Training for Tomorrow: assessing competence
Introducing a common professional assessment for intending solicitors: the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE)
The standard expected of solicitors in England and Wales is a high one. We have a duty to ensure that these standards are maintained, against a background of a developing legal and education market and an increasing understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of our current training system. This is why we embarked on our Training for Tomorrow programme. We have recently made significant changes to continuing professional development and launched the Statement of Solicitor Competence. In this consultation we turn to how best to assess the competence of intending solicitors.
While England and Wales are fortunate in having many excellent institutions offering law degrees and professional training, there is no standard basis on which to measure the quality of students who emerge from the education and training process. Some Legal Practice Course (LPC) providers have success rates in excess of 90%, while others are below 50%. Some undergraduate law schools require A and A* A-level grades from entrants, others admit students with B, C and D grades. The Higher Education Funding Council for England, said this year, 'the current quality assessment system does not provide direct assurance about the standard of awards made to students, or their broad comparability.'
It is noteworthy that fewer than 1% of full time students on the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) fail and only 2% of those with training contracts are not admitted.
New pathways to qualification such as apprenticeships and 'equivalent means' training are being introduced, overseen by a variety of providers. These are welcome developments, opening up the profession to applicants from varied backgrounds. There are of course perceptions about how such pathways and more traditional routes compare and that makes it all the more important that a mechanism is in place that ensure standards are consistent across all pathways.
With 104 institutions offering Qualifying Law Degrees; 33 offering the GDL; 26 offering the LPC and over 2,000 firms offering traineeships, the lack of a common basis for assessing the quality of output from these bodies, or at the end of the training contract, is a cause of increasing concern. In this document we are consulting on a common professional assessment, the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), which will ensure that all aspiring solicitors, no matter what institution they attended or pathway they took, are assessed against the same high standard of competence.
While the SQE is focused on ensuring that standards are both high and consistently high, there is an important related benefit. A strong and respected legal profession is enhanced if unnecessary barriers to good candidates becoming solicitors, regardless of their backgrounds, are removed. The SQE will facilitate the development of more flexible pathways to qualification for those who are able to meet the robust standards of the assessment. We shall be consulting further on pathways during 2016.
One of the distinct features of the English and Welsh system is the requirement that all newly qualified solicitors should have undertaken a period of workplace training before they qualify. During discussions leading up to the publication of this document, many within the profession and outside expressed the view that this should continue to be the case. We shall not be taking final decisions on pathways until late 2016, but the evidence from our expert advice is that pre-qualification work place experience has an important role to play in developing the competences of intending solicitors. It is likely that we shall continue to require pre-qualification workplace experience.
It is important that newly qualified solicitors, regardless of the pathway they have followed, should demonstrate a level of intellectual and analytical ability at least equivalent to that of a graduate. This is reflected in the standard we propose for qualification. In the future, as now, there are likely to be some intending solicitors who are able to demonstrate this level of ability without obtaining an undergraduate degree, for example through an apprenticeship scheme in which workplace learning is combined with advanced teaching and learning. There will also be some who, as now, have a degree in a subject other than law.
Regardless of the pathway, the SQE will require all intending solicitors to demonstrate a high level of legal knowledge and practice skills equivalent at least to a graduate. We are very conscious that the process for qualification as a solicitor is key to safeguarding competence and quality, and great care must be taken to ensure that any changes support and strengthen this.
We are also aware of the dangers of complacency and must take action where there is evidence that change is needed. We have held extensive engagement and discussions prior to the publication of this document. We have also commissioned independent expert advice and devised a phased approach to any changes. Responses to this consultation will be critically important as we develop our thinking further. We very much welcome your views on both the case for change and our proposals.
Enid Rowlands Chair, SRA Board
Martin Coleman Chair, SRA Education and Training Committee
This consultation is part of Training for Tomorrow, our response to the 2013 report of the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) which called for a greater focus of regulatory attention on the standards we require of solicitors both at qualification and on an on-going basis.
