Research highlights ethnic minority attainment gap on Bar course

Training: Disparity caused greater impact in centrally assessed courses

The attainment gap between ethnic minority and White students in the centrally assessed modules of the Bar professional training course (BPTC) was “broadly similar” to other modules but with a higher impact on pass rates, research by the Bar Standards Board (BSB) has found.

The BSB said the exams in civil litigation, criminal litigation and professional ethics for the BPTC, replaced in 2020 by the new Bar training courses, were harder to pass than the modules set by course providers.

The BSB said that research in 2017 found that students from ethnic minority backgrounds scored 4.7 points lower than White students in the centralised assessments.

The latest research found that introduction of a new format for the exams in 2017 did not lead to a “consistent change in differential outcomes” in terms of ethnicity, gender, disability, age, type of school attended and parental university status.

Instead, the centralised assessments were “linked with a higher level of differential outcomes” as a result of academic history, namely first degree classification and university attended.

“However, as the centrally assessed modules were more difficult to pass on average, the differences in outcomes by ethnicity had a larger impact on pass rates for the centralised assessments than for other modules − with higher proportions of students from minority ethnic backgrounds failing to pass the centralised examinations than other modules on the course.”

The BSB said: “The attainment gap for students from minority ethnic backgrounds is not unique to training for the Bar but remains a particular cause for concern.

“There are opportunities therefore to learn from other legal regulators and other sectors when looking at our response to this research, but it should be noted that no sector has yet found easy or straightforward answers to the problem of differential outcomes.”

The BSB went on: “Ethnicity per se is most probably not the effective variable affecting students’ success on the BPTC.

“Instead, it is a proxy for other factors correlated with ethnicity that are not controlled for in the analyses that have been undertaken; these are likely to relate to socio-economic status and psychosocial-cultural experience (including family and other support networks), and differing behaviour towards those of different ethnicities.”

However, the BSB added: “Overt racism does still occur in higher education in the UK, and there is often more subtle racial discrimination against specific groups of people in higher education.”

The research confirmed that the centralised assessments were the hardest BPTC exams to pass, made worse by the introduction of new formats.

The drop was particularly seen for those with a first class or upper second degree and varied more widely between the years than for other modules, along with the failure rate.

Students from Asian/Asian British, Black/Black British, mixed/multiple and other ethnic backgrounds all performed worse than White students in the centralised assessments, when other variables were discounted.

The BSB said the research “highlighted some important issues that we will include when evaluating the introduction of the new Bar course and in our wider work on equality and diversity”.

The regulator said the findings would help shape recommendations about its approach to equality and diversity and “serve as a benchmark for future research into these issues”.

There would also be a thematic review of the admissions arrangements of authorised training providers and “what systems are in place to ensure that a student develops to their full potential, whatever their starting point”.

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