Work-based learning pilot
Questions and Answers
Last updated: 30 November 2011
Q1. What is the SRA's aim in piloting Work Based Learning?
The overall objective of the Work Based Learning (WBL) project is to develop an approach to ensuring the competence of qualifying solicitors that is
- quality assured
- consistent, and
The project includes a WBL pilot. The objective of the pilot is to develop, test and evaluate WBL as a model for improving the quality assurance of, and access to, the vocational training stage of qualification as a solicitor.
Q2. What problems may WBL address?
First, under the current training contract arrangements there is no assessment, and therefore no objective or consistent guarantee, of the competence of entrants to the profession at the point of admission.
Ensuring practitioner competence is a key component in the SRA's strategic aim – "to set, promote and secure in the public interest standards of behaviour and professional performance necessary to ensure that clients receive a good service and that the rule of law is upheld."
Second, the current training contract system may not offer opportunity to some competent candidates who are unable to obtain a contract. As well as trainees within the traditional training contract route to qualification, the WBL pilot also includes paralegals doing training contract type work but not within a training contract. WBL potentially offers a route for such candidates who can demonstrate the required level of competence, and may therefore widen access to the profession from more diverse individuals.
Q3. Is widening access compatible with ensuring high standards?
Absolutely. The SRA's aim is that the solicitors' profession should be a meritocracy, with entry based on an objective, reliable assessment of competence, but without unnecessary hurdles. From Day One of qualification, all solicitors should be able to provide the high standards of service that will uphold and enhance the profession's reputation.
The pilot will allow us to evaluate a suite of different routes to qualification, with the aim of seeing how these routes measure up in ensuring Day One competence.
Q4. What is the structure of the pilot?
The pilot uses four different qualification routes, designed to test a suite of potential future qualification routes.
The training contract / employer assessed route. On this route, the employer assesses their trainees against the Work Based Learning Outcomes set out in the WBL Handbook. The assessment by the employer effectively takes the place of the current sign-off by the training principal.
The training contract / externally assessed route. On this route, the employer agrees with an external provider to provide the assessment of their trainees. Oxford Brookes University are providing this assessment on the pilot.
The combined route. On this route, a single provider ( Northumbria University) provides law degree, LPC and assessment of WBL, in two contexts: client-facing experience in the University's Student Law Office, and a placement (effectively, a shortened training contract period) with an employer.
The paralegal route. This is the radical strand of the pilot, in that it is aimed at those who have not got training contracts. Each paralegal applying for a place on this strand of the pilot had to demonstrate that their work was commensurate with the work undertaken in a training contract. An LPC (or, for some part-timers, study and completion of the LPC) was also a prerequisite. The paralegals are being assessed by Nottingham Law School.
Q5. Will this create a two-tier profession?
There is already a great diversity of employment within the solicitors' profession. The aim of WBL, which the pilot will test, is that as a regulator, we can ensure a consistent standard of competence for all solicitors, but still allow for a variety of routes by which to reach that standard.
By creating a consistently applied standard, WBL effectively reinforces a single-tier profession – a "Quality Mark" that every solicitor has been objectively assessed on work-based skills against an identical standard.
Q6. Is there a need for WBL, given that the training that many firms provide is already excellent?
The SRA applauds the good training already being done by many employers. As a regulator we are aiming to ensure good, consistent training for all. WBL provides support and reference points for existing good practice. For employers that are not able to provide a full learning experience for trainees, WBL offers the opportunity to make use of the support and expertise of external assessment organisations.
Q7. What evidence does the SRA have that WBL will achieve its aims?
The pilot is an experiment. It has been set up with the explicit aim of evaluating the different routes to qualification.
External consultants have been tasked with evaluating the pilot to test whether WBL meets its stated aims. Benchmarking with other professions will also be carried out as part of the process, to develop a policy position following evaluation.
Q8. Does the SRA consider that there is a case for being more radical, and looking at qualification to restricted areas of practice based on narrower experience?
We do not have any plans to explore this in the short-term, and it is not addressed by the pilot, although we may learn from issues encountered on the pilot by candidates seeking to demonstrate the full breadth of experience. In the longer term, we do intend to take a more fundamental look at the solicitor qualification within the changing legal landscape, but for now, we have no presumption that change in this direction is needed.
Q9. Isn't it possible that trainees on the pilot will be fearful of being too honest about their experiences of WBL, their assessors or their employers?
We were mindful of this issue when scoping the evaluation. Candidate (and supervisor / assessor) confidentiality is assured. This needs to be balanced against the need to be entirely open with stakeholders about the details of the pilot results. The issue was fully considered with the evaluation consultants, and a balance has been struck between individual anonymity and a high degree of detail about attainment of competence, assessment and levels of satisfaction with the different routes to qualification.
Q10. There is a limited number of solicitor jobs and of training contract places. As yet another assessment stage which will need to be paid for, doesn't WBL increase still further the risk for individuals of spending a large amount of money on training and then not being able to qualify, or to get a solicitor-level job?
Currently, there are more LPC places than training contract places. The SRA is not in a position to specifically limit the number of LPC places in order to ensure that all who pass the LPC get a training contract. WBL is not an attempt to control the legal labour market, or solve this problem by providing a non-training contract route to qualification. Rather, the aims of WBL are set out above. The SRA is working with the Law Society to ensure good information about the risks, as well as the benefits, of choosing a legal career.
The SRA is of course mindful of the problems facing individuals seeking to qualify or to get employment as a solicitor. Those undertaking WBL are, by definition, in work either as trainees or as paralegals and are therefore already earning. Additionally, the costs of WBL, as piloted, are very low in comparison to those of the LPC, and part of the aim of the pilot is to explore the cost issues fully.
Q11. Assessment of competence for WBL is a skilled job. Might there be a shortage of external assessors?
The SRA will assess the market for training provision and the practical feasibility of the different types of external assessment as part of any policy development process.
Q12. Is there a danger that the WBL burden on supervisors may lead to less training contracts being offered?
Legal labour markets are hard to predict, and are not regulated by the SRA. However, WBL by the external route, whether for trainees or paralegals, offers the potential to lower burdens on supervisors and training principals. It is also possible that WBL can be connected up with employee development programmes in a cost-efficient way. The potential for these will be evaluated by the pilot, so that any policy proposals developed are realistic and will be scaleable to all sizes of firm.
Q13. Will WBL be for a prescribed period of 2 years?
The pilot is based on 2 years full-time working. The evaluation of the pilot will inform any policy decisions about time requirements. The SRA is very aware that
- time served, in itself, does not guarantee the development of competence, but that
- a significant period of learning is necessary if consistent levels of legal skills are to be developed, and that the 2 year period works very well in many firms.
Q14. Would WBL be able to accredit trainees' overseas and secondment experience?
The WBL model does envisage recognition of development of competence against the WBL Outcomes in different work contexts. The Outcomes, and the way that they connect with the requirements for trainees to work in the context of English law, will be reviewed following the pilot evaluation.
Q15. What are the future timescales for WBL?
Initial evaluation of and reporting on the pilot has taken place. Download the report (PDF 9 pages, 500K)
Further evaluation will also include an exercise to ensure WBL fits in with the SRA's proposed new approach to regulation, which is outcomes focused and risk based, and includes a new regulatory handbook The views of consultees will be taken into account and incorporated into any future policy proposals.
The SRA is currently participating in a wider review of Legal Education and Training (LETR). WBL will form part of the work of this Review. For further details, visit www.letr.org.uk