Author: Tom Armstrong, Business Development Manager.
The SRA recently released its statistical reports breaking down the July 2023 SQE1 and April 2023 exam results. Below is a high-level overview of some of the key statistics including the unsettling attainment gap trend that we have seen in previous iterations. Before going into the SRA’s national statistics, I am happy to announce that BARBRI reports a pass rate of 76% for SQE1 for candidates who completed >90% of their preparation course, and 87% for SQE2 for BARBRI alumni. Also, with BARBRI’s commitment to increasing social mobility and accessibility, it was encouraging to see that our pass rates amongst minority groups have also exceeded the national average (52% for Black/Black British candidates across compared the average of 31% across all sittings to date), although there is still a lot of work to be done across the industry in this regard. These statistics are gathered from students reporting their results, and are overall figures across all exams, including the two most recent iterations that I will be exploring below.
The SQE1 has been in the spotlight mainly owing to its overall low pass rates, and the pass rate disparities amongst different minority groups. The concerns in the industry are understandable. However as this is the first time we have seen a centralised exam regulated by one body, it is key to note the overall pass rate is not dissimilar to the overall pass rates previously seen on the LPC. Despite this there is still cause for concern with the attainment gap between different minority groups.
The most recent report from the SRA did show a similar passing rate to previous sittings, however, there has been a marginal increase of 2% overall and for first time sitters when compared to the January 2023 exam (51% – 53% and 54% – 56% respectively). There was also a 15% increase in the number of sitters in July comparative to January, so this pass rate increase can’t be attributed to a decreased data pool. The pass mark was lower for the July sitting, but the SRA have always made it clear that the pass mark will depend on the individual exam, and is set according to the Modified Angoff Method, with further adjustments being made through statistical equating, and Standard Error of Measurement. The Modified Angoff method involves a panel of qualified solicitors who are familiar with day one competence considering, for each question on the assessment, how many out of ten just competent Day One solicitors would answer the question correctly.
Therefore, the lower pass mark would suggest this was a harder exam than in January, which then begs the question, how did more people pass a harder exam? As we are four SQE1 iterations in now, it may be due to candidates, providers, and employers (where applicable) adjusting to the MCQ format, which has previously been unseen in this jurisdiction.
The final key statistics to look at are those on the characteristics and backgrounds of the candidate pool. After data shown from previous iterations, and widespread concern that the SQE is not aiding diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the legal market, the pass rates for Black/Black British candidates are still significantly lower than the national average listed as 29% and 34% for January and July respectively. The pass rates amongst Mixed/Multiple ethnic groups have remained above the national average in January and July, with passing rates at 54% and 55% respectively. Irrespective of this slight upward trend, it is still troubling that the attainment gap is still so large between black/black British candidates and the national average. The SRA commissioned the University of Exeter to research the factors at play that are influencing the gap and to explore the explanation behind these. The latter will be released as part of a phase two report in spring 2024 when the University of Exeter will employ a theoretical model, and address limitations of previous literature that covered similar topics. Some of the key findings in the phase one report outlined that there was strong influence in success in exams dependent on a multitude of factors. Some of these key variables included:
- Life circumstances, such as socioeconomic positioning.
- An individual’s educational journey, including any positive and negative experiences.
- The availability of support in education and work for minority groups.
- The individuals perceived belief of how they would succeed in the profession, including barriers to entry caused by social class or ethnicity.
Looking at these key variables suggests the issue is systemic (62% of white students attain a 2:1 or 1st class degree comparative to 37% of black students for example). This suggests there is a collective responsibility for educators and employers to improve their systems and opportunities for individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and minority groups.
The SQE2 also saw a positive trend with the pass rate overall increasing from 71% in October 2022 to 77% in April 2023. This trend was seen with a 50% larger pool of graded candidates, as more candidates are moving through the SQE route.
The SQE2 naturally has seen higher pass rates since its inception when compared to the SQE1, which is explainable due to a few factors. As the SRA allowed LPC candidates an exemption from SQE1, and a lot of these candidates have real working experience with legal skills, this exam naturally lends itself to candidates existing skills, whereas MCQs, as previously noted, is a new format for testing functioning legal knowledge in England and Wales. Furthermore, those non-exempt candidates who have passed through the SQE1 would have the knowledge which comprises 50% of the marking criteria for SQE2, fresh in their minds, and at a high comprehension level, plainly displayed by their passing score in the SQE1.
Turning again to pass marks, it was positive to see the upward trend in successful candidates, with little change to the pass mark across all sittings, averaging 61.5% in April 2023, and 62% in October 2022.
When looking at the demographic data for the SQE2, there is unfortunately a consistency with SQE1 when looking at Black/Black British passing statistics, with pass rates sitting below the national average, at 53% and 52% across October and April respectively. However, the pass rates amongst Asian/Asian British candidates are more in line with the national average, increasing from 67% to 71% from October to April.
Finally, individuals who consider themselves to have a disability according to its definition in the Equality Act 2021 received passing rates of 82% in the April sitting, which is a 9% increase from October 2022. The SRA do have means for reasonable adjustments to be implemented across both the SQE1 and SQE2, and it is encouraging to see this promoting success within the exams, which should aid DEI in the market amongst qualified lawyers.
There are positive trends in the data I have covered, however candidates from Asian/Asian British and Black/Black British backgrounds are still tracking behind the overall average, clearly showing there is still work to do from a DEI standpoint. I believe it is dangerous to simply put the blame on an exam for this disparity, and a multitude of factors should be considered to find an overall explanation, and from this a solution or solutions to help increase DEI in the legal market. The SRA report that will be released in 2024 will help shed some light on what these factors are and should hopefully enact some change in the legal ecosystem as a whole, however, as highlighted from the report there is a historical lack of literature on the lived experiences of minority candidates undertaking legal assessments. Due to this, the report can be viewed as a first step in enacting change. With the SQE deregulating training, and instead introducing qualifying work experience, there is a clear opportunity for DEI to be improved in the legal market. This responsibility now lies with the market itself, as well as external bodies, to position themselves and implement change to best utilise this opportunity to make legal a place for all.
If you would like to speak further on this topic, or you would like to learn more about BARBRI’s commitment to closing the attainment gap please feel free to reach out to me.
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