Transforming the BVC
9 June 2010
18 March 2011
30 June 2011
25 September 2009
15 October 2009
30 October 2009
The new-look, renamed course for bar students comes into force this autumn. Anna Banfield and James Welsh take us through the changes
The Bar Vocational Course (BVC) is being replaced by the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) in September 2010.
But what, besides having to learn yet another acronym, does this change actually mean?
Why the change?
In 2008 Derek Wood QC chaired a working group that carried out a comprehensive review of the BVC, with the central aim of ensuring the highest possible standards of those practising at the bar. Many of the report’s recommendations have been accepted by the Bar Standards Board (BSB) and will be implemented through the introduction of the new BPTC.
So what’s the difference?
The most immediately obvious signal that this is a new and different programme is, of course, the change of name, which emphasises the professional nature of the course.
But it also means……tougher entry requirements and a higher pass mark.
In our view, the single most significant change for the first year of the new course will be the raising of the pass mark from 50 per cent to 60 per cent (and from 60 per cent to 65 per cent where a multiple choice test is used as the vehicle for assessment). Furthermore, any student who fails an assessment will only have one opportunity to resit that assessment, whereas on the current BVC, students have two resit opportunities. While most students currently on the BVC would have no difficulty in reaching the 60 per cent threshold (and would only need a resit opportunity for an occasional underperformance), there may be a few students who would find the new regime particularly challenging.
To ensure that all those accepted onto the BPTC are capable of meeting these exacting standards, the Wood report recommended the introduction of an aptitude test that all students would have to pass before securing a place on the BPTC. A lot of work is currently being undertaken by the BSB to ensure that any test introduced would be fair and fit for purpose. For this reason the test is not being introduced for those starting the BPTC this September, but instead is being piloted. If the pilot is successful, the Aptitude Test is expected to be introduced in time for students starting in September 2011.
Currently, students whose first language is not English are required to obtain an English language qualification of 7.5 on the International English Language Test System or equivalent. The Wood report recommended strengthening this requirement by reviewing the format of the test to ensure it sufficiently tested the candidate’s fluency in, and understanding of, the English language. It also recommended all applicants - even if English is their first language - should be required to pass the test.
Changes to course content
The new BPTC also has a number of differences to the BVC in terms of specific subject areas. Of these, the most substantial change will be in the area of resolution of disputes out of court, an area that has become increasingly important in the civil justice system in the past decade or so.
In the current BVC, the teaching and assessment of this subject is limited to negotiation. Under the new course, a number of different forms of dispute resolution will be covered and will be assessed by an unseen written assessment comprising both multiple choice questions (MCQ) and short answer questions (SAQ). This assessment format, with the combination of MCQ and SAQ, is also being extended to professional ethics and the knowledge areas.
Professional ethics is currently assessed by means of ethical problems embedded within other skills assessments. On the BPTC, the importance of professional ethics is signalled by having a standalone ethics examination. To ensure a common exit standard across all the BPTC providers, the aim is to introduce centrally set assessments for both professional ethics and the knowledge subjects for students commencing the course in 2011. However, for a transitional period these assessments will be locally set, although they must all follow a standard format.
One change, which at first may seem surprising, is the recommendation that legal research is no longer assessed. The concern with a legal research assessment is the perceived artificiality of the ’research trail’ used in the current BVC, as some believe it can inhibit lateral thinking and innovation. However, the report recognises that it is important students continue to be fully instructed in access and use of the entire range of sources of legal information.
The final change is in relation to written skills (opinion writing and drafting). Providers currently have the discretion to assess these skills by way of a ’take-home’ paper that candidates undertake in their own time over a period of a week or more. For the BPTC these skills will be assessed by way of a three-hour ’open-book’ assessment. While the Wood report does not specifically recommend this change, we understand that the rationale for its introduction is to ensure that all students graduating from the BVC have demonstrated their ability to work under pressure and unaided.
All in all, the rigorous requirements of the new BPTC should ensure that the bar students of the future obtain a qualification that is internationally respected and that ensures confidence in the standard of those who practise at the bar.
Anna Banfield and James Welsh are directors of BVC programmes at BPP Law School