The Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) is a comprehensive examination which assesses the knowledge and skills of aspiring solicitors through all levels of the Miller Pyramid, i.e. from foundational knowledge and its application (as tested in SQE1) to the demonstration of skills and performance in practice (as tested in SQE2).
The SQE standardised tests are administered by Kaplan and marked by qualified and trained assessors. Strict marking criteria are applied and passing marks are calculated to ensure that every candidate who passes the SQE has the level of competence of a Day One solicitor as defined in the SRA’s Threshold Standard.
One important point to note is that for both SQE1 and SQE2, the passing marks are not calculated, and SQE pass rates are not determined until the assessments are completed, and they can thus vary from one SQE sitting to the next. The exam itself will continuously evolve, with different questions and scenarios being used for each sitting, and statistical calculations are also made based on the actual performance of the candidates in each sitting to arrive at the final SQE pass mark.
There is therefore no standard passing mark for candidates to strive for; they must simply do their very best!
SQE1 marking process
The SQE1 exam consists of two multiple choice assessments testing the functioning legal knowledge (FLK) of each candidate. Each assessment has 180 questions with 5 potential answers, where candidates must select the single best answer.
The marking system for the SQE1 assessments is fairly straightforward. One mark is awarded for each correct answer. No marks are awarded where multiple answers are selected, and marks are not deducted for incorrect answers. The marks are then aggregated and rounded to calculate the percentage marks for FLK1 and FLK2, respectively.
What is the SQE1 pass mark?
In order to pass both FLK1 and FLK2, candidates must achieve the overall pass mark for each assessment. The pass mark is determined by the Assessment Board through the Modified Angoff method, where a panel of qualified solicitors reviews each question and predicts how many just-competent Day One solicitors would answer the question correctly. A summary and average of the rating for each question by each member of the panel produces a cut score. Further statistical processing based on the actual performance of the candidates and to correct for measurement errors is then carried out to arrive at a final pass mark for the assessment.
SQE2 marking process
The SQE2 stage consists of a total of 16 stations, testing the candidate’s skills and application of legal knowledge through practical oral and written exercises. The SQE2 assessments are marked by trained solicitors (and a trained assessor for the client interview) according to global professional judgements rather than a “tick box” approach. All assessors are trained to employ a standard approach in their assessment, and specific marking criteria are defined for each exercise.
Most of the SQE2 assessments are marked on both skills and application of law, where each is weighted equally and combined to arrive at a total score for the station. The only station with a slight difference is the client interview and attendance note: the client interview itself is only assessed on skills, not on application of law. The attendance note/legal analysis is then assessed on skills and law. The total skills mark for the station consists of the two skills marks combined with equal weighting, and then that total skills mark is weighted equally with the law mark from the attendance note to arrive at the total mark for the station.
The marks are awarded for each criteria based on the candidate’s performance as judged by the assessor in reference to the following competency scale:
- Superior performance (5 marks)
- Clearly satisfactory (4 marks)
- Marginal pass (3 marks)
- Marginal fail (2 marks)
- Clearly unsatisfactory (1 mark)
- Poor performance (0 marks)
The final SQE2 percentage score for the candidate is calculated as a rounded average of the summed total of the 16 station marks.
What is the SQE2 pass mark?
In order to pass SQE2, candidates must achieve the overall pass mark for SQE2.
The SQE pass mark is determined by the Assessment Board through the borderline regression method, where, in addition to the candidate’s marks, the examiners provide a “standard-setting” grade of pass, marginal pass, marginal fail, or fail. This standard-setting grade is then used to calculate the cut score of a “borderline” candidate, which is then adjusted through further statistical processing to correct for any measurement errors and arrive at a final pass mark for the assessment.
SQE for foreign vs domestic candidates
As the actual performance of candidates is considered in the determination of the SQE pass marks, the exam is considered “competitive and comparative”, i.e. candidates are competing against each other, and are also compared to each other.
This has a significant consequence for foreign-qualified lawyers in particular. The SQE and its marking system are based on the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme (QLTS), which was the route for foreign-qualified solicitors to become qualified in England and Wales. This meant that foreign-qualified solicitors were competing against other foreign-qualified solicitors.
However, the SQE is now the single route to qualification for all aspiring solicitors, foreign and domestic. This means that foreign candidates who may not have fluent English skills will now be competing against domestic candidates with native English proficiency, so the new reform may cause a decrease in the overall SQE pass rate. As we can see in our summary table, the use of clear and precise language forms a key element of the skills criteria for all the SQE2 assessments.
This may seriously impact the comparative performance of the foreign candidates and give the domestic candidates an advantage.
The level of English required to pass and qualify may now be even higher than it was for the QLTS.
SQE English club
Language proficiency is an important aspect to factor in when preparing for the SQE – particularly SQE2 oral with its interactive assessments. To cover this component of exam preparation, we are launching a language resource for foreign candidates seeking to top up their SQE English skills – a specialised LinkedIn group.
The new SQE English community aims at getting you in touch with other foreign lawyers, professionals from other fields and students who intend to take the SQE, and exchanging exam-related information. We’ll be happy to see you there – and share with you language learning materials.
Coming up soon is also the launch of our SQE English club where you will be able to practice discussing professional topics in English with your groupmates and OSCEsmart tutors.
Please keep an eye on OSCEsmart new resources and give yourself a chance to top up your English for the SQE!