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Consumer panel and Bar Council at odds over future of aptitude test

Chambers: BCAT adds an extra layer of cost to barristers’ training

The evidence for abolishing the Bar course aptitude test (BCAT) is “compelling” as it has failed to achieve its purpose, the Legal Services Consumer Panel has said.

However, this put it at odds with the Bar Council, which warned that the problem the BCAT was introduced in 2013 to address was re-emerging.

A Bar Standards Board (BSB) analysis showed that fewer than 1% of students have failed the BCAT since it was introduced in 2013. The panel said this showed it was “not an effective filter”.

Though the proportion of students going on to fail the Bar training course has tumbled – from 20% to 7% – the BSB said this was more likely to be down to course providers’ admissions policies “and, potentially, students’ own self-selection”.

The BCAT was introduced in 2013 as the number of students failing the vocational component of the Bar training was high, meaning too many students who had little prospect of successfully completing the then Bar professional training course were being enrolled.

It is a computerised 55-minute test which consists of 60 multiple choice questions designed to assess critical thinking and understanding of arguments.

Responding to a BSB consultation on the future of the BCAT [1], consumer panel chair Sarah Chambers wrote: “The panel is also convinced by the argument that recent reforms of the Bar training, and in particular the onus on course providers to introduce robust admission requirements, is more likely to filter out students who are less likely to succeed on the Bar training course…

“The panel is also convinced by the argument that the BCAT adds an extra layer of cost to barristers’ training, a needless cost which can negatively affect access to the profession.

“Moreover, it poses another hurdle to students who are arguably suitably stretched.”

But in its response, the Bar Council said this was not the time to discontinue the BCAT as the recent data on pass rates for the new Bar training course – which the BSB consultation did not take into account – “suggests that some institutions, including some who are applying less rigorous selection criteria, are recruiting students of whom only a very small proportion pass the centrally marked assessments”.

The figures showed that while nearly 90% of students at the Inns of Court College of Advocacy passed the Bar course’s civil litigation exam, rising to nearly 100% for the criminal litigation exam, at the worst-performing institution – Manchester Metropolitan University – the figures were around 14% and 22% respectively. The latter does not require students to have a 2:1.

The Bar Council said: “It seems to us that these results must reflect either a poor standard of teaching in some institutions, or that those institutions’ entry requirements are inadequate at ensuring students have sufficient aptitude to have a reasonable prospect of passing the course…

“Therefore that this would be a very poor time to remove the possibility of using the BCAT as a mechanism to address the problem of too many students wasting money by embarking on courses which they will struggle to pass. This problem looks as if it is on the rise again.”

But the Bar Council said it did not have sufficient data to express a final view on whether the BCAT pass mark should be maintained or increased.

It added that there was another “coincidental but important” benefit of the BCAT – the evidence showed that BCAT scores were “a reasonable predictor of success” on the vocational stage of barrister training.

“It appears to provide an objective measure of candidates’ facility in analytical skills which lie at the heart of the job most barristers do.”

It called for more analysis on the correlation between BCAT scores and obtaining tenancy.