The ethics section is always the hardest.
Kaplan, the exam setter for the upcoming Solicitors Qualifying Examination, was beset by a rash of cheating in its assessment for foreign lawyers qualifying in the UK, RollOnFriday can reveal.
Kaplan is the sole authorised provider of assessments under The Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme (QLTS), the gateway exam which costs £3,000 to take and determines whether foreign lawyers can practice as solicitors in England and Wales.
The QLTS is set to be superceded by the SQE in September 2021, which has been designed by Kaplan and will replace all routes to becoming a solicitor.
The expected rollout of Covid vaccines means the SQE should arrive in less chaotic circumstances than those endured by Kaplan in 2020. However, the experience of QLTS candidates has exposed flaws in the integrity of its invigilation process this summer.
In the Objective Structured Clinical Examination (OSCE) portion of the QLTS, Kaplan is tasked with ensuring that foreign lawyers reach an acceptable standard of interviewing, case analysis, advocacy as well as legal drafting, research and writing, across the practice areas of business, property, probate, civil litigation and criminal litigation.
Candidates complete 18 exercises spread across their OSCE assessment day.
This year Kaplan had scheduled an OSCE in April and another in July, but the pandemic resulted in the April sitting being postponed until August.
A candidate sitting the OSCE in August told RollOnFriday that "just after" their first assessment exercise, they and their peers "decided to talk about the content of the exam", on the basis that half of them were taking it at the same time, and the other half had already taken the version set in July.
However, "unbeknownst to us, the content of the July exam which concluded a week before the August exam was absolutely identical".
Kaplan is understood to treat the integrity of its exams sufficiently seriously that it quarantines candidates taking an exam on the same day at different times, so the duplication of exams a month apart was a surprise to QLTS candidates.
"Given how strict Kaplan is about preventing cheating", said the whistleblower, "we would have never, ever imagined that Kaplan wouldn't bother changing the questions of the exam in July and August."
The candidate told RollOnFriday they faced a quandary. They could tell Kaplan that many of the August candidates were now aware of the content of the assessments, which might result in the whole cohort being disqualified. They could decline to learn more about the content of the upcoming assessments themselves, "jeopardizing my chances" of passing an exam "which I deserved to pass after I had worked so much". Or they could cheat by not leaving a WhatsApp group in which the July candidates divulged the questions they were about to face.
"I decided to choose the 'least bad' solution, not saying anything and just quietly taking the exam with this knowledge of the content", said the candidate.
"I felt absolutely dreadful", they told RollOnFriday. But "whilst we didn't want to cheat, we knew that if we weren't told what the content was by our colleagues, we would be disadvantaged in relation to other candidates who were now likely to have been told the questions in advance by their colleagues, providers or friends".
"I now feel absolutely awful", said the candidate. "I feel that I shouldn't have been able to pass that way", they said, adding that the "exam is just not worth anything, and my trust in the QLTS is particularly low".
Candidates knew Kaplan had spotted something was awry because it emailed them a few months later informing them it was aware cheating had occurred and was investigating.
"However, nothing happened", said the candidate.
A spokesperson for Kaplan told RollOnFriday, "We are fully aware that some candidates attempted to cheat in a QLTS examination and we have taken robust action in response".
The spokesperson said that details of actions taken against individuals "are confidential", but could include "failing the QLTS assessment, being prohibited from sitting again, and being reported to the SRA".
"There was no cause for concern in relation to the results of both the July and the August assessments", said the spokesperson, "which reached the very high statistical quality standards (in terms of reliability and accuracy) expected of high stakes professional licensing exams."
Asked if Kaplan would consider granting an amnesty to guilt-ridden candidates who cheated and were not apprehended, a spokesperson said, "investigations are ongoing and disciplinary matters are dealt with by the SRA".
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