The Bar Standards Board (BSB) has strongly criticised the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC), while remaining tight-lipped as to whether it should be scrapped.
In a detailed consultation paper on its Future Bar Training project, the BSB described the BPTC as “very expensive”, with London students paying over £18,000 for a one-year course.
The BSB admitted that much of the cost was driven by the “high degree of prescription” in its own requirements, including “very high teaching staff to student ratios” and minimum hours in the classroom.
While accepting that BPTC graduates who secured a pupillage were “better prepared than in the more distant past”, the regulator said vocational training needed to equip barristers “not only for the present but also for the future”.
The BSB identified “a number of issues” with the course, partly from focus group research for the consultation paper.
It said the “substantial breadth of content in the knowledge-based subjects (civil and criminal procedure and evidence, for example) limits time on the course available for skills training and practice (advocacy and drafting, for example). Whilst knowledge gaps can be filled if someone has the right skills, this is much less true in reverse.”
The BSB pointed out that procedural knowledge acquired on the course could be out of date by the time someone got to the next stage of training – usually pupillage.
“The qualification has a ‘shelf-life’ of five years currently and it often takes someone two years or more to get to the next stage.”
The regulator said the level of prescription on how the course must be delivered did not allow for “teaching that supports a range of learning styles” and could hold back ‘quicker learners’, with ‘slower learners’ getting insufficient support.
The current mix excluded important topics like family procedure, while requiring “study of areas which someone will never use in practice”, such as criminal procedure.
Further “issues” with the BPTC included “very rigidly framed” skills training elements, such as “a style of opinion-writing assimilated through study at one training provider” which may have to be “unlearnt” when working in chambers.
Another issue was the requirement to follow two options which in reality “do not deliver enough specialist training to be of real use”.
The regulator went on: “The course focuses very narrowly on the currently perceived requirement for professional practice as a barrister, yet many who pass it are never able to achieve authorised practitioner status – not necessarily through lack of ability but rather through insufficient number of opportunities to get through to the next stage of training.”
The qualification “was not transferrable or portable and is perceived as having little currency or status in other professional spheres”, even though many providers attempted to align it with a post-graduate diploma.
“The level of prescription in how training must be delivered may slow down helpful exploitation of information technology and risks being out of step with the adoption of digital technology in practice.”
As if this was not enough, the BSB commented that the course failed to equip students “with a knowledge or familiarity with the legal services market and the drivers of change in it” and there was limited coverage of commercial awareness, business or marketing skills.
Yet more criticisms of the BPTC followed, on quality assurance and assessment.
However, the BSB did not say whether the course should be scrapped, and instead outlined three options, one of which was improving it, another allowing “any training programme” that demonstrated achievement of the outcomes in the Bar’s professional statement and the third specifying only the final stage of training.
The regulator suggested the solution could be in a “hybrid” of all three.