The Bar Standards Board (BSB) can go ahead with its plan to scrap the Bar course aptitude test (BCAT), the Legal Services Board (LSB) has decided.
However, although fewer than 1% of students failed the test, the LSB said the BCAT could have contributed to a fall in failure rates for students on the old Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC).
In a decision notice following the BSB’s application to end the BCAT, Matthew Hill, chief executive of the LSB, said evidence provided by the BSB showed BPTC failure rates had declined since 2013, which “coincides with the introduction of BCAT”.
Mr Hill said the LSB also noted that trainee barristers could take the BCAT up to three times in a calendar year if they failed initially.
If candidates approached critical reasoning as a skill which could be learned and developed, then studying the BCAT “could have contributed to declining BPTC failure rates”.
The aptitude test “may have strengthened the critical reasoning skills and therefore chances of performing well at the BPTC for cohorts enrolling on a BPTC after 2013”.
However, Mr Hill said this was merely “another interpretation” to the one put forward by the BSB, which was that the test was “not an effective filter for student aptitude” and should be withdrawn.
“On balance, we consider that the BSB is entitled to rely on the evidence it has gathered, and its interpretation of that evidence.”
Mr Hill said the Bar Council and the Inns of Court, which oppose the scrapping of BCAT, referred to data from the winter 2020 and spring 2021 BCAT sittings that showed some training organisations allowed candidates to enrol on the BPTC “without the requisite aptitude”.
Given the “strong correlation” between BCAT scores and BPTC results, Mr Hill said “several stakeholders” also believed BCAT results “could be used in a more effective way” to inform student decisions on enrolment.
“The concern is that enrolling on the BPTC is costly for candidates both financially and time wise, if candidates have a limited chance of becoming a barrister.”
Mr Hill said the LSB asked the BSB whether the test could be used as a predictive tool, helping candidates make better decisions about their future.
“The BSB answered that in practice most candidates wait until they receive an offer on a BPTC to take the BCAT and as such it would be disproportionate to mandate the BCAT for this purpose alone.”
Based on additional information provided by the BSB, Mr Hill said the LSB was satisfied that “relevant evidence” would be generated to assess the ability of training organisations to “balance the principles of maintaining high standards and increasing accessibility when filtering BPTC candidates for aptitude in the absence of the BCAT”.
Mr Hill said the LSB concluded that there was no reason to refuse the BSB’s application for rule changes and it should be granted.
Following the LSB’s decision, the BSB said the requirement that students pass the BCAT before starting vocational training would be abolished with effect from 31 July.
BSB director-general Mark Neale said: “We no longer think that the BCAT serves a useful purpose. We shall continue to monitor providers carefully to ensure that their own selection of students is fair and rigorous…
“We want to ensure that training for the Bar is accessible to people from all backgrounds but obtaining a pupillage remains highly competitive so students entering Bar training must have the aptitude to succeed.”
Bar Council chair Mark Fenhalls QC expressed disappointment at the decision. “The problem of too many students wasting money embarking on courses they will struggle to pass is on the rise again.
“We fully support the aims of making sure the Bar is accessible to people from all backgrounds and so we are disappointed that the decision to scrap the BCAT has been made without putting robust alternative provisions in place.
“The BSB should be doing more to make sure students are not being recruited onto expensive courses that do not lead to successful careers at the Bar.”