Enhancing Education

The Bar Professional Training Course which replaces the Bar Vocational Course in September 2010 is evolution not revolution, believes Marcus Soanes.

In September 2010, the Bar Professional Training Course (“BPTC”) replaces the existing Bar Vocational Course (“BVC”). The BVC was designed at the end of the 1980s by the Bar Council fulfilling its statutory obligation to maintain and enhance standards in education for the profession. That course established the pattern for the training that prepares students for pupillage, and placed written and interpersonal skills at its centre. Since that time, the Bar Council, and subsequently the Bar Standards Board (“BSB”), has refined the course requirements and validated several institutions across the country to deliver the BVC. Through its regulatory bodies, the profession has sought to standardise training for the Bar, and has, to a large extent, dictated the course curriculum, its length and the learning facilities for students. This means that institutions offering the programme have had to fulfil their validation requirements and to respond to revisions imposed on them. Over the years, several working parties were established to ensure that the BVC remained fit for purpose. The most significant was that chaired by the then Mr Justice Elias, which instituted changes to the course content and assessment framework from 2002.


The BPTC, however, represents a more thorough root and branch revision to the vocational stage of training for the Bar. Chambers seeking pupils will wish to know what skills and knowledge recruits from that new course hold – and, equally importantly, to what standard. Law students wishing to join the BPTC will need to know how exacting the entrance requirements will be and what they can expect of the course. Designing the course content and assessment framework for the BPTC was only achieved after a great deal of consultation with the profession, the Inns, providers and students.

In July, the BPTC published the final version of the BPTC Handbook, which runs to nearly 200 pages and is a live document to which further revisions can be expected (see www.barstandardsboard.org.uk/assets/documents/BPTC.pdf). As with the BVC, institutions offering the new course have to follow the course specifications fully and abide by the validation agreements that they have entered into with the BSB. Both documents are highly detailed and often prescriptive. Institutions that provide the BVC were consulted at all stages of the review, but they were only one of several stakeholders. Their experience of delivering skills-based legal education was respected, but their suggestions were not always accepted by the BSB. The purpose of the BPTC – like the BVC before it – is to enable students to acquire and develop the skills, knowledge and values they need to become effective members of the Bar. But how different will this new course be?

Evolution not revolution

The BPTC represents an evolution rather than a revolution in vocational training for the Bar, and the core of the old course will be carried over to it. The curricula for the procedure and evidence subjects have been broadened, and remedies are added to the civil litigation module. This is, of course, in addition to the necessary revisions that take account of changes to the law. Advocacy, drafting, opinion writing, and conference skills remain at the heart of the BPTC, and towards the end of the course students will continue to take two modules in specialist areas of practice. The details in each curriculum for these subjects have also been revised, but will be readily recognisable to anyone familiar with the BVC. These relatively light changes are consistent with the findings of the working group, led by Derek Wood QC, which thoroughly reviewed the content of the BVC and declared it to be fundamentally sound.

Subjects not making the grade

However, the working group did recommend significant changes in other areas. Two BVC subjects will not appear on the new course, namely legal research and negotiation skills. It is doubted that they will be long mourned for themselves. Both were unpopular with students, and their assessment methods created a sense of unfairness and were considered artificial. Students will still be required to engage with primary law and practitioner commentaries to seek relevant, up-to-date law, and to apply the fruits of their research to realistic legal problems. But these skills will be integrated into the skills subjects in more realistic and relevant ways. Negotiation skills will feature in the new “resolution of disputes out of court” module (surely a snappier title will need to be found, though “RODOC” may not be the answer). This subject will be a challenge to teach and to learn. The current framework for this subject includes in addition to negotiation – mediation, arbitration, early neutral determination, expert determination and other alternative dispute resolution processes. Mere familiarisation with the theory of these resolution methods will not be enough, as students will also be required to perform a mock mediation. The concern has already been expressed that a quart is being required to fit into a pint pot, and the BSB has undertaken a review of the practicalities of this curriculum.

Professional values

Another area for expansion is professional ethics. The BVC professional conduct module is largely confined to knowledge and application of the core of the Code of Conduct. The new professional ethics module seeks to go further and to instil the core professional values that underpin practice. Students will sit a centrally-set multiple choice and short answer assessment, which will address the problem of each provider devising examinations. This has hitherto created an undesirable inconsistency in approach to a fundamental part of legal professional education. In summary, the BPTC curriculum seeks to be broader in coverage than the BVC, and to be fit for the purpose of practice at the Bar in the 21st Century.

