Tuesday, 13 October 2015

The Bad Cop: tough love for BPTC success (a guest post by Gillian Woodworth)

When I advise students, I always try to do so in an upbeat way. This works for the most part. However, my tone and approach is not always effective. I sound too earnest some of the times, like a playful puppy. I sound like I’m literally bouncing up and down telling you that everything is wonderful and fabulous… and I am *so very* excited.

Sometimes you need to look at things from a different angle. Sometimes you need a reality check. Sometimes you need another voice and a different tone.

My former colleague Gillian Woodworth was a BPTC tutor for many years and has served at City Law School as the LPC Course Director. She worked for many years as a solicitor, and was the Training Partner of her firm, arranging and delivering training for the members of her firm. She’s a brilliant tutor and lecturer and an expert on teaching and learning.

So I am very fortunate that she has taken the time to write this guest post. If I am the overexcitable puppy or “good cop”, Gillian has decided to take the mantle of the archetypal “bad cop”.

What she has to say here is invaluable, and I urge you to take in every word.

Bad Cop

It goes without saying that I am delighted to be invited to make a contribution to this blog. Snigdha and I worked together for many years and I hope she will agree with me when I say that we have a lot of mutual respect and admiration for each other.

On beginning the BPTC course you will be filled with hope, excitement, anticipation and positivity. 

I have therefore chosen to play “bad cop” by setting out the reality of the task you have ahead of you.

You have all successfully completed the law course and the aptitude test which allowed you entry onto the BPTC. It is likely that you have never failed an assessment in your life. It is likely that your ambition is to achieve an “outstanding”, the highest possible grade mark for the BPTC. For some students it is possible that the BPTC could bring about a change to all that.

Some students have told me that they feel the aptitude test may not be a fully accurate gauge of a person’s ability either to achieve an “outstanding” on the course or in some cases, even to pass the course. It is a fact that in theory you are all starting the course at the same level. It is a fact that as far as the centrally set assessments of professional ethics on 14th March 2016, civil litigation on 30th March 2016 and criminal litigation on 1st April 2016 are concerned, you will all be sitting the same assessments.

Take a look at the statistics for the April 2015 centrally set assessments, as set out in the chair’s report. https://www.barstandardsboard.org.uk/qualifying-as-a-barrister/bar-professional-training-course/bptc-centralised-assessments/chair's-report/

I have summarised them here. For 2015, the pass rates were: 
- professional ethics 56.7%
- civil litigation evidence and remedies 58% (the BSB website report mis-names this paper)
- criminal litigation evidence and sentencing 62.5%

So take a look at the other students in your lecture or in your small group. Statistically about half of you will fail ethics and civil litigation and a third of you criminal litigation. Remember that those who failed in April 2015 were equally as well qualified as you are to follow the BPTC course.

Time is of the essence. There is much less than an academic year in which to reach the level required to pass these centrally set assessments. And these are assessments which may be very different in style from the ones in which you have so far found success. Not only that, but all the other assessments on the course are set and marked internally by each provider and it is likely that your first final assessment could be as early as January 2016, with others fitted in between then and your first centrally set assessment. Do heed all those warnings about keeping up-to-date with your work and with the filing of all your course papers.

Therefore, at a time when all around you are focusing on the promising beginnings on a new course, I would like you to focus on the endgame. By this I mean the assessments making up the BPTC qualification. I am a great believer in students having transparency and knowledge about what they will be assessed on, the criteria which need to be fulfilled to be successful in the assessment and the way in which they will be assessed. I will mostly use my specialist subject of civil litigation to clarify what I mean by this.

First, be aware of the contents of your syllabus, otherwise known as “the required content”, which for civil litigation begins on page 25 of the BPTC Handbook. This can be accessed on the Bar Standards Board website. Here is a link to it.
The required content for the remainder of the BPTC is also set out on the adjoining pages of the Handbook.

Secondly, be aware of the assessment criteria. Here I am referring to the assessments which are set and marked internally by each individual provider. Your provider will make you aware of these. Do not ignore them. Have them in front of you for each piece of work you do for that subject and make sure that you fulfil the criteria.

Thirdly, be aware of the format of the assessment.

The format of the centrally set assessments is that of multiple choice questions (MCQs) and short answer questions (SAQs). So gone are the days when you could simply “learn and churn” a set of notes to pass an assessment; gone are the days when you could impress an examiner with your flowery ideas and original thought. 

Generally, on the BPTC course (as well as when you are practising professionally) I would say that you need to get used to setting out the chronology of events when preparing your papers, to dealing with your briefs in a logical and structured way and then in addition to applying your knowledge to give practical advice and opinions. On top of that, the centrally set assessments require you to respond in MCQ or SAQ format. 

Yet if between a half and a third of very bright students failed one or more of the centrally set assessment in April 2015, the key to passing civil litigation cannot be as simple as learning the facts and selecting the correct answer on an MCQ. For me, the key is not only learning and knowing the CPR rules required on the syllabus, it is actually understanding what each rule is trying to achieve and also how on any given set of facts, rules from separate areas of the syllabus can or should be used and may therefore be tested in the same question. I have several suggestions as to how this understanding may be achieved. 

Unusually, rather than advising you on what to do, I have chosen to advise you on what not to do.

DO NOT treat each area of the syllabus as a self-contained item.

