Bar professional training course (BPTC) students have told the Bar Standards Board (BSB) that its plans for online examinations risk discriminating against women, carers and the disabled.
Some 183 students have backed the letter of complaint at the time of writing, as well as the union Legal Sector Workers United, and the group Young Legal Aid Lawyers, while 120 other barristers, BPTC graduates, and concerned individuals – such as relatives – have also signed.
The centralised assessments on the BPTC and for the Bar transfer test (BTT), which were postponed from April to August due to the coronavirus, will now be computer-based exams delivered using Pearson VUE’s OnVUE “secure online proctoring solution”.
We reported recently concerns about the “astonishing” anti-cheating provisions.
Students will have to be on a webcam throughout the exam, without any breaks – even though they last up to three hours, and longer for those with adjustments. Moving away from the webcam will result in automatic termination.
They must also have a private and quiet examination room, without extraneous noise.
A survey of 335 BPTC students found that 93% of them felt the arrangements would “negatively affect their ability to perform in the exams” – the inability to leave the room, for example to go the toilet, was a major problem – while 75% said they did not have access to a quiet room which they could guarantee would remain quiet for the full exam period.
More than a third reported that they had parental or other caring responsibilities, while most said it would be difficult to defer taking the exams until December, particularly for financial reasons.
The letter, sent by Students Against the BSB Exam Regulations, said the no-breaks policy would particularly disadvantage women, for both physical reasons and as often primary caregivers.
“Exams held at home are more likely to be interrupted due to childcare or other caring responsibilities… This is a particular concern during August, which falls within school holidays,” it said.
The requirement for disabled people to travel to a test centre to be granted reasonable adjustments “may be difficult for them and put them at greater risk of catching Covid-19”.
The students suggested as an alternative a move to open book conditions, which would allow breaks. “Open book conditions have been used for most other BPTC examinations during the lockdown period and are used as part of the solicitor’s legal practice course.”
Margo Munro Kerr, a student at City Law School, said: “The BSB didn’t consult with students so we conducted a survey ourselves to assess the impact the proposed exam format will have.
“We hope the results will force the BSB to reconsider their hasty decision to awkwardly transplant the old format of the exams into this new reality. They must tackle the problem head-on and design a fair solution. It is unacceptable to instigate a widely discriminatory policy in the name of rigour.”
Katie Louise Baker, a student at the University of Law in London, added: “There is a lot of talk about improving wellbeing at the bar, but all I see is talk; this is a prime example of not taking into consideration the wellbeing of BPTC students.
“The BSB’s proposal for the exam format is unnecessary and adds layers of stress to what is already a highly emotive and exhausting process. For someone who already suffers from anxiety, the proposed format fills me with nothing but dread. The BSB must listen to and support the future generation of barristers.”