The Bar Standards Board (BSB) is looking to arrange another round of exams well before December, its director-general has told Legal Futures, as complaints about the online system mount.
Mark Neale said he did not apologise for ensuring the Bar professional training course (BPTC) exams were taken under “rigorous conditions”, but went on: “I do apologise and am sorry to those students who have suffered difficulty or distress because of failings on our part.”
He pledged there would be a ‘lessons learned’ exercise afterwards but said: “I’m very content that the BSB has done everything it possibly could do, alongside the providers, to make sure the needs of students were met.”
Last week’s ethics exam caused complaints about a range of issues, while the first day of the civil exam yesterday saw more students take to social media to complain that they were sitting in front of a blank screen at the time the test was due to start.
In a statement, the BSB said its test delivery partner, Pearson VUE, “experienced some delays” with its platform.
“We apologise for the distress and inconvenience that this may have caused. Pearson VUE has resolved the delay, and the majority of candidates who were meant to test today have been able to complete their exams.”
Speaking to Legal Futures yesterday, Mr Neale stressed that he was “very sympathetic” with students but stood by the BSB’s approach.
The twin objective was to enable students to continue with their careers and to maintain public confidence in the profession through ensuring the integrity of the BPTC.
The conditions were “not ideal”, Mr Neale acknowledged, but the “great majority of students” had mastered them.
Pearson VUE reported last week that 89% of BPTC exams had at that point been delivered “without any reported incident” and 97% successfully completed – this includes those who had delays to the start but managed to finish the exam eventually.
Those who lost contact with the system during the ethics exam have been told they will have to wait for a resit, and Mr Neale said the BSB was working with providers to ensure this would be in “as short a time as possible” and “well before December” – the date that was originally proposed.
The BSB has also waived the requirement that students must have passed their exams before starting pupillages this autumn.
Nonetheless, some students have reported that their chambers have told them they must have passed by a certain date. Mr Neale said: “I would encourage chambers to familiarise themselves with the waivers we’ve put in place and recognise the unique circumstances in which students have taken their exams.”
He pointed out that the BSB had had to put the remote testing system in place “at short notice”, a process that might otherwise have taken up to two years. “When you attempt to do things online, it doesn’t always work perfectly,” he observed.
The regulator undertook due diligence on Pearson VUE, Mr Neale confirmed, describing it as “the operator in this field with by far the greatest capacity”, both online and in terms of test centres.
Though “so far as we know, the Pearson system is robust”, he said the BSB would investigate each individual incident to find out what went wrong.
Mr Neale accepted that the process of students securing slots at test centres “didn’t go completely smoothly”, which he put down to the number seeking them – around 16% of students are booked in at centres.
“But I think the great majority of students in the end were placed in test centres that met their needs… We were only able to do that because we went with Pearson VUE and because they have this network of testing centres in UK and internationally.”
Students not being allowed to go to the toilet when taking the exam remotely has generated a lot of publicity and criticism, although this condition was highlighted in advance as part of the anti-cheating provisions.
Mr Neale said those who thought this would prove difficult were able to apply for a test centre instead: “We did quite rightly give priority to people needing adjustments, but other students were able to book places.”
He argued that “reasonable people” would think that taking an exam for three hours without a toilet break – “though not ideal” – was “tolerable to enable students to progress with their careers”.
It was, he went on, too late to move to an open book exam “when the course and exam were prepared on closed book basis”. In any case, open book exams also require invigilation – as students can only use certain texts – and so the same issues would have arisen.
But grade boundaries would be set taking “all of the circumstances” into account, he added.
Those in test centres are able to go to the toilet during exams but are not allowed to have water with them – they have to be taken outside the exam room if they want a drink.
Mr Neale explained that this was a Pearson VUE condition designed to minimise the risk of water spilling onto equipment. It was “not an intolerable constraint”, he suggested.
Another Pearson VUE condition is that students – whether at home or at a test centre – wearing head coverings must adjust them so their ID can be checked and to ensure they are not wearing an earpiece.
We reported last week that a Muslim student felt forced to defer her exams because Pearson VUE could not guarantee that it would be a woman who would do the check.
Mr Neale stressed that the exams “must be accessible to students from all backgrounds” but said with Pearson dealing with a huge number of exams and providers, the BSB could not dictate the rules.
Instead, BPTC providers were told in advance and asked to make alternative arrangements for any students who were not comfortable with the requirements.
As a result, he said, some providers had allowed a small number of students to sit the exams on their premises. But limited space meant providers could not accommodate all of their students in this way.
There has also been considerable criticism of the regulator from barristers, but Mr Neale said he was not concerned that confidence in the BSB has been damaged.
“I understand the reactions of barristers and students. I don’t in any way resent the scrutiny which we’ve been put under.”
Rejecting calls from students for resignations, he said: “I feel the BSB has done exactly what we should have done to enable students to progress with their careers and ensure standards.”