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Assessing professional competence - Association of Law Teachers Annual Conference

By Julie Brannan, SRA Director of Education and Training, 24 March 2016

I very much enjoyed the recent Association of Law Teachers Annual Conference, hosted by Northumbria University. On the day, Alastair Pollitt from Cambridge Exam Research  talked on our behalf about assessing professional competence.

He looked at how this might be done through our proposed Solicitors Qualifying Exam. But what he had to say was of general relevance to assessing solicitors’ competence, whether through a centralised or decentralised assessment structure.

In the debate afterwards, an attendee raised a very interesting point around the expense of the assessment processes which Alastair described. He was concerned they would shift resource from teaching to assessment. This, he said, was inappropriate – the implication being that focusing resources on assessment would be at the expense of teaching quality.

Thinking about this observation since, three points occur to me:

  1. A good, valid assessment (one which properly assesses the competences a candidate needs to demonstrate) drives good learning. So, improving assessment design improves the quality of learning. This is known as backwash or washback. Neglecting the importance of high quality assessment will damage learning.
  2. Measuring performance as accurately as possible in high-stakes professional assessment is critically important. This is not just to be fair to candidates, but to make sure they are safe to practise. Protecting consumers is a core regulatory purpose of the SRA.
  3. In our current system, each of the qualifying law degree and Legal Practice Course (LPC) providers produces their own assessments. For the LPC alone, 26 providers produce around 30 assessments a year. This represents a huge amount of duplicated effort – by my maths at least 780 separate LPC assessments a year, each to be written, scrutinised internally, sent to external examiners, etc, etc. With a common assessment, resources could be pooled. There would be time to make sure that assessments were a valid test of professional competence and that the range of checks and balances needed for clear standards were set and then maintained.

There is a whole field of assessment research that is not currently being used to inform legal education and training. Applying theories from this will improve assessment practices, drive the quality of learning and lead to valid, consistent and fair outcomes for all candidates.

It is true that some of the processes Alastair described might require greater time and resource than universities can currently allocate. However I would urge everyone who is involved in legal assessment to think how they can improve how they assess.

If you would like to know more, Alastair has provided the slides he created below.