When ‘excellent’ is less than brilliant in the war for ratings

BPP Law School’s London branch is on the verge of losing its ‘excellent’ Law Society rating. If a recent audit, first revealed by The Lawyer last week (9 May), is confirmed, then the legal education provider will be classified as merely ‘very good’.

But does it really matter? After all, when the consortium of top firms – Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Herbert Smith, Lovells, Norton Rose and Slaughter and May – sought to renew their contract for the provision of the City LPC, they opted for an exclusive relationship with the London branch of BPP. In doing so, Nottingham Law School, now one of only five education providers holding an ‘excellent’ rating, was thrust out into the cold.

The consortium had previously also included Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance and Linklaters, but the magic circle firms subsequently opted for the College of Law after deciding they wanted a school to design and run a bespoke LPC. All of the College of Law’s five branches are also rated as just ‘very good’.

Many LPC providers are less than enamoured with the existing Law Society assessment regime, complaining of excessive regulation and of a system with perceived bias against those providing tailored training for individual law firms.

The five-point grading scale has been in place since 2001, ranking schools between ‘unsatisfactory’ and ‘excellent’. No schools are currently graded ‘unsatisfactory’, and only one, London Metropolitan, is ‘satisfactory’.

The grades are the result of a three-day examination by a group of Law Society auditors. In the following academic year, there is a a one-day pastoral visit to monitor progress and, in the subsequent year, the provider assesses itself.

The timing can be problematic. Melissa Hardee, LPC director at the Inns of Court School of Law, says last year there were just six months between the school’s grading visit in May 2004 and the pastoral visit in November 2004. “I think it’s completely overregulated,” she says.

BPP’s chief executive Peter Crisp argues: “Sometimes it does seem that the Law Society has taken up permanent residence at the law school, as they’re in so frequently.”

Meanwhile, associate dean of legal studies at the University of the West of England Paul Rylance voices his concern that the grading system makes providers focus too much on the short term. “There’s a tendency to look as far as the next visit to maintain the ‘excellent’ rating,” says Rylance.

Although the Law Society defends the timing of visits, it is in consultation about reforming the system. Proposals include expanding the single grade assessment to cover five individual areas: teaching, resources, student support, course organisation and quality.

The Law Society argues that the changes are designed to “enhance the quality of provision overall”, but also to give more and better information to students. Course providers support the idea of giving individual ratings for each set of criteria, rather than providing a single grade for the entire course.

“I think that providers who tailor courses to the needs of law firms tend to be at a disadvantage, as the criteria usually favour more generalist courses,” Crisp tells The Lawyer, adding that he finds the grading system less valuable now that “the major law firms have now effectively decided who the leading providers are”.

College of Law chief executive Nigel Savage is similarly dismissive of ratings. “Organisations that chase ratings run the risk of falling flat on their faces,” he says. “Organisations that look after the needs of clients will succeed.”

Current LPC course provider grades
Law school Grading Last audited
BPP Leeds Very good 2004
BPP London Very good* 2005
Cardiff Law School Excellent 2003
College of Law, Birmingham Very good 2004
College of Law, Chester Very good 2004
College of Law, Guildford Very good 2004
College of Law, London Very good 2003
College of Law, York Very good 2002
Inns of Court School of Law Excellent 2004
Nottingham Law School Excellent 2004
Oxford Institute of Legal Practice Very good 2002
Staffordshire University Excellent 2003
University of the West of England Excellent 2003

* Audit awaiting ratification by the Law Society Source: The Law Society