Will the SQE be in place by 2021?

Unless it’s pushed back, in September 2021 the way solicitors qualify in England and Wales is expected to undergo a radical change. With 2020 being well underway, now is the perfect time to have a look at what you need to know about the ‘SQE’. 

As many of those looking to secure future training contracts for 2021 and beyond will know, the crossover from the current qualification processes to the ‘SQE regime’ is much closer than it seems.

In case that sounds a little ominous, I should mention that the current modes of qualification will still be available for some time as the SQE settles in, and 1st September 2021 isn’t going to herald the flipping of a switch or an instant shift akin to putting back the clocks a month early.

For a little more information on that, see my first and second blogs in the links below.

Over the next couple of months, I’m going to tackle one of these four elephants in the room at a time:

How likely does it look that the SQE will be in place by 2021?

If you’ve been keeping up with the recent changes (or had a chance to nip over to my last two blogs and read about ‘what it is and when it will take effect’ and ‘what’s going to change‘) you’ll know that the projected timeline for implementing the new SQE system is September 2021.

That being said, this isn’t a deadline, and as I’ve mentioned, it’s also not going to be as drastic as (the current) daylight savings time – we’re not going to wake up on 1st September 2021 and find that all training contracts have been replaced.

Instead, this proposed introduction date is simply going to act as the beginning of the end for the current training systems, a move which, according to some sources, could take up to 11 years (at the very least) to complete.

To begin with, Autumn 2021 is expected to bring with it the option to take the SQE1, instead of the traditional routes I outlined in my last blog, with 2022 heralding the rolling out of SQE2.

The reasoning behind this proposed 11-year switchover is simple: to give enough time for current students of the LPC to complete their studies and training contracts, and to give the SRA enough time to gather data on the SQE and how it works in real-time before there’s no going back.

Of these two reasons, the former needs no expansion, but the latter might do – there have already been issues with the SQE1 exam, which was first tested in March of last year by 316 candidates. Some of the issues which arose were particularly interesting and raise more questions than the SRA are perhaps prepared to answer just now: in one example of many, according to the results, ‘the skills part of the SQE1 may set an unnecessary barrier to qualification which disadvantages BAME (black, Asian, and minority ethnic) candidates’.

Since the results of the first testing were released, the SQE1 exam has already undergone changes and there’s talk of removing the skills assessment portion of the test, to instead have candidates sit two multiple choice style exams as an attempt to make the SQEs fairer and less exclusionary.

There have been mixed responses to these changes, as can only be expected. Some think that making changes to even the playing field regardless of background is a positive move at this stage, as the SRA has identified an issue which could well inform qualification diversity going forward. Others think that changing the SQEs to accommodate all backgrounds will lead to an overall ease of qualification.

I’m inclined to agree with evening the playing field, however, whichever side you fall under – testing, retesting, and changing the SQEs to provide the most effective and best overall replacement for the current training system requires time if it’s going to be done correctly.

At this stage, I can’t answer definitively as to whether the SQEs will be implemented to meet the SRA’s aim of Autumn 2021 (and neither can the SRA). But, with a year and 8 months to go, it looks as if there are many kinks to hammer out before they can be rolled out as a feasible option. Only time will tell if issues will be easily rectified or will lead to a shift in the proposed timeline, but it would be surprising at this stage if September 2021 holds fast.

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