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Retrospectoring: the development and success of the Vocational Teachers Forum

Here Chris Maguire (BPP Professional Education) offers a not entirely sober reflection on five years of the Vocational Teachers Forum (VTF). From 2007 vocational issues have been discussed at the Learning in Law Annual Conference, a two day celebration of legal education combining the academic and the professional.

When I was a lad and legal education was something dished out by the local beat bobby, lilac was a colour reserved for the well heeled and the elderly, now it’s to be a new conference combining the LILI conference and the Vocational Teachers Forum. Apparently it’s been five years since the VTF kicked off. Tempus fugit, as one used to say, before Woolf made Latin un-PC.

The impetus for UKCLE establishing the VTF was to give providers of the Bar Vocational Course (BVC) and Legal Practice Course (LPC) a national forum that wasn’t controlled by the Bar Council or Law Society. Roger Burridge (then UKCLE Director), ever the diplomat, had visited both professional bodies to float the idea and give reassurance that the VTF was not intended to eclipse either the BVC or LPC conferences. I was then one of those on the Dark Side and whilst welcoming Roger’s proposal made a note to self – “improve (still more) quality and quantity of wine at BVC conference”.

Vocational Teachers Forum 2001: Challenges to vocational legal education

Given the premise for the conference the professional bodies didn’t expect to be invited, but surprisingly we were, underlining UKCLE’s creed of transparency and role of honest broker between the various constituencies in legal education. The first feast that this particular spectre attended was in Birmingham in September 2001. There were no streams of workshops in those early days, and the 19 of us who attended were confined together throughout. But it had the stamp of quality from the start. Karen Clegg – still Hinett in those distant times – opened the event, Andy Boon led, Roger Smith commented, Anne Fenton critiqued, Paul Maharg inspired, Nigel Savage…wheeled and dealed, and that was before we got onto excellent sessions by Jason Ellis, Bryony Gilbert and the indefatigable Maharg. Was it valuable? Yes. Should the pilot be commissioned into a series? Absolutely. But it was Birmingham, it was September, it was the start of term, it was hot, there wasn’t much opportunity to network and there wasn’t a bar and, as even budget holders accept, a vitally important part of any conference is what happens around the sessions as well as within them. Hinett was contemplating.

Vocational Teachers Forum II: Assessment for learning and practice

The second VTF was held in London in July 2002. Again the spectres were invited and empanelled, but were fleshed out by the welcome presence of John Sturrock from the Faculty of Advocates. Numbers had almost tripled to 52. The delicacy to be cogitated, dissected and digested this time was Assessment for learning and practice. Phil Knott established the tone of the conference with a deliberately mischievous and controversial opening, suggesting that the theme of the conference was an oxymoron, in which “and” should be replaced by “or”. This was followed by a number of presentations from the immediate and practical to the innovative and far reaching, including one by a (then) young, but already (in)famous Julian Webb. Another valuable conference. But it was London, it was hot,it was the end of the year, in the middle of exam boards and there still wasn’t a bar and as even budget holders accept…

Vocational Teachers Forum III: Beyond boundaries

The third VTF was at the start of term in January, in Warwick and back to back with the LILI conference. Was this a subtle, diplomatic, indication that perhaps there should be a continuum between the academic stage as represented by LILI and the vocational stage as represented by VTF? Had the two conferences been kept apart deliberately to make this grand statement? Was it ethical to attend both days without flying your colours as either an academic or a vocationalist? How else could the potentially tragic consequences of a casual remark about the specification of the qualifying law degree (QLD) and academic freedom be avoided!

However, delegates were distracted from looking too closely at their affiliations by a brilliantly entertaining opening by Lawrence Wood, a medic, who described the parallels between legal and medical education. (“What do senior partners, orthopedic surgeons and rhinoceroses have in common? They’re thick skinned and charge too much”.)

Now, after the keynote, there were parallel sessions. Oh, the joy of choice and the agony of choosing between a range of topical and tantalizing presentations. Did I mention the spectres? We were still there but not empanelled until the end of the day, by which time a bonhomie had descended that even the virulence of debate in Jacquie Cheltenham’s and Alison Mutch’s session on red light criteria in student assessments failed to erode.

