Tuesday 18 August 2020

Institutional Incompetence

Institutions and organisations have a little trick when they screw up. They like to deny responsibility, blame literally everyone they can think of but themselves and then wait. Wait for enough time to pass for everyone to forget about what happened or to lose energy fighting them. They know they have enough power to do that and experience tells them it often works. People move on or give up because what else can they do, they are one person and this massive institution is, well, massive. And it happens again and again and again. Personally, it happened when I was at Cambridge and it's happening right now with the Bar Standards [sic] Board ("BSB"). 

The pandemic has thrown the world out of sync. That is undeniable. No one at the BSB, obviously, is to blame for the pandemic and the government regulations that followed. However, we will always be judged on how we respond to difficult situations. That's when we show our true colours, the principles we really hold dear and will stand up for. Our response when things go wrong will always be the true test of our character. So when uncertainty was all the rage back in March, the BSB had an opportunity to act decisively and proactively in response. They chose to stick their heads in the sand and hope for the best, somehow under the naive impression the pandemic would be over by August and we'd all be returning to mass gatherings in exam halls. Forget that we had our last classes for these exams in February. Forget that many of us were self-isolating or shielding because of our own health concerns or those of relatives. Forget how stressful this entire situation has been for young people. We were asked to put our lives on hold until at least August, if not beyond, rearrange summer plans (and I'm not talking about holidays, I'm talking about jobs that many students need to survive week to week) and attempt to sit down and revise without any idea what was going to happen. The BSB's response was, well, non-existent. It was not a good start. 

It only got worse from there. It soon became clear to even the BSB that the exams would not be in a traditional exam hall setting and that provisions for their online delivery would have to be made. Eventually, it was confirmed the exams would take place via Pearson Vue's 'OnVue' online proctoring system. The BSB described it as follows:

OnVUE uses a combination of artificial intelligence and live monitoring to ensure the exam is robustly guarded, deploying sophisticated security features such as face-matching technology, ID verification, session monitoring, browser lockdown and recordings.

Such robust security measures provide assurance to students (both past and present), the profession, and the public who will rely on the services provided by these future barristers, that the 2020 cohort of BPTC graduates will have been assessed to as high a standard as those in previous years as they will have taken the exams that they were intended to take in a secure environment. The revised arrangements are fully supported and endorsed by the BPTC providers. 

Further explanation of the system was forthcoming. The system would detect noises and had the power to terminate the examination if it felt those noises warranted it. You could not leave your seat or look away from the screen. Immediately, the concerns were obvious to everyone except the BSB. What about those who do not live alone? Those with reasonable adjustments? Health conditions? Those who need and are entitled to rest breaks? Going to the toilet? The problems were numerous and apparent to anyone who thought about it for more than 5 seconds, which begs the question exactly how long did the BSB think about it before deciding this was all necessary in the name of their much-vaunted but remarkably vague "rigour". Anyway, don't worry, because there was another option: anyone could book into a test centre where reasonable adjustments could be accommodated. 

Except, no you couldn't. Some locations did not have test centres. Some people lived too far away from their nearest centre for it to be a viable option. Others had reasonable adjustments but were shielding and/or isolating because of vulnerable relatives and could not (or understandably did not want to) go out in the middle of a deadly pandemic. Others did not have reasonable adjustments but are normal human beings who need to go to the toilet more regularly than once every 3-4 hours. Others did not have good/reliable wifi or could not ask roommates to just leave their flats or parents working from home to just not work from home. Others had the wrong laptops or had the right laptops that then became the wrong laptops. Others had reasonable adjustments and booked test centre slots only for those slots to be cancelled without warning. Others had reasonable adjustments but couldn't book test centre slots to accommodate those reasonable adjustments. Others still had reasonable adjustments but could only book test centre slots very early in the morning or very far away directly contrary to their reasonable adjustment. Others, like me, did not have reasonable adjustments because we ignore them because part of our condition means we feel like a burden and do not always stand up for what we deserve and decided not to book test centre slots because our peers with 'actual' reasonable adjustments need the slots more. The problems go on, and on, and on. Others actually had to forgo their reasonable adjustments. 

What had begun as a poorly thought out attempt to ensure 'rigour', transcended into a farce. And the problems escalated from there. Despite being told about all of this. Despite students forgoing legally guaranteed reasonable adjustments. The irony of a legal regulator forcing us to forgo those adjustments we are legally entitled to, believe me, is not lost on us. Despite the BSB apparent "commitment" to access to the Bar being clearly a principle that it was willing to ignore. It does not care about access to the Bar. It does not care about disabled students, or any students. It does not care about our concerns. It has treated us with utter contempt. It is quite clear that the BSB does not care. If anything has caused the public to lose trust and confidence in our profession it is the regulator acting in such a disgraceful, potentially unlawful manner. Despite the fact that students repeatedly highlighted concerns the exams went ahead. 

Except, no, they didn't. Not for many of us who sat in front of a blank screen only for it to be terminated because of technical issues. This was despite the fact we had religiously done system tests before our exams to ensure the system would work. The rest of us: spent hours waiting to be let into exams with locked screens and no explanation; navigated stifling conditions in test centres; weren't allowed water even if it was part of a reasonable adjustment in the middle of a heatwave; faced a choice between dehydration and needing the toilet; had proctors who were rude to us; had proctors who hung up on us when we called about issues; couldn't reschedule exams if they were terminated; peed on-screen whilst being recorded and maintaining eye contact with the camera despite following the BSB advice to "just pee before the exam"; took exams with bags, bottles and buckets of piss next to us; were lied to about available slots for rescheduling exams; all took different exams making moderation impossible. I, and my cohort, have littered twitter with our experiences. They have to be read to be believed, experienced to be truly understood. 