Selection criteria

Entrance requirement to the BPTC will be more rigorous, and exit standards promise to be more exacting too. The academic entrance requirements were debated at great length by the Wood Committee, and in the end it was decided that a second class degree was the minimum acceptable award. This decision seeks to strike a balance between selecting students with good intellectual skills and at the same time recognising that other attributes are required for practice such as excellent communication skills and a commitment to serve the interests of justice. In addition to a good degree, an aptitude test must be passed by all applicants. The BSB is receiving expert assistance with the design of this test and are consulting widely on its format and purpose. Current thinking is that the test will be a critical reasoning one that can be completed online at designated assessment centres. There is a commitment by the BSB to get this requirement right and to ensure that it is administered fairly. Achieving this takes time, and for entrance to the BPTC in autumn 2010 the test will not be compulsory, but it will be piloted early in 2010 with a view to making it a compulsory requirement for the autumn 2011 intake. Applicants, who do not have English as a first language, will need to pass the International English Language Test with a score of 7.5 in all areas. Another controversial topic during the review was the length of the course. After much debate and consultation, the working group recommended only a very slight reduction in its length from 32 to 30 weeks. Thus students on the new course will continue to study for a full academic year.

Raising the grades

Once on the course students will encounter a tougher assessment regime. The pass mark has been raised, and the grading descriptors revised. However, the grade titles remain Competent, Very Competent and Outstanding – something for pupillage selectors to be aware of when comparing BPTC students to BVC ones. The pass mark in skills is raised from 50 per cent to 60 per cent, and that for knowledge subjects from 60 per cent to 65 per cent. Candidates sitting assessments that have two elements, for example those with a combination of multiple choice and a short answer questions, must pass each element to pass the examination; about a third of the assessments fall into this category. Greater consistency of the marking of assessments is sought through the innovation of centrally set examinations for the civil and criminal procedural subjects and ethics. In time, a fourth assessment – the resolution of disputes – may be brought in-house by the BSB. Other measures that are designed to increase the rigour of assessment are the increase in the use of time-limited and invigilated examinations, and the reduction of re-sit opportunities from two to one. These are important changes that prospective students will need to consider when applying to the BPTC, in addition to heeding to warnings about the very high competition for pupillage places and ultimately tenancy.

The course providers

Institutions wishing to offer the BPTC must satisfy the BSB’s exacting validation requirements and, for those that are part of universities, any internal programme approval requirements. One new provider has been validated, Kaplan in London, which will offer the Nottingham programme. All existing BVC providers will offer the BPTC in full time and in most cases also in part time mode. The BSB will maintain its monitoring role through regular quality assurance visits and through the use of external examiners. The Wood Committee expressed the opinion that the general standard of teaching on the BVC is high. This is a conclusion that is shared by the BSB’s monitoring reports and by students, according to data gathered by the Committee itself. The Committee was very impressed with the standard of physical accommodation and library and IT facilities at the institutions, and commented that they much exceed the standard provided for postgraduates in many other disciplines.

This is encouraging news for students seeking to join the BPTC, but they will wish to take the opportunity to visit institutions that are marketing their courses to them. Each institution will have to follow closely the course specifications in the BPTC Handbook and their validation agreements but are at liberty to design their own programmes. For example, the City Law School’s approach will be to design a highly integrated course that equips students to tackle both criminal and civil practice in a flexible but deep way, employing modern learning technologies and exploiting the benefits of face-to-face teaching delivered by qualified lawyers. As with other providers, CLS only has limited design freedom as the BPTC Handbook sets out detailed curricula for subjects, their order within the programme, the number of teaching sessions and the nature and timing of each assessment. Competition for students is likely to heat up as the recession will undoubtedly have an impact on the number of applicants whose number has been in decline since the middle of the last decade. Interested students should acknowledge this, and use it to their advantage when selecting their preferred course provider.

Engaging with the Bar

It is fair to say that some of the profession are of the view that vocational training for the Bar is wholly or partly flawed. The Wood Committee formed the impression that parts of the profession have become disengaged from the course which trains its recruits. Some of the Committee members that were not acquainted with the course until they embarked on the review had misgivings about the BVC. After visits to providers, classroom observations, and meetings with students and members of the teaching faculty these views altered. It would be impractical for all members of the Bar to reach the same level of engagement, but the BSB has sought to re-engage practitioners through enhancement of the role of external examiners and by placing a requirement on providers to include practitioners at the design and delivery stages of their courses. If members of the Bar do this, it is hoped that the profession will gain a greater sense that they are major stakeholders in legal vocational training, and students will receive a highly effective and practical professional education.

Marcus Soanes, Director of the Part time BVC, City Law School, City University London

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