The Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) was implemented well in its first year but has still to win over training providers, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has found.
Technical reports indicated that the central assessments were “valid and reliable, successfully differentiating between candidates who are competent and those who are not”.
However, a perception study found that respondents’ overall confidence in the SQE scored a modest three out of five.
Candidates, who were the majority of the 558 respondents, reported higher confidence than other groups, with training providers the least confident.
“We will continue to engage with stakeholders to learn more about the factors influencing their confidence in the SQE,” the SRA said. “We will also discuss if there is anything we can do to improve it at this early stage.”
SRA chief executive Paul Philip told Legal Futures that providers had not specified what they were unhappy with.
The SQE was introduced in September 2021 and the reports cover the first two sittings for SQE1, which tested 2,809 candidates’ legal knowledge, and one for SQE2, testing both the application of legal knowledge by, and skills of, 726 candidates.
Pass rates for both SQE1 sittings were 53%, rising to 77% for the SQE2 sitting.
The SRA said the candidate cohorts were atypical, with a higher percentage of those with exemptions from SQE1, either because they had passed the old legal practice course or were qualified in another jurisdiction, than the regulator expected to see in future.
These two groups made up more than half of the candidates in the SQE2 assessment.
While 89% of those who had passed SQE1 also passed SQE2, the figure fell to 67% of those who were exempt from SQE1.
The early cohorts were also likely to include a higher number with many years’ legal services experience, the SRA said – “people who hadn’t been able to qualify before but who now see the opportunity to do so under the SQE”.
Geoff Coombs, the SQE independent reviewer, said that overall delivery of the exam was “at least satisfactory, and in some cases good, which is commendable”.
He continued: “During 2021-22 Kaplan [the SRA’s contracted SQE provider] laid the foundations for successful delivery of the SQE to the high standards that candidates, stakeholders and the public expect.
“Whilst there is room for improvement, many improvements have been made or are already planned by Kaplan and/or the SRA for 2023.”
Kaplan’s own report recorded that candidates were more likely to pass SQE2 if they had done some form of qualifying work experience (QWE), while resit candidates had lower than average pass rates on their second attempt.
Candidates with better university degree classifications were more likely to perform significantly better in the assessment: 71% of those with a first passed SQE1 compared to 32% with a 2.2.
Although only a small cohort of apprentices have taken the SQE so far, their pass rates were 26% higher than the overall rate.
The longstanding achievement gap between White and ethnic minority candidates continued and is the subject of research commissioned by the SRA. But Kaplan said there was “no evidence of systematic bias in the SQE assessments overall”.
Some respondents to the perception survey expressed concern over the SQE’s accessibility – although this was not narrowly defined and Mr Coombs said reasonable adjustment arrangements were working well– and the cost of the preparatory courses.
The SRA said there was a wide range of courses on the market. Standalone courses, not leading to an academic award, ranged from £500-£4,500. Prices for courses leading to an academic award, such as an undergraduate or postgraduate degree, ranged from £7,500 – £13,000.
It said it would monitor the emerging training market and conduct a full assessment as part of the planned three-year market evaluation.
The survey also sought views on QWE – replacing the traditional training contract, candidates can obtain the two years of experience they need in a wide range of legal services providers. It can be gained in up to four organisations, in paid or volunteer work.
Again, candidates were more likely than training providers and law firms to believe that QWE helped develop the competences needed to operate effectively as a solicitor on day one of practice.
Overall confidence was higher than with the SQE at 3.6 out of five.
“The majority of all respondents agreed that the introduction of QWE will lead to a more diverse range of organisations offering work experience to aspiring solicitors,” the SRA said.
“Over a half of respondents also agreed that, over time, our QWE reforms will help remove artificial and unjustifiable barriers to entering the solicitor profession.
“Similarly, over half agreed that, over time, our QWE reforms will help promote diversity at the point of entry to the solicitor profession. Candidates particularly agreed this would be the case.”
Employers (mainly law firms) identified being able to develop existing employees, such as paralegals, and being able to provide work experience to aspiring solicitors for the first time as the main benefits of QWE.
At the same time, over half of those that had been offering training contracts expected to continue doing so. Mr Philip said it would be “disappointing” if the big law firms did not make use of the greater flexibility and stuck with a training contract model.
The SRA yesterday also announced that fees for the SQE were set for an inflation-linked 11% increase from September 2023. The cost of the SQE1 assessment will go up from £1,622 to £1,798, and from £2,493 to £2,766 for SQE2.
Mr Philip said: “We will continue to do all we can to make sure the SQE delivers value for money, and that there continues to be a range of affordable ways to prepare for it.”
He added: “It’s been a positive start. One of the main reasons we introduced the SQE was to bolster confidence that qualifying solicitors were meeting the same, high standard. It’s good to see all the analyses show it is a robust, fair, valid assessment.
“Generally, the candidate experience has been good, but we are committed to improving it further.
“It’s too early to draw conclusions on the long-term impacts of the SQE, but I am pleased that the training market is offering affordable ways to qualify when compared to the old LPC route.
“It’s good to see apprentices excelling, but we need to better understand the complex reasons why Black and Asian candidates aren’t generally doing as well. We can then identify whether there are steps we can take to address this.”