On 1 April 2015, we published a new Statement of solicitor competence. This defines the standards for practice as a solicitor and therefore the competences that aspiring solicitors need to demonstrate in order to qualify. We said then that the next stage of our work would be to review the process for qualification as a solicitor and to develop a mechanism for assessing the Competence Statement prior to qualification.
The purpose of this consultation is to seek views on our proposal, which is to introduce a common professional assessment for solicitors to assess the competence of all intending solicitors. This common professional assessment, the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), would consist of a Part 1 assessment of knowledge, and a Part 2 assessment of skills.
A strong and effective system of legal education and training is essential to make sure that the services offered by those we regulate are of the highest possible quality. That requires a system which:
- sets a high standard;
- assures that standard rigorously and consistently; and
- enables the brightest and best to qualify.
Of course, the skills and knowledge that are expected by employers will vary depending on the needs of the business and their clients. But the SQE will ensure that everyone who is granted the title of solicitor has reached at least the required standard of competence, which is a high level of quality.
We seek views about whether respondents support the introduction of a common professional assessment as a matter of principle, as well as on a number of specific aspects of our proposed assessment model for the SQE.
But the introduction of a common professional assessment also raises questions about the entry requirements for the SQE and about the role of pre-qualification work experience. We consider these issues in this consultation and we welcome your views at this stage. We will publish a further consultation on specific proposals for entry requirements for the SQE and pre-qualification work experience in 2016.
This consultation paper is in five sections:
- Section 1: the rationale, benefits and evidence base for a new common professional assessment for solicitors;
- Section 2: the proposed assessment model for the SQE;
- Section 3: pre-qualification work experience, workplace assessment and entry requirements;
- Section 4: equality, diversity and inclusion; and
- Section 5: transitional arrangements, timetable and next steps.
Do you agree that the introduction of the SQE, a common professional assessment for all intending solicitors, best meets the objectives set out in paragraph 10?
Do you agree that the proposed model assessment for the SQE described in paragraphs 38 to 45 and in Annex 5 will provide an effective test of the competences needed to be a solicitor?
Do you agree that all intending solicitors, including solicitor apprentices and lawyers qualified in another jurisdiction, should be required to pass the SQE to qualify and that there should be no exemptions beyond those required by EU legislation, or as part of transitional arrangements?
With which of the stated options do you agree and why:
- offering a choice of 5 assessment contexts in Part 2, those aligned to the reserved activities, with the addition of the law of organisations?
- offering a broader number of contexts for the Part 2 assessment for candidates to choose from?
- focusing the Part 2 assessment on the reserved activities but recognising the different legal areas in which these apply?
Do you agree that the standard for qualification as a solicitor, which will be assessed through the SQE, should be set at least at graduate level or equivalent?
Do you agree that we should continue to require some form of pre-qualification workplace experience?
Do you consider it necessary for the SRA to specify a minimum time period of pre-qualification workplace experience for candidates?
Should the SRA specify the competences to be met during pre-qualification workplace experience instead of specifying a minimum time period?
Do you agree that we should recognise a wider range of pre-qualification work experience, including experience obtained during a degree programme, or with a range of employers?
Do you consider that including an element of workplace assessment will enhance the quality of the qualification process and that this justifies the additional cost and regulatory burden?
If you are an employer, do you feel you would have the expertise to enable you to assess trainee solicitors’ competences, not capable of assessment in Part 1 and Part 2, to a specified performance standard?
If we were to introduce workplace assessment, would a toolkit of guidance and resources be sufficient to support you to assess to the required standard? What other support might be required?
Do you consider that the prescription or regulation of training pathways, or the specification of entry requirements for the SQE, are needed in order to:
- support the credibility of the assessment?,
- and/or protect consumers of legal services and students at least for a transitional period?
Do you agree that not all solicitors should be required to hold a degree?
Do you agree that we should provide candidates with information about their individual and comparative performance on the SQE?
What information do you think it would it be helpful for us to publish about:
- overall candidate performance on the SQE?
- training provider performance?
Do you foresee any additional EDI impacts, whether positive or negative, from our proposal to introduce the SQE?
Do you have any comments on these transitional arrangements?
What challenges do you foresee in having a cut-off date of 2025/26?
Do you consider that this development timetable is feasible?