So there we have it – the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) has been pushed back to 2021. No surprises there really, we could have told the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) ages ago that there is no way they’d be ready by 2020
Anyway, people keep telling me that this is happening, that I just have to accept it and that we just have to get on with it. Well, no, no and no. While it does seem like the SQE is indeed coming, final approval for the assessment is still required from the Legal Services Board. I desperately want them to grow a backbone and declare that a qualifying examination which is likely to harm widening participation, disadvantage already disadvantaged potential solicitors further and write any ‘poor people’s law’ out of education and training for solicitors completely is just not good enough. Come on, we’re better than this utter nonsense. We can do better. We don’t need to kills aspiration and crush a generation who could make a real difference in the world.
Anyway, even if the SQE is coming, I do not have to, nor will I, just accept that. I will keep shouting about it. I will keep telling anyone who will listen (or who won’t, don’t care) why I think it’s a disaster. It promotes a skewed and, I would suggest, harmful conceptualisation of law. Luke Mason has written about this in his contribution to the forthcoming Special Issue of the Law Teacher: The International Journal of Legal Education. In the same issue Doug Morrison highlights the risk the SQE poses to creativity within the law curriculum and Elaine Hall teaches us a thing or two about robust assessment – which the SQE is not. Kathryn Dutton and I wrote about widening participation. These articles alone give you plenty of reasons to scrap the SQE as proposed and go back to the drawing board or at the very least for Law Schools to ignore it.
Let me be clear. I find this hard because I find it hard to justify why I am even remotely interested in the SQE. I don’t care about the professions, I don’t teach/train/whatever future lawyers much less solicitors. I, on a good day anyway, help people learn about law, help them to think, help them to articulate those thoughts and to write and argue and evaluate and use information to form a view and build and argument. Then I want them to go away and make the world a better place and some will do that as lawyers but most will not. So I care, not because of the impact the SQE has on the profession (although I care at the level we should all care about the lack of legal aid lawyers, solicitors who know about family law or employment law or social welfare…) but because of the impact law schools are allowing the SQE to have on the undergraduate law provision.
As a sector we have fallen for the SRA’s ploy. They want us to do their work for them. They want us to train solicitors. University Law Schools are to train their students to pass the SQE. The SRA frees us from the shackles (not that they were particularly tight!) of the Qualifying Law Degree (QLD) for their purposes (but the Bar keeps it) and says they are leaving us alone to get on with things as we think fit but at the same time clearly expect education providers to pick up the SQE preparation. Why are we doing this? Some institutions clearly see opportunities here and others feel they have no choice because they need to continue to recruit high numbers of students. Seriously? You understand that we are lying to our students by selling them SQE ready programmes, yes? If the SRA insists on the SQE, we should leave them to it. As legal educators we should stick two fingers up at them and reclaim our discipline and our expertise. We work in Higher Education. Education people. Education!
The best thing we can do for our students in Post 1992s or lower ranked Schools generally is to provide them with a strong UG education which focuses on helping them to think, articulate, write and have confidence in themselves. If others then want to think about tagging on an SQE prep course, be my guest (but don’t expect me to contribute or be nice about it). I’m not suggesting we try and be like Russel Groups institutions – we’re different, we can, should and must offer different things to our students because generally our students are different and what we do can help bridge the gap life has created for some of those coming to us. What is that difference? Well that’s for each institution to articulate but it has to be based on an understanding of who our students are and how we can help them get to where they want to be.
Anyway, I started writing this thinking about the other part of today’s headline – the cost of the SQE is likely to be between £3000 and £4500. That’s just the exam. JUST THE EXAM. For what it’s worth I think the eventual cost will be at the top end of that or higher but even if those figures are correct, add a prep course and you’re squarely within LPC fee territory. So the only way the SRA’s insistence that the SQE route would be cheaper than current routes holds true is if university law schools prepare candidates for the SQE as part of degree programmes. But the SRA aren’t expecting that. Not at all. Not one bit.
So why won’t I stop going on? Because this shit matters. It matters to my students, it matters to the legal profession, it matters to society and it says something about who we are and what we value. I hope I am wrong about the SQE, I hope that those more optimistic than me are right but I’m not prepared to sit back and let the SRA get on with it on the basis that maybe I am being a bit dramatic about all this. Are you?
The Solicitors Regulation Authority held a roundtable to discuss the latest news on the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE). Conveniently it was held at Leeds Beckett University so I didn’t have to go anywhere. Julie Brannan, Director of Education and Training at the SRA and Dr Eileen Fry, Director of the SQE at Kaplan who have been appointed to run the SQE ran the session.
