Independent Review of the Bar Standards Board’s management of the August sittings of the Centralised Examinations

Context leading to the review, provided by the Bar Standards Board

The Bar Standards Board (BSB) is the independent regulator of barristers in England and Wales. The BSB has responsibility, amongst other things, for the education and training of people who wish to become barristers. The BSB has authorised a number of Providers to deliver the Bar Professional Training Course, a vocational course which teaches and assesses students on the skills and knowledge required to practise as a barrister. Whilst Providers are responsible for candidate assessment in the majority of subjects, the BSB manages the assessment of the three core knowledge based assessments – professional ethics, criminal litigation and civil litigation. For these, the BSB sets and marks the assessments, but it is the responsibility of the Provider to make the arrangements for the candidates to sit the exams. These assessments usually take place in the Spring (April) and the Summer (August) using a pen and paper format. There are around 2200 students sitting these assessments each year.


In the light of restrictions put in place by the Government in response to COVID-19 the BSB took the decision to postpone the April sit. Universities were closed and restrictions on travel and social distancing were in place. Exceptionally, the BSB agreed that it would take on responsibility for the arrangements for an August sit and, given the restrictions in place, commissioned the development of computer-based testing so that candidates could sit assessments from home. The BSB agreed to step in to deliver the August exams to enable students to complete their assessments and to continue with their career plans.


The BSB contracted with Pearson VUE to deliver the exams. Pearson is a leading supplier of computer-based testing and has physical test centres around the world. Under the contract, Pearson VUE agreed to deliver the exams via remote proctoring at a candidate’s home and via computer-based testing at their test centres and to manage the candidate booking process.


The exams took place on 11-14 August (Professional Ethics), 17 and 18 August (civil litigation) and 20 and 21 August (criminal litigation).


Candidates experienced considerable difficulties with both the booking process and the remotely proctored system provided by Pearson VUE. As a result, only ¾ of exams that were successfully completed. In the light of these difficulties and given the BSB’s desire to identify and learn the lessons from the August exams, an independent review of the events leading up to the exams and their delivery in August has now been established.