It aint what you do it’s where you do it

Britain’s largest exam board, AQA is announcing proposals to factor the type of school that A level candidates have attended into “university points” to be awarded alongside their A level grades. Unsurprisingly, this measure of social engineering has been criticised by usual suspects like Toby Young ( http://tgr.ph/oCSAwP ).

The point of the proposal seems to be to attempt to redress educational disadvantages faced by students attending schools with a wide range of abilities or other factors which might impact on students’ raw academic performance when measured against more uniform standards like a mark scheme being applied blindly to all candidates. There has been some research, notably by the Sutton Trust, that suggests that comprehensive-educated students tend to out-perform similarly qualified and some higher qualified independent school students at university. The implication is that focusing on A level scores at the point of university entrance might lead to students being admitted to competitive courses at selective universities who are likely to do less well in those courses than other candidates with lower entry marks.

This takes the debate away from the easy criticism of social engineering or attempting to bash independent schools for ideological reasons and is covered interestingly in a blog post by Cardiff Law School Professor Richard Moorhead ( http://bit.ly/r1Yykx ) from earlier in the year.

Unfortunately, I think that the proposal is both self-interested and potentially self-defeating. It is self-interested because, I suspect, its principal motivation is a commercial one. AQA, like the other examination boards is a profit-making business, competing with the other examination boards to put together syllabuses and qualifications which will be adopted by the most schools and colleges around the country (and internationally). The vast majority of schools in England and Wales are state comprehensive schools. This proposal is neatly targeted at each of them with the message – enter your students for our exams and they will get an advantage when applying to university.

I think it will also be self-defeating. This is because the only real value in the proposal is in enabling students applying to selective universities to differentiate themselves from similarly or higher qualified students from more privileged schools or who are lower down the order of merit in their own schools. However, those selective universities, even if broadly supportive of attempts to provide them with better information to use in differentiating between candidates, might not agree with the methodology used. Other syllabuses and examination boards might develop a degree of kudos about them, or the kudos that they might already have might be crystallised by AQA’s move. In the past the Oxford & Cambridge Board exams used to be favoured by the old public schools, whether rightly or wrongly on the basis of the syllabuses looking more traditional and perhaps the association with those great universities. In a system where doing an AQA paper might be perceived as attempting to get special pleading in well before even attending a first class in the sixth form the benefits of the “university points” from AQA might be diluted. That would reflect on schools, but more importantly and unfairly, on candidates. If other boards declined to follow AQA’s lead or adopted different systems for grading schools and relative performance within them, there would be little value to the points to universities and consequently to the candidates taking the papers.

If such a system has merit it cannot be led as a commercial strategy by one exam board. I’m uneasy about the concept of grading people according to their social background but if it is to be done at all it needs to be done as an overtly political act capable of democratic scrutiny. Most people can be relatively sanguine about seeing a difference in the ability and effort needed by a student from a “sink” school with unsupportive parents who spends their sixth form working two part time jobs and comes out with AAA and on the other hand, the boy who is coasting along in the third stream at Eton and gets the same results. That’s why even the critics of the proposal use other, less obvious examples like “the child from a poor family who scrimp and save and the school gives their child a scholarship” – that child is one who would be at the top end of the ability scale wherever they went and will not have worked significantly less hard to get there than anyone else.

The thing is, the sink school prodigy and the Etonian coaster would be very obviously different without there being any artificial “university points” but, would the sink school prodigy be all that different from the Etonian prodigy who might have been wealthy and privileged but otherwise no different? Deciding that the system should actively punish the Etonian prodigy for the fact that he went to Eton is a very political act. Perhaps it would be a popular one. But it should be a political decision because of it.

If there is to be a process for accounting for educational background, I think a good approach would be to tie it in to the value add provided by a school. The data has been compiled for some time and could easily be revived. It is intended to show a difference between schools and whether they manage to go beyond merely meeting the expected level of attainment relative to the abilities and characteristics of their intakes. UCAS points scores could be based upon a multiple of scores for the grades achieved and the school’s value add score. There would be no possibility of avoidance at least for those schools that prepared their students for A levels. I explored some more of the detail here in my second comment on Professor Moorhead’s piece linked above.

But, the best approach would be to reverse the grade inflation which is the ultimate cause of difficulty for universities seeking to select the best candidates and then to leave it to individual admissions tutors to decide on the basis of their own experiences and policies what allowance to make for individual candidates’ personal histories. When the majority of Etonians get AAA alongside the personal “gloss” and confidence of such an education of course there will be difficulties for those who have overcome all barriers to gain similar grades as a local outlier. So make it so that the 60th best Etonian in the year gets the C and D grades he would have done a generation ago.

Risky Business – Becoming a Solicitor

A large part of the work of a lawyer is the assessment of risk. The risk that your client will win or lose a particular point in litigation, the risk that they get a longer sentence for requiring the prosecution to prove their case rather than admit it, the risk that a provision in a contract will be not be capable of being relied on just when it is most needed, the risk that a regulator will find that it has failed to comply with one of the requirements imposed on it.

So, in a way it is not so terrible that making choices before entering the legal professions also involves weighing up risks. The risk that a particular combination of A levels will not be favoured (ironically Law A level tending to be in the list of subjects that are not highly regarded by the most selective universities) weighed against the risk that obtaining a lower set of grades in more “suitably challenging” subjects would also prevent entry into the better courses. The risk that taking one or two years of costly and demanding post-graduate education might not lead to a training contract or pupillage. The risk of not finding a job even after qualifying.