I was hoping we might have a few more answers and I was hoping, against all hope I know, that things might not be as bad as I think they are. Hm. Anyway, let’s see if I can just tell you about it without actually raising my blood pressure. So Julie went first and outlined the SQE. There was nothing really new there. The usual 4 requirements come together in a puzzle, degree, SQE 1 and 2, character requirement and qualifying work experience. Julie confirmed that the requirements are not chronological. I’ve been thinking about this and while it might be true in terms of the regulation, logically they sort of are – or the logic of the SQE falls apart. If the degree or equivalent isn’t to come first then why have it at all? What would the point be of passing the SQE and doing the work experience and then do a degree… it’s odd. We also know that SQE 1 has to be taken before SQE 2. While the SRA say that the work experience can come at any point, they also say that the work experience only has to offer the opportunity to develop the skills required to be a solicitor because the SQE2 tests those skills. So logically then the chronology has to be degree, SQE1, Work experience, SQE 2 and the good character confirmation. Because if the work experience comes after SQE2 what’s the point of it given that the skills it is supposed to help develop have already been tested? I suppose what I am getting at is that the SRA talks about this being a really flexible pathway and you choose your own way through but in reality there are few pathways that make logical sense and when you start moving the order around the internal logic of the process falls apart.
So here’s where the blood pressure just won’t stay low:
Julie suggested that law firms currently use A-level grades to select candidates because they are the last reliable standardized test people take (She did say this was problematic because they were, at the time of application, old. This of course won’t change as A-levels are a way to filter out candidates and reduce the number of CVs an actual human has to look at – I have spoken several regional firms who use computer systems to filter out people so if you haven’t got three As your application will never actually be seen by a human… and if the SQE is pass/fail only then firms will still want to all back on something to rank them). So that’s a little annoying. There is the QAA Benchmark statement, we have external examiners, universities don’t just make it up as they go along, that’s before we look at the quite detailed rules about the LPC. That wasn’t the only worrying thing Julie said. She also said that the changes provided opportunities for education providers to ‘use their expertise to train their students for the SQE’. In other words the SRA is relying on university law schools to prepare students for an exam none of us really wanted in the first place.
So, about the exam itself – I was hoping for more information but really there was very little. Currently the thinking is that there will be 6 tests with 120 question each and the average time to answer the question was suggested to be about 1.8 minutes. That’s even worse than the 3 minutes previously talked about. Kaplan has paired up with Pearson to administer the test – there are lots of test centres across the country – apparently one within 40 miles of everyone. But that only applies to the written tests. The SQE2 tests will take place in far fewer centres because otherwise it’s too difficult to assure standardization and consistency.
I think the most shocking statement of the day was a response to a question about candidates with disabilities. Dr Fry said ‘You timetable for the bulk and then sort out the others’. So if you have a disability which might prevent you from taking all the tests within the usual timetable, don’t worry, Kaplan will sort you out – nothing like making you feel like the profession is welcoming to all. I do wonder whether they’ve ever heard of inclusive assessment design. It was a throwaway comment but I can’t stop thinking about it.
But anyway, it’s ok because Kaplan staff are solicitors who therefore understand legal education and practice – yes the cause and effect was implied in that way. Of course being a solicitor means that you know everything there is to know about legal education. I’m sure there are some extremely well qualified people at Kaplan but these flippant imprecise comments don’t help! Kaplan have of course been running the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Test (QLTS) since 2011 and that’s part of the problem. The sample questions they shared with us on the day were clearly QLTS questions – they must have been because they had the passrate data from them. But the SQE is not the QLTS and even if it were a similar kind of thing, we seem to have forgotten that the QLTS is hugely problematic and that anecdotal evidence suggests it’s incredibly stressful and a fairly awful experience. Kaplan were keen to stress the expertise on their advisory board – drawn from people who have Bar exam experience as well as experience from medical education but again we’re not comparing like with like. I am sure there are things that can be learned from those contexts but we need to acknowledge that the SQE context is different.
Dr Fry spent some time talking about Validity, Reliability and Accuracy which is all good but the validity of the SQE seemed to completely undermined by another of her throw away remarks. If the SQE is supposed to test what solicitors need to know and be able to do on day one then we presumably need to know what solicitors do on day one – except we don’t and Dr Fry commented that one day we might do a survey to find out. So the SQE cannot test what it is supposed to test because we don’t know what solicitors do on day 1. It’s all a bit silly.
The other thing that struck me was that there is this presumption that law schools will offer preparation and that many many legal professionals still misunderstand the SQE as a new programme rather than as an assessment. This baffles me and I need to think carefully about what this means. There will of course be providers who will offer courses to prepare for the SQE. The courses will be unregulated and many won’t be that good and we will be leaving those least equipped to navigate that market to take a huge a risk.
Anyway, actually there’s nothing new! It’s the same old same old and we’re just waiting for the SRA to figure out fees, transition period, exact format of the SQE and anything else they think we might need to know. Lovely.