The test aimed at weeding out students with little chance of passing the Bar professional training course (BPTC) has so far failed to achieve its objective because the pass mark has been set too low, the Bar Standards Board revealed yesterday.
The mark is to rise from next year after a review of the Bar course aptitude test (BCAT) found that in its first year, just 13 students – 0.6% of the cohort – were unable to pass it after one or more attempts.
Further, the BCAT had made no difference to the profile of students on the course.
The review analysed how students performed on the BPTC in 2013/14, and then compared it with their scores on the BCAT in 2013.
The positive outcome was the finding that the actual score a student obtained in the BCAT was a “very strong predictor” of their performance on the BPTC.
The pass mark was initially set at a “cautious level”, the review noted, because of concerns that if it were too high, it might have a disproportionate effect on students from non-traditional backgrounds and thus have equality and diversity implications.
But the lack of effect on students was also borne out by BPTC providers, who reported that the introduction of the BCAT had not had any impact on their selection procedures, because the test was deemed too easy, and was not an effective tool to improve standards beyond existing admissions and/or selection procedures.
Further work using subsequent BCAT cohorts identified 45 – as opposed to the present level of 38 – as the correct pass mark. In 2013/14 this would have reduced the number of students progressing onto the BPTC who subsequently failed it by 16.6%.
Though it suspended the BCAT in December, the BSB has decided as a result of this research to continue with the test. However, where previously students were only given a ‘pass/fail’ indicator, they will in future be provided with their actual score together with an indication of what this means for their likely success on the BPTC.
From 2017, the pass mark will increase to 45, subject to approval by the Legal Services Board. The BSB said that when considering when to introduce the change, it was “mindful of students already planning for the BCAT and BPTC in 2016”.
The BSB’s director of education and training, Dr Simon Thornton-Wood, said: “The BCAT is proven to be a very effective test of important critical thinking skills for the BPTC, and will give students a reliable indicator of their likely chances of success before they embark on the BPTC, which can be costly, as we are keenly aware.”
In response, the Bar Council argued that the BCAT was “still inadequate” as a mechanism to filter students.
Chairman Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC said: “Over 1,500 students enrol on the BPTC each year, which costs between £12,000 and £19,000 in tuition fees alone, but there are only around 400 pupillages available.
“One of the messages I hear consistently on circuit visits is that the system is producing large numbers of applicants who have little or no prospect of obtaining pupillage or practising as a barrister. These arrangements build false hope for too many students at too high a cost.”
Bar Council policy analyst Alex Cisneros added that the 16.6% reduction would not address the problem “properly”.
“If the BCAT is to serve a gatekeeping function, it must filter out students who have no reasonable prospect of obtaining pupillage or practising as a barrister, not just those who have no prospect of passing the BPTC.”
The research also found that being from a white ethnic background, having come through the graduate diploma in law, holding a first of upper second class degree, attending a Russell Group university, and being a UK or EU students “are all associated with better performance on the BPTC”.