The results for the first ever Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) assessment showed that, as with the legal practice course (LPC), race is a major factor in success.
Some 53% of the 1,073 candidates who took the two parts of the SQE1 passed, compared to 58% for the LPC historically. They sat it across more than 100 test centres in 26 countries.
While 66% of White candidates passed, the figures were 58% for candidates from mixed/multiple ethnic groups, 43% for Asian/Asian British candidates, 39% for Black/Black British candidates and 41% for candidates who declared ‘other’.
The most recent LPC figures recorded 65% of White candidates passing, compared to 57% of mixed/multiple ethnic candidates, 52% of Asian/Asian British candidates, 39% of Black/Black British/Caribbean/African candidates, and 52% of those from other ethnic groups.
For the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme exam, 68% of White candidates passed, compared to 56% of Black, Asian and minority ethnic candidates.
The SQE is split into two: SQE1 tests functioning legal knowledge (FLK), consisting of just over 10 hours of assessment taken over two days. SQE2 assesses practical legal skills and knowledge, with the first assessments scheduled for April.
Performance on FLK1 was significantly better than on FLK2. The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) said possible reasons could include the fact that candidates had less time to prepare for FLK2 as it was taken just three days after FLK1.
“Another factor could be the fact that candidates tended to do less well on the more transactional subjects such as conveyancing and litigation, of which there are more in FLK2 than FLK1.”
Data published by the SRA and Kaplan, the SQE assessment provider, showed no difference in the pass rates between men and women, with disability also making a negligible difference.
There was no significant difference between the performance of candidates who declared they went to non-selective state schools (57%) and those who went to a private school without a bursary (54%), or between those from a working class background (54%) and those with a parent or guardian from a professional background (56%).
However, two-thirds of those who attended a fee-paying school with a bursary (covering 90% of the costs) were successful, while there was a seven-point gap (58% v 51%) between those who had at least graduate parent and those who did not.
Other significant factors included achieving a top grade at university: 77% of those with a first-class degree passed, compared to 59% who had a 2:1 and 31% with a 2:2.
Some 57% of those with qualifying work experience – another element of qualifying as a solicitor –passed, but only 43% without it did.
Curiously, those who were already a qualified lawyer were less successful (48%) than those who were not (56%).
Although numbers were small (27 candidates), pass rates by solicitor apprentice candidates were well above average.
The SRA said the figures should be treated with some caution as some of the sample sizes were small and it did not know at this stage how representative this first cohort of candidates was.
The assessments are delivered and marked electronically. The SRA said Kaplan conducted a detailed statistical analysis to determine whether the assessments were valid and reliable, reviewed by an independent psychometrician.
“This psychometrician confirmed that Kaplan employed psychometrically robust procedures in the standard setting and analysis of the assessment data and that the statistics indicate the assessment to be of a high standard.”
Geoff Combe, the SQE independent reviewer appointed by the SRA, said: “Overall, the initial SQE1 exam appears to have successfully delivered valid fair, reliable and defensible outcomes.
“Each of the stages of preparation, delivery and processing outcomes for the exam demonstrated significant evidence of good practice. The operational and logistical processes to set up and deliver the exam proved effective.”
He was satisfied that the setting and editing of the questions and mark schemes, the “wholly objective marking”, and the very detailed post-results review of performance by different candidate groups “showed good practice (for example to avoid unintentional bias) and indicated every effort had been made to ensure fair outcomes for all candidates”.
SRA board chair Anna Bradley said: “The introduction of the SQE should give everyone confidence that those entering the profession have all met the same high standard. So we are pleased that the first assessment has gone well with results that suggest it was a robust, fair and reliable exam.”
She said the regulator had anticipated the “troubling difference in performance for candidates from Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups”, which has been “a longstanding and widespread feature in examinations in the legal and other sectors”.
The SRA has appointed Exeter University to carry out in-depth research to better understand the factors driving the attainment gap.