The Bar Standards Board (BSB) is to ditch the Bar course aptitude test (BCAT) as it is no longer acting as a “filter” of those likely to fail the vocational component of their training.
The full board of the BSB decided yesterday that the evolution of admissions processes used by the providers of Bar training – such as more interviews and practical exercises for applicants – were proving more effective at doing this.
Further, the risks that the BCAT was introduced to mitigate in 2013 – that too many Bar students were failing the vocational course – were “no longer manifesting”; once resits were taken into account, 83% of students went on to pass the course and were called to the Bar.
The BCAT is a computerised 55-minute psychometric test which consists of 60 multiple choice questions. It is designed to assess critical thinking and understanding of arguments.
Delivered by Pearson VUE, it costs £150 in the UK and £170 for students sitting the test abroad.
A BSB analysis showed that fewer than 1% of students have failed the BCAT since it was introduced.
A consultation issued last year attracted 17 responses, while only 28 BCAT candidates responded to a BSB survey.
It was “clear that most respondents do not believe that the BCAT in its current format is acting as a filter for aptitude”, the board heard.
Bar course providers told the regulator that the BCAT did not inform their offer of enrolment; it was “merely a condition of enrolment”.
A paper before the board said: “Many students do not sit the BCAT prior to receiving an offer of enrolment to save the expense of the BCAT; therefore, the BCAT is not informing candidate choice in those instances.”
It went on: “Our view, which we confirmed through discussions with the providers, is that each provider takes a considered, thorough and robust approach to admissions criteria and filtering for aptitude…
“Therefore, our conclusion is that the risks that existed when BCAT was introduced to mitigate them, no longer exist.”
Both the Bar Council and the inns of court argued in their consultation responses that it was premature to withdraw the BCAT, given the reforms to Bar training were relatively new.
“They also cite recent student performance on the centralised assessments… as evidence that too many students are enrolling on Bar training courses without the requisite aptitude.
“They believe, therefore, that the risks are beginning to re-emerge and that there is a continuing need for a centrally managed filter.”
However, Professor Mike Molan, chair of the Centralised Examination Board, and Dr John Foulkes, the BSB’s independent psychometrician, told the BSB that the centralised assessments were just one measure of performance.
The paper said: “These results must be seen as only one reference point in the context of a student’s performance or a particular cohort’s overall performance on the course. In line with the BSB’s principles for Bar training, success is not measured by ability to pass the centralised assessment the first time.”
The Bar Council and the inns were also concerned about the high number of students enrolling on courses compared to the limited number of pupillages.
“There are, however, a number of factors that influence a person’s ability to obtain a pupillage, which may or may not be linked to aptitude,” the BSB said.
“We have also sought to be transparent about the likelihood of getting pupillage; it is important that students are able to make an informed decision.
“However, the value of the Bar training course is not linked entirely to success in getting pupillage – students graduate with a masters-level qualification and transferrable skills.”
The Legal Services Board’s guidance on education and training sets out the outcomes for education and training arrangements, one of which is that regulators place no inappropriate direct or indirect restrictions on the numbers entering the profession.
The BSB said: “We therefore do not believe that we should seek to place inappropriate limitations on the number of students enrolling on Bar training courses.”
BSB chair Baroness Blackstone stressed that the decision to scrap the BCAT did not mean the regulator would stop working with providers “to ensure that appropriate ways of admitting people are operating”.
The peer has a background in academia and university administration and said she knew from her experience that some institutions took students for the money, particularly international students. There were, she noted, “a lot of international students” on the Bar course.
The decision has to be approved by the Legal Services Board.