BPP Law School got less than top marks in the BSB’s recent report. So what has the dean Peter Crisp done to tackle the manifold problems facing one of the biggest legal education providers in the country?
In March this year The Lawyer reported (8 March) that BPP Law School had been put under the spotlight following a ’triggered visit’ by the Bar Standards Board (BSB) and its subsequent report, which had been prompted by the oversubscription of the school’s BVC.
During the visit the BSB spoke to students and staff about the concerns it had over how the extra students would impact on resources, staffing and the overall learning experience for candidates.
The chief executive of BPP College and dean of BPP Law School Peter Crisp argues that the BSB spoke to students “too early into their BVC” to get an accurate picture of their learning experience.
“They spoke to a small, select group of students in the third teaching week,” Crisp counters. “I don’t know, maybe you can make that sort of judgement, but for me it would be difficult to make that sort of judgement so early on. We do listen to students’ comments very carefully, but I think you have to listen to them at the appropriate moment, when they’ve had the time to make the judgements.”
Whatever the case, the facts are that the BSB did pay BPP an unexpected visit and did publish a report of its findings. The Lawyer’s sister magazine Lawyer 2B visited BPP’s Holborn branch to see if the education provider had taken any notice of what the report had to say.
Probably the most alarming BSB finding related to concerns over the suitability of the main lecture theatre in Holborn. The report states: ”Comments from students regarding the lecture theatre were highly negative. One student said that people actively avoid it. Another said: ’If people aren’t sitting on the floor, then you know everyone isn’t there.’”
But walking into the lecture theatre, Crisp assures me that as soon as the school realised it had oversubscribed students, it recognised that the learning space would be too cramped for them and subsequently made plans to split lectures in half.
“We were concerned because the lecture theatre technically seats 320 students, but if you’ve got 314 or so students on the BVC that means you’ve only got five or so spare seats, which isn’t practical. So by the third week of teaching we decided to run the classes twice. The issue then disappeared,” he insists.
Another point that comes up in the report in relation to the lecture theatre is health and safety.
“With only three fire doors, would people be able to evacuate quickly?” the report asks.
Crisp assures me that the school takes health and safety very seriously and has been “rubber stamped” by officials, who say the room meets all requirements. Looking around the room, three doors seem sufficient. How many more does the BSB want?
The library caused great concern in the report and so was our next stop. Crisp wastes no time pointing out the huge flat-screen TV at the entrance to the library, which shows students how many computers are available and in which rooms. At the time only 20 per cent of the computers were being used. But then this was midweek at 10am.
“There’s never a time when there isn’t a computer available and students can borrow laptops,” Crisp says as we continue our tour through the school’s vast library facility. “The entire building is WiFi.”
The BSB recommended that BPP review its library stock and send it a report on provision, which Crisp assures me has been done.
The school has now purchased extra access to online versions of texts, allowing unlimited users simultaneous access at any one time. It has also placed some copies of heavily used books on short loan (hourly or overnight) to make sure all students have fair access to them, and has also purchased extra copies of some titles.
BPP also insists it now regularly sends emails to students reminding them to let library staff know if they are having problems getting hold of materials.
“I think it’s impractical to have 50 sets of any one title when it’s only being used at certain times,” claims Crisp. “But then again, if we do need to spend the money, we’ll spend the money.”
Next on the tour is an extensive look around BPP’s teaching rooms, which are used for small group sessions and its impressive advocacy facilities. The report mentioned that some students complained about
the standard of teaching, and in particular some felt they had been “left to their own devices” when it came to using the white book.
“We spend two terms getting to grips with the white book and the idea that students are left to their own devices is simply not true,” insists Crisp. “At the stage they were quizzed on this they’d have probably only had one class on civil procedure. There were going to be more classes.”
It seems many things that came up in the report were down to students being new. But what about when the panel witnessed for itself some classes in action?
The report points to “large problems with the DVD equipment” and lecturers “forgetting” to use the school’s random name-calling policy to measure attendance.
This can all be explained, insists Crisp. The DVD problems were all down to the fact that the computers had been moved around during the summer months because the wiring at the back of the PCs had been ’boxed’ in a bid to be more aesthetically pleasing. This caused “technical difficulties” at the start of the term – a problem that has now been rectified, he says.
The BSB’s condition that the school finds a “more effective way to measure attendance” has also been met. Now BPP passes around a sheet for students to mark off individually. But even this may have its problems, admits Crisp.
“We thought name-calling was quite an effective way because you don’t know who’s going to be called. But the BSB said it wanted a more precise approach, so now we pass around a register, which isn’t without its issues,” he concedes. “I don’t think any system is foolproof.”
It was also noted that, alongside positive comment, there were some issues raised in the external examiners’ reports referring to the consistency of assessment and marking.
“Rereading the reports, there’s no concern expressed by any of the external examiners on overmarking that we can see. The overall tenor is that the marking is good, consistent and fair,” responds Crisp. “The only issues raised were by one person, who asked how we distinguish between a marginal fail or poor fail in professional ethics. The second was by another who said he would like to spend longer on borderline fails, rather than reviewing very clear fails. This isn’t the same as saying he had anxieties about our marking of the borderlines.”
But according to one current BVC student, the marking is still something that causes major concern.
“You don’t want to complain until after you finish the course because the marking is really terrible. Tutors have their favourites and award accordingly,” she alleges.
The student also recalls a time when one friend complained to a senior member of staff but was “screamed at and really torn strips off”.
But how did this all come about? How did BPP, one of the biggest BVC providers in the country, manage to get itself into this situation?
The school is officially authorised to take on a maximum of 264 full-time students a year and 96 part-time, but how could it exceed that number by 55?
“As far as we’re concerned last year was just a blip,” explains Crisp. “On one level it’s flattering that so many people want to come to BPP; and the best students too – nearly 25 per cent have first-class degrees.”
But the school will not have to worry about making the numbers fit for the next three years. The BSB has also requested in its report that BPP employ the services of an independent statistician for three years to prevent it once again exceeding its certified intake.
“The statistician is looking at our offer patterns and acceptance rates over the past few years to help us predict enrolments,” says Crisp. “It is, all in all, a very positive report and I’m pleased that it confirms that the oversubscription was inadvertent on our part.”
But whatever way Crisp wants to look at it, the BSB report could not have come at a worse time given that the school is working towards its long-term goal, which is to transform itself into a full-blown university.