SRA making exam easier to help BAME students

The Solicitors Regulation Authority has announced that it is considering dropping a written skills test for new solicitors because black, asian and ethnic minority (BAME) candidates performed worse than white students in its pilot. It said the exam was not fit for purpose anyway.

In 2021 the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) is set to replace all the current routes to becoming a solicitor, including the requirement for the GDL and LPC. Instead, anyone wanting to become a solicitor will need to complete five elements: a degree or “equivalent qualification”; SQE part 1; SQE part 2; two years’ work experience; and a “character and suitability test”. 

The SRA appointed ex-law school Kaplan in 2018 to develop the exams. SQE part 1 was due to comprise a written skills test and a multiple choice legal knowledge test.

However, following a pilot by Kaplan, the SRA has now revealed that it is considering dropping the written skills test in SQE part 1 because the results “may set an unnecessary barrier to qualification which disadvantages BAME candidates”. Kaplan’s report on the pilot found that “there were differences in performance in ethnicity” with BAME candidates “performing worse as a group overall compared to white candidates”. 

SRA video

Julie Brannan, Director of Education and Training at the SRA, told RollOnFriday that the SRA “cannot be sure” why BAME candidates, who comprised 40% of the pilot candidates, performed poorly, but that “there may be wider societal issues that mean different groups may perform differentially in any assessment”. The fact that 16% of the test candidates did not have English as their first language may also have had an impact. If the written skills test is dropped, SQE part 1 would consist entirely of multiple-choice questions, with no requirement for candidates to write a word.

BAME students currently fare worse than white students on the LPC, with a pass rate of 40% for black students in 2018 compared to 80% for white students. Acknowledging that the SQE was being changed partly to allow more BAME candidates to pass, Brannan said, “We do need to be careful there is nothing in the SQE assessment design which unfairly discriminates against particular groups”. She said the skills test would have to be amended anyway as it did not meet general test standards, but “the fact that it disadvantages BAME candidates is a further reason why we cannot go ahead with it.“

She denied that the SRA was lowering the barrier to entry to increase diversity, stating that “Everyone needs to have a fair shot at qualifying”. 

Career in law

Brannan admitted that some firms wanted to see written skills tested in SQE part 1 because many candidates will start their qualifying work experience after taking it. “Some firms were keen for their new trainees to not only have been assessed in the application of legal knowledge, but also in some key legal skills such as research and writing”, she said. “We need to have further conversations with firms in the light of the SQE part 1 pilot results”.

Brannan said that SQE part 2 will include written skills and research tests, so there was “no question” that “as a whole” the SQE would cover a “full range of legal skills assessments”.

Asked how BAME candidates who would have failed a SQE part 1 written exam were suddenly going to be able to pass it in SQE part 2, Brannan fed the question into a word salad creator and said “the model of testing we are considering involves a different assessment design which should produce accurate results in a way which the SQE 1 skills pilot did not”. SQE part 2 will be piloted in December this year.

In a significant change from the current system, SQE candidates will no longer have to complete a two year training contract with a single provider. Instead, they can gain work experience at up to four different places, including student law clinics and pro bono projects.

However, some firms have told the SRA that they will still require their lawyers to complete a two-year training contract on top of any SQE work experience. Brushing aside suggestions that this indicated a lack of faith in the SQE, Brannan told RollOnFriday “we want to make sure firms have flexibility so they can choose an approach which works for their business.”  

The Justice Select Committee has written to the Legal Services Board saying that it remains “unconvinced that enough attention has been paid to the potential long-term impact of removing the requirement for academic study of law”.

Written by:  James Dennison 

First published 02.08.19:

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