Concerns remain over BAME attainment gap in SQE
The final SQE design is unveiled today following a marathon consultation process, but there are continued concerns at the BAME attainment gap
The final design of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) has been unveiled following a marathon consultation process, despite continued concerns at the BAME attainment gap in piloting.
The SRA does not yet know what is behind this gap.
The approved SQE has been published today by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) following completion of the SEQ2 pilot.
SQE2 is the second stage of the centralised assessment which comes into force from September 2021 and is focused on assessing candidates’ oral and written legal skills.
The SRA said the new assessment “aims to increase consumer protection by providing greater assurance that all qualifying solicitors meet consistent, high standards at the point of admission”.
It will also tackle the problem that the existing training regime is expensive and inflexible – the Legal Practice Course costs up to £17,000 and there is no guarantee of a training contract on successful completion.
The new, “improved” regime will comprise SQE1 testing functioning legal knowledge through two 180-question assessments; and SQE2 focusing on skills testing.
The SQE will be made available in Welsh as well as English through a phase introduction over four years.
But there remains the unresolved issue that black and minority ethnic (BAME) candidates did not perform as well as their white counterparts.
In its summary of, and response to the SQE2 pilot, the SRA said there was little or no difference in performance by gender or disability, however, it identified “differential performance by binary ethnicity (white/BAME)”
The SRA found this “pattern of differential attainment by ethnicity is consistent with current experience in assessments in the legal sector and more widely” – and said “it is of concern”.
The skills assessment initially in the SQE1 was dropped following the 2019 pilot partly because of concerns that it presented a disadvantage to BAME candidates, which the SRA said “would be unacceptable”.
Julie Brannan, the SRA’s Director of Education and Training, said the SRA is not sure what drives this white/BAME attainment gap.
“It could be socio-economic, issues with access to prior education”, she said.
“We looked carefully at the assessment themselves; we looked at the questions, did quality assurance and cannot see any areas where there’s unfairness.”
In its response to the SQE2 pilot, the SRA found “no evidence” that the assessment methodology or any assessment processes are unfair.
But it said Kaplan, the assessment provider, “will include in the live assessment a comprehensive package of measures to minimise any risk of unfairness to candidates from protected groups”.
Brannan confirmed that all assessors will have unconscious bias training as well as other training.
She also said the SRA has also been working once again with policy association The Bridge Group “to update” its 2017 report.
An independent 2017 study published by The Bridge Group considered the potential impact of the (then) proposed SQE on diversity in the profession.
It found “a strong correlation between socio-economic background and school attainment, and this also applies to many minority ethnic groups”.
It concluded the SQE “could lead to improved diversity in the profession and increased social mobility” as students could chart more flexible pathways.
Brannan said further research is to be commissioned into the causes of any attainment deficit. This is currently “in planning”.
SRA Chief Executive Paul Philip said: "Extensive input, expert and independent review and careful testing means we are confident that we have developed a rigorous, fair, world class assessment for all aspiring solicitors, regardless of background or route taken.
“The SQE will provide greater assurance for the public and employers that qualifying solicitors have met the consistent, high standards they would expect.”