without delay.”

It pointed out that students have already sat nine out of 12 exams, including content which is included in the centralised assessments. “The BSB should base overall classification on those grades.”

Originally, the BSB had planned to hold resits in December – either for those who decided to defer taking the exams this month or who had problems during the exams which meant they were unable to finish them.

But, as foreshadowed in his interview, the BSB is accelerating the timetable, with an eye on students who have pupillages starting in October.

Mr Neale said in his statement that “we intend to offer everyone who took a computer-based exam and experienced a technical failure that prevented them from accessing or completing their exam the chance to sit their exam again as a pen and paper exercise in a secure venue and as soon as possible”.

He continued: “Special consideration will also be given to anyone who was booked to take a computer-based exam and whose reasonable adjustments were not delivered as booked. We are working hard with the aim of offering that opportunity in September subject to the BPTC providers being able to arrange venues either on their campuses, if open, or at alternative locations.”

While a September resit was better than December, SABER said the offer was “still not adequate”.

It said in the petition that “almost all students have struggled with these exams in some form” – not just those who had technical issues or reasonable adjustments that were not met.

“Students will not have their results in time to assess whether their performance was so badly affected that they will need to sit the exams again before the September resits…

“The BSB is not in a position to reassure students that any resits will not simply lead to the same systemic problems students have already faced.

“The BSB has had five months to design and deliver these exams via PearsonVUE. We fear what they will deliver given less than a month.”

Barristers have been supporting students. Bernard Richmond QC, head of Lamb Building and chair of Middle Temple’s education committee, started mobilising colleagues last week, and tweeted on Tuesday: “Great meeting with 45 colleagues – silks, senior juniors, younger juniors, academics, heads of pupillage some Inn reps. We’ve got your backs!”

Yesterday, he added: “Things are moving swiftly and I am pleased that there is movement on getting sits available in September. The Inns and their Council (COIC) have been applying pressure. It’s important not to contradict/undermine other efforts. There are still areas of concern on which to focus.”

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