There have recently been a couple of innovations announced which make the choices more complicated, but offer some novel ways of managing these risks. Pinsent Masons has recruited its first candidates to seek qualification as non-graduates via ILEX membership – or rather its first candidates for a large number of years, 30-40 years ago it was relatively common for solicitors to train up in similar ways and there are still a number of senior partners in the very top law firms who are non-graduates. The University of Northumbria has launched a new 5 year LLB/MLaw course which includes work placements in the final two years which lead to candidates fulfilling the training requirements to become solicitors without needing to secure a training contract: http://bit.ly/ogTQ5z . Acculaw has started to recruit trainees which it will employ and hire out to firms on secondment, taking the responsibility for trainee recruitment and funding away from firms (it estimates that the average cost to a firm per trainee is £175k – it is easy to see how Acculaw could quickly get a foot in the door with many firms by offering to reduce this to a trainee salary of £20-30k a year for two years plus a mark up): http://bit.ly/qPd2gh .

In one way, these options are welcome in that they provide alternatives to the standard routes to qualification. These alternatives are certainly needed given how the number of graduates with qualifying law degrees and GDL conversion courses has grown much faster than the number of training positions and permanent jobs in the legal professions over the past couple of decades.

My personal view is that this is at least partly a big con. Law is about the cheapest undergraduate degree to be able to provide, particularly as it no longer even needs investment in expensive paper libraries as a large proportion of legal materials, reports and journals are available relatively cheaply online. There are lots of underworked junior barristers around who are happy to do a bit of teaching to help raise their profile in a technical area or just supplement their income while they build their practices. Law courses can be an attractive option at less illustrious institutions because they don’t sound like Mickey Mouse degrees. They may well be better for getting non-law jobs than some of those courses. However, the reality is that the lower ranking the institution and course, the smaller the proportion of its graduates who will have any chance of a legal career.

Some might argue that this misses the point as a large proportion of students take Law degrees without any intention of practising (a recent study mentioned a figure of 50% of Law undergraduates never having had any intention of entering the legal professions).  I am sceptical about these figures, but even if they are true, find it odd that so many would choose to study Law for its other uses and general interest. Of course, I know that Law has its interest – I would not have given up work and returned to do a post-graduate degree in it at my own expense after qualifying otherwise nor would I have blogged about it at all, although both of those things would have been far less likely had I decided to follow another profession after my undergraduate degree. Doing it as a moderately rigorous course to buff up the fact that you “only” got into a less well-regarded university doesn’t sound like the start of a deep intellectual engagement with Law or one which will give much of a university educational experience.

Most of the competitive universities require AAA at A level for entry into Law degrees so it is increasingly difficult for firms and Chambers to be able to distinguish between candidates other than by having seen them in action during vacation work experience schemes. However, competition for these schemes has itself hotted up substantially since I was an undergraduate in the early 1990s when you needed to have done just enough work experience to be able to show that you had some commitment to the profession and understanding of what the job might entail. Now, they are, unsurprisingly being seen as the first stage of an interview process – indeed message boards for aspiring lawyers often fill with questions about “how can I explain the fact that I didn’t get offered a job by the firm I did a Vac Scheme at”.

Being able to sidestep this by having training built into your degree, as at Northumbria has its appeal in this climate. Instead of balancing out the risk of being left with 3 years of undergraduate debt plus a year of more expensive and immediately repayable LPC debt and no training contract against the opportunity of getting a well paid training contract (heading up towards £50k in larger City Firms), candidates can be sure that after 5 years they will be qualified and “only” have 4 years of undergraduate level debt. The Acculaw proposition comes from the other end and makes providing training places more affordable for firms. It might be a cost saving measure for some firms that already recruit trainees, but it might also increase the number of training positions by making it affordable for smaller firms to take on trainees.

But, is it a good thing overall to encourage firms to invest less in training, either in terms of money (in trainee salaries, course fees and supervisor time) or more strategically in terms of thinking hard about who they want to spend £175k on, what their future needs for qualified people will be and so on? Most larger law firms spend a lot of time, rightly, talking about how their people are their greatest asset. This is true – one or two substandard lawyers (whether technically, or more often, by personality) can make a big difference to how a firm is perceived. Commoditising trainees and investing less in them in all senses might presage a greater ruthlessness towards them – if it is easy to get trainees and there’s little downside to having one that doesn’t make the grade, why work too hard in choosing and nurturing the right people as most firms try to now?

Moving the financial risk of taking trainees from employing firms of solicitors on to the trainees themselves, as with the Northumbria course can also be seen as potentially retrograde. Only a few years before I started my pupillage, it was routine for pupil barristers to pay their pupilmasters for the privilege of training. Things had modernised somewhat by my time as all pupillages were free even if you did have to find money to live off while you did them (a small number of pupillages at the very top sets were funded). Now, all pupils get at least the national minimum wage. Before the Bar did so, the Law Society introduced a minimum training wage for solicitors.

This will not apply to Northumbria’s students. Perhaps overall the financial risk is mitigated by such courses, but this is mitigation which puts the whole of the burden onto the student/candidate. It may also be worth considering whether merely being qualified is worth taking that risk – which firms will employ Northumbria’s MLaw graduates? There are some decent local firms in the North East, but it is a limited market and one which is little known or understood outside the region.

The only really progressive approach of the three is the Pinsent Masons experiment with encouraging more non-graduate trainees. This is being mirrored by some accountancy firms and potentially other big employers. Law and accountancy for most of history were not graduate professions, are not more conceptually or technically difficult now than they were in the past, and there are more technological tools to help. Giving some 18 year olds the ability to step off the conveyor belt of studying for a degree when they are mature enough and interested enough to choose a career will provide a real option. There’s no reason why, if they miss the experience of studying at university that they could not do so later in life, but this would be a genuine choice, rather than, as it currently stands, the only practical option.