Inns of Court: Mixed views from students

Graduates from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds are half as likely to obtain pupillages as their white peers, research for the Bar Standards Board (BSB) has found.

A second report, based on interviews with Bar professional training course (BPTC) students and pupillage applicants, found that the Bar was still viewed as “an elite, white, male-dominated profession with long-established traditions”.

The BSB said in the first report, Exploring differential attainment at BPTC and pupillage, that it had “long noted” the different levels of attainment on the BPTC between white and BME students, but the quality of its data had improved, meaning that it could look at the issue in more depth.

The report revealed that BME students achieved an ‘outstanding’ or ‘very competent’ grade at a “far lower rate” than those from white ethnic backgrounds and had a higher failure rate.

Female and disabled students performed as well as male students in terms of their average compulsory module score on the BPTC. However, those students whose parents did not have a university degree between them performed slightly worse than other students.

The report highlighted other significant factors in determining the performance of students in the three centrally assessed modules on the BPTC (civil litigation, criminal litigation, and ethics).

For example, Oxbridge students scored almost 11 marks higher and Russell Group universities more than five marks higher than students who attended other universities.

For BME students, their low success rates at obtaining pupillage persisted even when they had a ‘very competent’ BPTC grade or a 1st class degree. BME students with a 2.1 were less than twice as likely to get a pupillage (18% compared to 39%).

Those with a ‘very competent’ BPTC grade were almost twice as likely (21% compared to 39%), while the gap closed for students with a 1st class degree to 17% (42% compared to 59%).

Pupillage applicants from state schools did worse than those from private schools, a gap which grew even wider if they had excellent academic records.

While applicants with 2.1 degrees were only 11% less likely to get a pupillage if they came from state schools (25% compared to 36%), for those with 1st class degrees, the gap widened to 19% (45% compared to 64%).

The second report, commissioned by the BSB from NatCen Social Research, was based on interviews with 25 former BPTC students and 25 pupillage applicants.

Of the BPTC graduates, 20 of them were from non-white backgrounds and only five were male. Eight students were from an Asian background, seven from a black background, four mixed race, five white and one ‘other’. Of the pupillage applicants, 14 had been unsuccessful.

The report found that there was a lack of access to accurate information about training for the Bar and the financial costs of undertaking the training was a further barrier.

“The findings suggest that from an early stage, a two-tier system emerges – one of privilege and education at public schools and ‘elite’ universities and the other lacking these advantages.

“The overriding impression of the Bar as expressed by those taking part in this research was that of exclusivity and an elite, white, male-dominated profession with long-established traditions.”

The report went on: “Although the Bar Council and the Bar Standards Board have developed equality and diversity guidance for chambers, effort is still required to maintain commitment from chambers to make the training pathway fairer and more equal, and to develop an inclusive workplace culture.”

In a cover note on the reports, the BSB said the research “illuminates the problem but does not explain the causes” and analysis of data from the Pupillage Gateway indicated that applicants from some BME backgrounds had a “greater likelihood of success” than others.

Dr Vanessa Davies, director-general of the BSB, said it was important not to “jump to conclusions” about why there was a difference between the performance of white and BME students on the BPTC and in obtaining pupillage.

“We know that the Bar is trying very hard to encourage equal opportunity and accessibility for anyone with the talent and desire to become a barrister.

“Today’s research suggests that the Bar and providers are having some success in this regard in relation to gender and disability but that more research is needed to understand why the differences in attainment in relation to ethnicity and socio-economic background seem to persist.”

Ms Davies added, referring to the second report, that there was a need to “address perceptions of the Bar as well as experiences” and although a “perceived lack of diversity within the Inns of Court made some students feel that they would not ‘fit in’, others felt that the financial, educational and professional networking opportunities offered by the Inns were very valuable”.


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