DO NOT choose to learn only some areas of the syllabus, leaving others out, in the hope that what is tested is what you have learnt.

DO NOT borrow notes from any student who was previously on the course as the law may have changed since then, the CPR may have changed since then (there are several supplements every year), the syllabus has certainly changed for students being assessed in April 2016.

DO NOT use practice MCQ or SAQ questions that you have obtained from a previous year’s students or from students at a different provider as they may now be out of date.

DO NOT choose to wait until a few weeks before the civil litigation assessment before you begin to “revise” it. Remember this is not a “learn and churn” assessment: you need to understand it in order to be able to answer the questions. That understanding should come from your own work throughout the year (and this can include work that you undertake in self-appointed study groups with your colleagues), not only from a few weeks of “revision”.

No doubt you will be taking notes from many sources over the coming months; in lectures, in small group sessions, from the CPR itself, from further reading. Thus from a standing start with no BPTC knowledge (and therefore no understanding) what you need to do between now and the assessment is to expand your knowledge and understanding. Once you have the understanding you will hopefully find it easier to answer the MCQ and SAQ style questions the assessment. To prepare for the assessment, successful students often marshall their notes into one meaningful bundle, before contracting all of that down into a few pages of “memory joggers”.

DO NOT, therefore, work from any contracted down notes prepared by somebody else. You need to do all the work yourself so that the memory jogger notes that you use have meaning because you understand the expanded knowledge that lies behind them.

DO NOT miss the opportunity of sitting any mock assessments provided to you by your provider or via your provider from the Bar Standards Board. It would be madness not to organise your time so that you give yourself the opportunity of sitting the assessment in conditions as close to that of the actual assessment as possible. It would be madness to sit the real assessment and only then meet the format and timing of the real assessment for the first time.

DO NOT prepare for tutorials/practise for assessments in a way that is any different from that in which you will actually be assessed. Here I am referring to written skills assessments. I understand that different providers have different approaches to the written skills assessment. I recommend that you find out now which one your provider adopts.
If every student has to handwrite the actual written skills assessment, it would be madness to prepare your opinions or drafts for small group sessions/tutorials or to submit your mock assessments by word processing them. Creating documents which hit the assessment criteria when handwriting, is a very different skill to creating documents which hit the assessment criteria when word processing them.

If every student has to type the actual written skills assessment, then do your preparation for sessions/assessments by typing.

If your provider allows you to choose between the hand written method and type written method of assessment, spend some time working out which one actually suits you more, before coming to your final decision.

If every student has to handwrite the actual written skills assessment and you have, say, medical reasons for needing to type, then do not hesitate to contact the appropriate tutor at your provider NOW to set things in motion so that this may happen.

DO NOT forget that you are only human. It is human to fail an assessment, even though you may have done everything humanly possible to prepare yourself for it. Remember it happened to a large number of bright students in the April 2015 assessments. In my opinion, there is no shame in this. It is frustrating and annoying and if it happens to you, you will have to deal with it. When, or if, you are collecting your pension, probably at the age of 70+, then 2016 will seem like a long way in the distant past. By that time nobody will know or care that you failed one assessment decades ago.

DO NOT be too proud to ask for a deferral of an assessment or to make a mitigating circumstances application where appropriate. There is no rush to complete the course, although it would be everyone’s ideal to complete it in the academic year that you began it if you are studying it full time. Do not rely on your proven ability to pass assessments on previous courses if that means you would sit a BPTC assessment when you really are too ill to do so or when unusual circumstances in your life mean that you are not in the best place either physically or emotionally to take the assessment. The consequences of a full failure of the course in 2016 may be worse for you than the joy of passing it at a future date. 

Remember that unless you achieve a marginal fail in a single resit; please see page 135 of the BPTC handbook 
then you only have two attempts at each assessment. In my opinion, passing the BPTC has to be your priority, not necessarily attempting an assessment in the early part of 2016, if there are bona fide reasons allowing you to defer. If there are, you could be taking an assessment ‘as if for the first time’ in August 2016, rather than taking it for the second and final time. Surely it is better to qualify later than not at all.

DO NOT hesitate to ask for extra help. The tutors want you to do well. Please feel free to contact me on gwoodworth.upfish.law@gmail.com

DO NOT underestimate the short amount of time you have to get to final assessment standard on this course. I finish with a radical point to ponder. If you are considering applying for a pupillage during this academic year, there is a possible conundrum. You need to pass the BPTC in order to take a pupillage. Should you be devoting your full attention to passing the BPTC? How realistic is it that you will have the time to give as much attention as you should to making pupillage applications, whilst concentrating on passing the BPTC? Remember you are only human. When, or if, you are collecting your pension, probably at the age of 70+ …etc!  Having an extra year’s legal experience under your belt after successful completion if the BPTC, for example as a para legal, may serve to enhance your pupillage application.

I trust that I have given you some food for thought and hope that this blog contributes to you addressing the required effort to the BPTC for the whole of this year. 

I wish all of you every success.

Gillian Woodworth 
October 2015

P.S. Snigdha has suggested that you may be interested to know that my book " BPTC revision: Prepare to Pass Civil Litigation, Evidence and Remedies 2015-2016" is scheduled to be available from Amazon or from www.lulu.com. accessed through the Union Jack flag by the end of 2015.