And now the BSB roll out their statistics about "successful" completion of the exams, using the most elastic definition of "successful" I have ever encountered. An exam is not completed "successfully" if you spent the last two hours of it severely dehydrated but scared that if you drank anything you'd have to go to the toilet and terminate. An exam is not completed "successfully" if you sat around for hours agonising over whether you would be given the test paper, receiving it when your nerves are shot and you've been uncomfortable sat at your desk for most of the day waiting. An exam is not completed "successfully" if you were forced to pee in a bucket and sit with that bucket of pee next to you. An exam is not completed "successfully" if you experienced technical difficulties that cut your time in half/deleted your answers/forced you to repeatedly restart the programme and any other myriad of issues we faced. An exam is not completed "successfully" if your reasonable adjustments were denied to you. The list goes on. This is another little trick institutions use. Statistics. Look, 89% of students completed their exams, or whatever the stat might be. Well, as Benjamin Disraeli tells us, there are three kinds of lies. Lies, damned lies and statistics. The BSB should know better than to roll out meaningless stats that ignore the real picture, but they do so to knowingly mislead and deceive the public. It's an utter disgrace.

At the end of it all, two things stick out like red thumbs. Ignoring all the disregard for disabled students and non-disabled students, ignoring the inhumane requirements and the potential breaches of human rights. Ignoring it all. First, if we wanted to cheat, we could have done. The photos we had to take of our rooms had blind spots. It is impossible to remotely invigilate an exam and it is truly concerning that our future regulator went to such lengths to try and ensure the integrity of the exams when their efforts could have been defeated by a tactically positioned piece of paper. It is laughable that they pursued this course of conduct instead of accepting that the solution was open-book exams. Let's not forget that as practitioners we will never be tested on our memory of various codes and regulations, but instead our understanding of them and the ease with which we can locate what we need within the practitioners' texts and/or online. Second, and most frustratingly, this is a profession where integrity and honesty is one of the required virtues. We've passed numerous hurdles to prove that we possess those virtues, that we can be trusted to be unleashed on the public. We've secured at least a first degree. We've secured membership of an inn and the obtained the necessary character references that go with that. Many of us have secured scholarships granted, in part, because we have demonstrated our integrity and suitability for the profession. In short, we are becoming barristers because we have integrity and should have been trusted to act with integrity when taking these exams. Instead, we have been treated as if we were bound to cheat and could not be trusted and the only way to ensure we did not do so was to be recorded, forced to pee on camera and forgo our reasonable adjustments. What sort of message does that send to the public? 

This was all done to maintain "rigour" and 

Such robust security measures provide assurance to students (both past and present), the profession, and the public who will rely on the services provided by these future barristers, that the 2020 cohort of BPTC graduates will have been assessed to as high a standard as those in previous years as they will have taken the exams that they were intended to take in a secure environment.

I've checked and students, the profession and the public did not need these reassurances. In fact, by insisting on these conditions students, the profession and the public are outraged at our inhumane and potentially unlawful treatment. Students, the profession and the public are not reassured by the fact that I am willing to pee in a bag on camera to take an exam. Students, the profession and the public are not reassured by the fact our regulator forced us to forgo our reasonable adjustments. Students, the profession and the public are not reassured by the utterly disgraceful way this has been handled. And, after all this, what has the BSB's response been? Apologise? Act with integrity and admit it got things wrong? Try and put it right? No. It has doubled down because those in charge lack integrity. Those in charge have abandoned their principles and demonstrated incompetence and an inability to respond to difficult circumstances. With respect, it's not good enough. The test, as I stated above, is how you respond to difficult circumstances because life is not easy. It's a test the BSB have failed on numerous occasions. It's a test, by contrast, my cohort has passed with flying colours. We've struggled through a pandemic to revise for and take exams, both the BSB assessments and those organised by our providers. We've ignored anxiety and stress. We've forgone our reasonable adjustments and tried our very best to complete these exams. We've spent our own money calling PearsonVue and the BSB to try and organise rescheduled exams. We've taken exams damp with our own piss. We've had panic attacks and carried on. We've stared at blank screens for hours to try and take these exams. We've navigated technical issues that were not our fault. We've continued to revise through this all despite not knowing if our exam will even happen. We've done everything within our power to try and take these exams to the best of our abilities despite the BSB trying to make conditions as difficult as possible and making it worse every single time they open their mouths to make an ill-advised, ignorant statement. We've come together on twitter to support our peers struggling. We've written open letters and coordinated responses. We've spoken up. And we've done all this whilst still attempting to revise for and take these damned exams.

The BSB have not apologised. They have buried their heads in the sand in the hope we will just go away, forget about the fact we were forced to revise for exams under immense stress and anxiety, forced to forgo lawfully guaranteed and required reasonable adjustments, forced to piss in bags and buckets. Because that's what institutions do. What the BSB, however, did not count on is that I, and my cohort, are entering this profession because we care deeply about justice and human rights and we've overcome seemingly insurmountable barriers before. We are a resilient bunch because becoming a barrister demands resilience. We won't allow those who are disabled to be at a disadvantaged by ignorance and incompetence on behalf of our future regulator because becoming a barrister demands a belief in equality. We won't allow our future regulator to treat us with contempt because becoming a barrister demands a desire to stand up for our principles. We won't give up because becoming a barrister demands fighting for justice and against injustice wherever it rears its ugly head. We never expected to be fighting our future regulator for basic human rights, but we are where we are.

The BSB have started a battle they cannot win, against students motivated by a desire for justice. They will not be allowed to get away with this one. 

Update: This post was updated on 19/08/2020 to include paragraph 10 beginning "And now, the BSB..."

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