Nearly half of UK students on the Bar training course are now from ethnic minority backgrounds, compared to a quarter a decade ago, according to new figures.
The Bar Standards Board (BSB) also revealed that it is piloting a scheme for students who need more resits to pass the key elements of the course than their training provider allows.
It insisted that this would not reduce standards.
The annual report on Bar training, presented to last night’s meeting of the BSB’s main board, showed that nearly 48% of UK-domiciled students on the 2022/23 course were from an ethnic minority background – three times the proportion of the practising Bar and twice the proportion of pupils at the moment.
This was made up of 27.6% Asian/Asian British students, 9.2% Black/Black British, 7.4% mixed/multiple ethnic groups, and 3.5% other ethnic groups.
Back in 2011/12, the report said, these figures were 12.1%, 7.7%, 3.3% and 1.4%, a total of 24.5%.
It noted: “Particular increases on the new course [which started in 2020] have been seen for those from Asian/Asian British backgrounds, and those from mixed/multiple ethnic backgrounds.
“The proportion of those from Black/Black British backgrounds has decreased on the new course [it was 13.4% in 2020/21 and 10.3% in 2021/22], although the absolute number for 2022/23 enrolled students from such backgrounds is similar to that seen in 2020/21 (99 compared to 95).”
Women continue to make up a little over half of students, while around half of all students went to either Oxbridge or Russell Group universities.
The report showed too how the number of enrolments on the course continues to rise – there have been 2,360 this year, compared to 2,308 last year and 1,976 in 2021. This year’s figure is also nearly 500 higher than the best year of the old Bar professional training course.
Pupillage numbers have stayed steady –544 have been registered so far this year (479 in 204 chambers and 65 at 18 employers), compared to 538 in 2022.
The Bar training course allows a student a maximum of five years in which to successfully complete the course so that they can be called and the BSB allows unlimited resits of the 10 assessments it requires students to pass.
However, each training provider has its own rules on how many re-sits (generally three) are allowed as part of the academic awards in which the training is embedded, such as a postgraduate diploma or LLM.
The BSB only regulates the elements which are required to be passed to be called but said that providers do not separate them from their academic awards.
“Therefore, once students have reached the maximum permitted number of resits for the academic award, they fail the academic award and leave the [provider].” Only Nottingham Trent University allows unlimited resits within five years for its award.
“We have therefore discussed with training providers the best way to enable students to continue to take further re-sits once they have reached the maximum number permitted under the regulations of their academic awards.
“All providers were invited to propose solutions and BPP came forward to offer a solution which is being trialled with a pilot in December 2023.”
This allows for further resits but on a non-award basis. So, although students may be called if they successfully complete all the elements prescribed by the BSB, they will not receive any academic award from either their original provider or BPP.
“If the December 2023 pilot is successful, all students who have undertaken Bar training at other providers since September 2020 and who are deemed to have reached the maximum number of resits under the regulations of their academic award will be invited to apply to take further re-sits of any outstanding assessments. These may be taken with BPP from spring 2024.”
The BSB said this aligned with “the key principles of Bar training reform of accessibility and flexibility”, but recognised a perception “that this represents a lessening of our commitment to the further key principle of high standards”.
“We can be confident that any candidate who was deemed competent in respect of a Bar training assessment met all of the criteria for that subject listed in the Professional Statement and curriculum and assessment strategy on the day that they sat the exam, regardless of the number of attempts at the assessment they made before reaching that level of competence.
“They have therefore achieved the same high standard applied to all prospective barristers.” Furthermore, the BSB pointed out, this was not the final hurdle before practising.
It added that its research showed that students did keep on passing after three resists and restricting the number of attempts has “a marked adverse impact on some groups with protected characteristics”, particularly students from an ethnic minority background.
The report said also that the BSB would next year shake up the current compulsory course in advocacy skills during pupillage – to smooth out differences between providers – and from 2025 introduce a compulsory course in negotiation skills.