The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is set to begin a multi-year project to increase understanding of why Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students perform worse than white students.
The regulator said there was a “well evidenced attainment gap affecting BAME students at all levels of education and training and professional assessment in multiple sectors”.
Its annual monitoring of the legal practice course (LPC), common professional examination, period of recognised training and the qualified lawyer transfer scheme “clearly demonstrates this”, as do studies across many disciplines, including pharmacy, medicine and higher education as a whole, it pointed out.
For example, the most recent LPC results showed that two-thirds of white students passed, compared with 48% of Asian students and 35% of black students. White students were also significantly more likely to receive distinctions.
Similarly, the pilots of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) – which is being introduced in autumn 2021 – showed that white candidates “significantly out-performed” those of a BAME background – but an updated equality, diversity and inclusion risk assessment published earlier this month said “we have found no evidence that any of these assessment methods used in the SQE are intrinsically biased or that the outcomes are worse than those seen in the current LPC system”.
In its 2020/21 business plan, which is currently out for consultation, the SRA said the SQE would not resolve the attainment gap, or its drivers, “but we believe we can achieve a fair and consistent assessment through good design, question setting and marking, and close monitoring and quality assurance once the SQE is up and running”.
However, it was “likely” that the attainment gap would persist, “as it does elsewhere”, because the reasons seem to be “complex and rooted in wider societal issues”.
The SRA pledged to share its data, commission research and work with others “to increase understanding of these difficult issues, including how protected characteristics and social mobility intersect, and what might be done”.
It continued: “This is likely to be the start of a project lasting several years. By 2022/23 we plan to look at what can be done to make a difference to the complex factors that result in the widespread patterns of differential attainment in higher education and professional assessment.”
The SRA has put a series of measures in place to address the issue in the SQE, such as recruiting and training a diverse group of assessors, and it will soon publish an updated report from the independent Bridge Group, which in 2017 reported that the reforms were “not a panacea for diversity” but could make a “significant contribution”.
A recently published five-year review of the SRA’s equality, diversity and inclusion work also said that both the equality impact assessment and Bridge report showed the SQE was likely to deliver “some benefit for people from less affluent backgrounds because those from ‘earn as you learn’ routes will be assessed in the same way as those from academic routes”.