Kaplan: keeping the bar high for entry into the profession.
Kaplan and the SRA have been accused of engineering a "total shitshow" after candidates were forced to wait five hours in overheated rooms to take the Solicitors Qualifying Exam, which was then cancelled.
The SQE has replaced the GDL and the LPC as the route to becoming a solicitor, and aims to improve diversity in the profession by providing a more affordable route to qualification. Kaplan, which ran a law school until it was closed down because of low student numbers, won the SRA's contract to deliver the super-exam.
Candidates were due to sit the first half of SQE1, a computer-based multiple choice test called FLK1, at 9am last Thursday. Problems became apparent almost immediately as staff began letting candidates into the Hammersmith test centre at 8.15am.
Entry involved "just two staff members checking the IDs of around 100-120 people", said a senior associate at an international firm who needs to qualify to practice in England and Wales. "The queue was at this stage, probably 50 metres long. It was obvious as early as this that the venue was completely underprepared", she said.
Students had to wait again when staff checked their ID a second time, and registered them, and took a photo. "It was clear that this was going to take hours", said a partner seeking to qualify in England and Wales, who saw one candidate "cross examined for almost 15 minutes about whether her signature was actually her signature".
Several employees, including a proctor, admitted it was their first day of work and that "they had no idea what was happening", an appalled student told ROF.
When candidates finally made it into the exam rooms at 11am, they were greeted with "ancient" computers, "broken or wonky" chairs, and no functioning air conditioning, which meant it was "unbearably hot".
Students had to explain numerous times to an employee whose job was to switch on the computers how to log in and enter the password, which he had "written down on a scrap of paper".
The candidates were given strict instructions not to access the FLK1 until everything was ready, but when they were permitted to begin the assessment, the majority of computers returned error messages.
"Staff speculated that there was too much traffic for the system to function properly", and "spent the morning huddled together calling unknown people for help to no avail, while trying to fend off constant inquiries from anxious and annoyed candidates".
According to unconfirmed reports, one exam supervisor told a candidate to "fuck off" after "an understandably heated exchange", said a senior foreign-qualified lawyer.
After waiting for five hours, students were allowed to leave for an hour to get fresh air and lunch. When they returned, staff were still struggling to access the exam. "This was, once again, and unsurprisingly, unsuccessful", said a candidate, and at 3pm they were informed the exam was cancelled. In a video of the news being broken which was passed to RollOnFriday, a Kaplan supervisor concedes to fraught candidates, "today was not good".
However, according to some candidates, Kaplan staff admitted that they knew there was an issue in advance. An invigilator "told us they knew the day before that the system was down", said one. "We were told was that there was a 'server issue'", said another candidate, "and they 'hoped' it would work on the day of the exam".
That evening, candidates received an email from Kaplan apologising for the debacle and promising it would undertake a "full review of the events of today". Kaplan appeared to blame Pearson VUE, "our test centre provider", which it said "has continued to work on the IT issue". But that excuse was rubbished by candidates.
"I am sure this has been positioned, and will continue to be positioned publicly as an 'IT issue' which was out of the control of Pearson VUE, Kaplan and the SRA", said a candidate. "This is far from the truth and from as early as 8am this morning, it was clear that the Hammersmith testing centre was not fit for purpose, was not staffed by qualified or knowledgeable individuals and should never have been used as a testing venue for an exam which for many, will be one of the most important of their lives".
Candidates told RollOnFriday that Kaplan's dismal performance was "beyond outrageous", and some raised the prospect of legal action.
"For an organisation which expects so much and sets such high standards for its solicitors and future solicitors, including requiring a fee of £1,558 to sit the SQE1 exams, it is deeply shameful that the SRA and the third parties that it contracts with do not provide a similar high standard of services", said a candidate.
"Many candidates travelled from abroad (myself included)", another told ROF. "The test provider has not responded to how they will address the significant costs and inconvenience associated with this failure".
Others agreed: "I don’t think they appreciate the magnitude and severity of the situation. Various people flew in from different places around the world to take this exam".
Kaplan told students that it anticipated holding the second half of SQE1 on Monday, but ROF sources were pessimistic and sure enough, it was cancelled.
"Because of concerns about whether the IT issues at Pearson Vue’s test centre would be entirely resolved by Monday, we took the difficult decision that the Hammersmith location would not host the FLK2 assessment", a spokesperson for Kaplan told RollOnFriday, adding that it would be "working with candidates regarding appropriate refunds".
Kaplan probably won't dwell on candidate feedback in its next update for the SRA, so ROF will include it here:
"Horrendous, stressful and baffling."
"I am devastated...for the last 5 months I was studying and working! We paid almost £1700 for this exam!"
"A total shit show."
"I cannot believe how badly it was handled and the lack of care from the SRA and Kaplan."
"They had over a month to make sure that everything is running smoothly. Honestly it has been such a horrible experience."
"Given personal and professional obligations I have owing throughout the rest of the year, it is likely to prove impossible for me to sit the FLK1 exam at a later date. This has serious professional consequences for me."
An SRA spokesperson said, "We are aware of the situation, and we are very sorry for the stress this has caused candidates at the Hammersmith test centre. It is important candidates have clarity as soon as possible. We are liaising with Kaplan to understand the issues and what next steps need to be taken".