As many of you may know, I am training to be a barrister, which just like every other profession means you are required to take plenty of exams. The body which is responsible for regulating (note the word regulating) is the Bar Standards Board, or BSB for short.
They are the body which audits the activity of providers of the barrister course (Bar Professional Training Course, or BPTC for short), regulates the activity and ethics of barristers and dictates the requirements of what trainee barristers need to learn.
The BSB is responsible for setting three exam papers, Criminal Litigation, Civil Litigation and Professional Ethics, whereas the examination of other subjects are set by each of the course providers. As such the BSB is responsible for timetabling of those exams and setting the requirements.
Baring in mind that both the Criminal Litigation & Civil Litigation examinations are considered the most important written examinations, the BSB have this year decided to have them almost back to back, with only one day between them. Following on from my post on whether exams should be used as a test of memory or not, the BSB has ruled that these exams should be closed book. In other words students are not allowed to use Archbold, The White Book or the BSB Code (considered as the practitioners texts) in exams, something which is does not make sense to many a student, lecturer or practising barrister.
The three centrally assessed examinations, are divided into two parts; Section A contains Multiple Choice Questions (MCQ’s), 20 for Professional Ethics, and 40 for each Litigation exam. Section B contains Short Answer Questions (SAQ’s), 3 for Professional Ethics, and 5 for each Litigation exam.
As the BSB is not an education provider, it requests each of the providers to submit questions to it that can be used to write future papers. Here lies the problem.
The Professional Ethics paper which was sat on the 18th March 2013 by thousands of students at each of the providers at 14:00 contained at least one short answer question which had been submitted to the BSB, that had been contained on a BPP Professional Ethics Mock.
These questions were not altered in any way what so ever, and verbatim to the questions the BPP students had answered. In line with revision materials, BPP had also released the marking scheme for their mock paper, meaning that students of BPP had the marking scheme for at least one of the SAQ’s
Whilst I don’t think that BPP have done anything wrong on this case as they have appeared to have complied with the BSB, the BSB have. The method for writing the paper is fatally flawed, as by using a set of questions which are used by mocks ultimately means that some students will have seen the question (and in some cases the marking scheme) and others will not have done. Even if for each exam an identical number of questions are used from each provider, the problem remains. There is no guarantee that the marks for each question or difficulty will be equal.
If that wasn’t bad enough one of the MCQ’s did not have a correct answer available, and it was impossible to answer correctly.
Whilst we don’t have access to the exam paper that we had sat (as we are not permitted to remove the papers from the exam room, presumably so the questions can be reused for mocks – don’t ask) so the wording may not be 100% accurate, the question and answers given are pretty much what was being asked. The relevant section of the Code Of Conduct which CPD relates is below:
As can be seen, non of the answers available were correct. We suspect that answer D was the answer it should have been, but there was a typo, with four years/three years. Typo or no typo, there was still no correct answer.
We BPTC students still have two centrally set assessments to take after the Easter holidays, I for one have very little faith that the same wont happen again.
Unsurprisingly at university we were keen to discuss what we thought the BSB would do, we came up with the following options available. However no matter what the action taken, there are going to be unpleasant consequences.
The first option available is to cancel all questions which were compromised. However if the one SAQ question was cancelled (at 10 marks), and currently the number of compromised MCQ’s were cancelled (at 1 mark each), you quickly have a paper which has a questions which don’t test the requirements on the syllabus, and the weighting of each question increasing considerably.
The second option is to force students at BPP to re-sit the exam. Personally I don’t feel it to be the fault of the students, and regardless, the point of having a centralised exam is to ensure the consistency of complexity, something which would not be achieved if they were required to re-sit.
Finally force every BPTC student to re-sit the exam. This would be the most unpopular decision as it would mean that everyone would have to re-revise for the re-sit. The taking of the paper would no doubt inconvenience many who had booked holiday. However most importantly would mean that no one would be able to be called to the Bar in the summer, as papers most likely, would not be able to be written, distributed, taken, and marked in time, therefore inconveniencing people who had pupillages or wanting to start their legal career.
In waiting for the BSB statement, many students took to twitter to voice their concerns:
No matter what happens, I am sure that I am not alone when I say my confidence in the body which sets the rules of how we are examined, has been significantly diminished.