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SQE pilot a ‘success’ but skills element a barrier to BAME candidates

8 August 2019

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Following a pilot to test the first part of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE1), the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is to drop the current approach to the skills assessment amid concerns it disadvantages black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) candidates.

The pilot’s independent reviewer said the pilot has "successfully achieved its purpose" and meets high standards – but there are “significant concerns” around the skills assessment.

The SRA said the pilot, run by Kaplan and independently reviewed, is on course to be a valid, rigorous assessment and showed functioning legal knowledge performs well.

A total of 316 candidates across the UK, France and Singapore completed the pilot in March which involved papers testing functioning legal knowledge, legal research and legal writing exercises.

The planned date for the introduction of the SQE is Autumn 2021 and candidates will have to pass SQE1 before going onto SQE2.  

SQE1 focuses on functioning legal knowledge – testing the application of key principles of legal knowledge to practical situations, while SQE2 focuses extensively on legal skills.

The SRA said the testing of functioning legal knowledge in the pilot was found to be reliable, accurate, valid and manageable and can appropriately differentiate between candidates, although improvements are needed to improve their reliability and accuracy.

The SRA says it has accepted Kaplan’s recommendations to make the appropriate amendments.

There were deeper concerns around the SQE1 skills assessment. First, the required standard of accuracy was not reached because of the low number of exercises.

Second, there were concerns that it presents a disadvantage to BAME candidates and, said the SRA, this “would be unacceptable”.  

The SQE2 skills assessment will usually be taken by individuals with qualifying work experience but SQE1’s skills assessment would probably be taken before work skills had accrued.

This would set an unnecessary barrier to BAME individuals.  

The SRA will now go back to the drawing board to consider other options including whether it is appropriate to include a skills assessment in SQE1.

Geoff Coombe was the independent reviewer appointed by the SRA. He commented: "The pilot was a rigorous, worthwhile exercise. It successfully achieved its purpose to explore whether SQE1 is a fair, reliable, accurate, valid, cost effective and manageable assessment, ” but added that there were “significant concerns around the SQE1 skills assessment".

SRA Chief Executive Paul Philip said: "This pilot brings us a step closer to delivering a world class assessment. It provides confidence that the core part of SQE1 is appropriately rigorous, while helping us to improve it further.”

He acknowledged there is “clearly more to do to establish whether an early stage skills assessment can be sufficiently robust”.

A pilot on SQE2 is due to run this December.

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