updated on 16 June 2020
The vocational stage of barrister training has changed, with new Bar courses offering different ways of studying for the postgraduate diploma needed to begin pupillage. Read on for information on what you learn on the new courses and the key considerations to bear in mind when choosing a course ahead of September 2020.
The Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) has been replaced as the mandatory vocational stage of training to become a barrister by a range of new Bar courses. The first students to be welcomed onto the new Bar training programmes will commence studying this September.
Universities and law schools have been given greater flexibility to design these new Bar courses, providing a wider set of study options to suit students’ individual learning styles and circumstances, plus lower tuition fees than the old BPTC in some cases. To help you choose the right Bar course for you, LawCareers.Net spoke to Jacqueline Cheltenham, national programme and student affairs director at The University of Law, about the factors to consider when making your decision.
What do I learn on a Bar course?
Candidates sit the same centralised assessments regardless of which course they choose, so the core qualification is the same – a Postgraduate Diploma in Bar Practice, which makes you eligible to apply for pupillage.
Each Bar course covers two essential elements – knowledge and skills. In the ‘knowledge’ element students learn criminal and civil litigation, including evidence, sentencing and alternative dispute resolution methods such as mediation. In the practical ‘skills’ element students learn advocacy, conferencing, research and opinion writing and drafting.
Depending on which law school you choose to study at, you may also be able to add a master’s qualification to the Bar Diploma. This is one of several factors to consider when choosing where to study, alongside other key differences between courses such as the method of teaching and learning delivery, fees, the institution’s reputation and how the course is set up to teach effectively while physical distancing measures are in place to fight coronavirus.
Choosing a Bar course
“A key consideration for students is how the course is going to be taught and whether the approach of the law school or university suits your learning style,” explains Jacqueline Cheltenham, national programme director for the Bar Practice Course (BPC) at The University of Law. “Ask yourself – ‘what method of teaching enables me to perform at my best?’”
There are contrasting learning styles to choose from when selecting a Bar course. Some law schools provide an online-only programme to teach the ‘knowledge’ aspect of the course, then introduce face-to-face classroom activity for the more practical ‘skills’ element.
Meanwhile, other providers offer face-to-face tutor interaction and classroom learning throughout the entirety of the course, with many also using online learning which blends with classroom learning. Consider which type of learning is most effective for you – do you enjoy studying at home or do you gain the most when face-to-face with students and tutors or would you appreciate a blend of both?
“The value of having a face-to-face element is that you benefit from being part of a community of learners,” argues Jacqueline. “When everyone is attending a lecture at the same place and time, students hear each other’s questions and the tutor can respond to the whole group. It is also easier to speak to other people informally and spontaneously when you are casually in the presence of other people, rather than speaking into a laptop microphone. Online communication tends to be more planned and formal.”
Even with social distancing in place and universities moving more activity online, these questions remain important, as the online learning facilities and level of virtual contact time on one course may not be the same as another – see ‘Impact of coronavirus’ below.
Opening the barristers’ profession to a more diverse group of candidates was one of the main reasons for phasing out the BPTC and replacing it with the new range of Bar courses, so students should expect their chosen law school to provide flexibility for those with commitments outside studying.
“The University of Law offers two starting points for the BPC each year – July and September – and the course is structured slightly differently depending on which start time you choose,” explains Jacqueline. “The July-start version, which will now commence in 2021 due to covid-19, focuses on civil and criminal litigation from July to September, then introduces the skills element from September onwards and builds it into the litigation. Meanwhile, students starting in September study litigation and skills simultaneously and continuously throughout the course. And with part-time study options on top of that, we aim to provide students with as much flexibility as possible.”
The on-campus element of the BPC has been improved with accessibility in mind, too. “We have cut the time students have to spend travelling to and from campus by moving contact time into two days a week – or occasionally three days for practice assessments – instead of spreading it out over four,” Jacqueline continues. “This gives students more flexibility for commitments such as part-time work and caring responsibilities, while reducing their travel costs.”
Cost is inevitably a key factor when choosing a postgraduate course – the fees for Bar courses range from £11,750 to £18,500, including those with additional elements such as an LLM.
A master’s can be particularly important in a financial – as well as academic – sense, because master’s qualifications are eligible for postgraduate student loan funding, whereas purely vocational courses (such as one of the new Bar courses on its own) are ineligible for the government’s loan scheme.
Tied in with cost considerations must be an understanding of what you are getting in return and whether the type of course being offered suits your learning style. Some courses offer lower fees but do not provide a personal tutor during the civil and criminal litigation stages – a model that suits highly self-motivated students who are confident in an online learning environment and enjoy studying at home. Other learners perform best with access to a personal tutor and live group work with other students – but this may be reflected in higher fees.
Many considerations may influence where you want to live and study, not least proximity to one of the hubs of the UK barristers’ profession. “London and cities on the Northern Circuit such as Manchester and Leeds will always be attractive to aspiring barristers because of the pupillages available in these places,” Jacqueline explains. “Meanwhile, reasons of affordability can both mean students needing to study near home or leave home to study far away.
“Alongside tuition fees, the cost of living is a vital factor. From September, the BPC will be taught from Manchester, Nottingham and Bristol in addition to London Bloomsbury, Birmingham and Leeds, so students have real choice about where they study.”
Links with the barristers’ profession
Your chosen law school should be able to demonstrate good connections with the profession, which provide students access to valuable insights and experiences. Jacqueline says: “Starting at the baseline of the BPC, all our tutors have backgrounds in practice and they are regularly joined by practising barristers who come in as visiting lecturers, so students benefit from the most up to date picture of what it is like to work at the Bar.
“Barristers are involved in developing students’ practical skills, for example, our annual mock criminal trial takes place at a real crown court, with practitioners sitting as judges and passing judgment, but more importantly providing students with feedback on their advocacy. There are also advocacy committees which run speed moots sponsored by local chambers, with barristers attending to judge the later rounds and network with students.”
Consider the institution’s track record. Look at the available statistics on the number of graduates achieving high marks and going on to secure pupillage.
The availability of extracurricular activities such as mooting and facilities such as libraries and careers services are also relevant. “The careers and employability service is hard at work right now, helping our students access additional work experience to mitigate the impact of coronavirus on recruitment at the moment,” adds Jacqueline. “And the team will be there to help throughout the autumn term.”
Impact of coronavirus
No one can know at this point exactly what the situation will be in terms of the level of social distancing required at the start of the autumn term, but universities’ ability to prepare for the various possibilities and ensure that students access the quality learning they need will be in the spotlight.
“We have been examining the different scenarios for the BPC, from whether the rate of infection has reduced to near zero or a vaccine has been introduced, to circumstances where physical distancing remains a requirement,” Jacqueline explains. “Each scenario determines firstly whether campuses will be open in September and secondly what level of distancing will be needed on campuses if they are open. If because of any changes to government guidelines we are not able to open, or students can’t attend, students will still be able to start their programme via online streaming. We will deliver our BPC programmes which reflect the face-to-face classroom experience, with a similar timetable and with the same support our students would expect from our award-winning employability service, library and student support, enabling students to move to on-campus learning as soon as it re-opens or their situation changes. That’s our guarantee. We’ll also be implementing enhanced measures to ensure our students’ safety on campus.” Find out more about The University of Law’s September 2020 Study Guarantee.
There is a lot to think about when choosing a Bar course, but the range of options means that students have a greater chance of finding the right course, with the right learning approach at the right cost for them.
Josh Richman is the senior editorial manager of LawCareers.Net.