So, the sun-kissed shores of the VTF became a welcome escape between the somnambulant calm of Christmas and the treacherous rocks of the first, dark days of the spring term. The multi-stream approach combined workshops and plenary successfully, and the increasing quality and variety of the presentations were a delight. However, numbers hadn’t picked up from the previous
year …but it was the first week of term, there was no formal link with LILI and it was a Saturday!

Vocational Teachers Forum IV: Collaboration and partnership in professional legal education

The 8 January 2005 was also a Saturday. Despite this 69 delegates attended (a notable hike). Some of whom braved the steely sleet to wend their way to Warwick, while others braved the centrally heated corridors of Scarman House on their way to breakfast, having attended the LILI conference and the first UKCLE dinner to unite academics and vocationalists. ACLEC was spinning in its grave with “I told you so’s”. It was also the dinner at which we lost Karen Hinett to the Clegg clan and her rightful place running York. Happily, Amanda Fancourt filled the breach.

As well as the usual excited chatter about the presentations of the day there had been some deep and penetrating discussions about the benefits of a liberal education, the value of a liberal law degree compared to a QLD (but which for marketing purposes should have the moniker QLD), the meaning of academic freedom “from or to…”, good people and good lawyers and how the two were probably mutually exclusive, the difference between codes of conduct and ethics and the importance of the development process for the 50% of students who don’t go on to practice. It was all very exciting and exhausting, and the VTF hadn’t even started yet.

Entitled Collaboration and partnership in professional legal education the VTF now sported five streams of workshops, with speakers from England, Wales, Scotland, Nigeria and the US, and covering everything from assessing clinic to running a law school. The cross-fertilisation between LILI and VTF was becoming ever more apparent.

The keynote address was by Sue Nelson, on the Law Society’s Training Framework Review. A bete noir for most of the audience, which became no less bete or noir as the presentation went on. Nor did the presentations by Webb and Fancourt on the winding road of legal education reviews (would we start from here?) and Maria Tighe’s deft rehearsal of the lessons of history (no!), nor Liz Campbell’s epitaph on the Scots’ experience of the failings of a similar system in their much more recent history, do anything to reassure the delegates. The title of the conference was starting to look distinctly ironic.

Vocational Teachers Forum V: Becoming a competent practitioner

Was it the apparent imploding of the legal education system that led UKCLE to focus its fifth conference on Becoming a competent practitioner not only in law – but with reference to architecture, engineering, medicine and accountancy. Were we looking elsewhere (abroad and to other professions) to see how it was done? If we were, the range of practice and ideas was reassuring, fascinating and challenging. We would agree, for example, with the general trend of placing increasing value on coaching strategies and individual mentoring, probably not agree with the anti-process approach of the accountants, and be challenged by the proposals for revalidation of practitioners (and teachers) facing the medical profession.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. If I omitted to moan about the VTF being on yet another Saturday it was because it wasn’t, it was on a Friday. Perhaps this accounted for the upsurge in numbers to 96. Or perhaps it was the growing link between LILI and VTF and the increasing recognition that the papers and presentations on each day were applicable to the issues facing both networks. Or perhaps it was also because this would be Roger Burridge’s last conference and Julian Webb’s first as incoming UKCLE Director, and the opportunity for some sport.

One of the odd things about Roger is that while he is a great encourager and praiser of others, he shies away from any recognition or praise for himself. This was true when he received his MBE (which he told me he got for services to jazz when he promised to stop playing). So it was with relish that a group of us took the opportunity to speak about what a huge amount Roger had achieved at UKCLE, which was true, what an exceptional person he was, which was true, how he would be desperately missed, which was true, and how modest and self-effacing he is, which was patently true, as Roger’s discomfort and mortification by this stage was so evident that he appeared to have pressed his way into the pillar he had been leaning against.

We also welcomed Julian Webb, a natural and fitting heir who had also successfully negotiated both the vocational and academic arenas, and who was now battling bravely with a condition, believed to be unique to academics, which causes the sufferer to communicate in ever more multi-syllabic words and complex sentences.

So after five years of development, innovation and success it’s goodbye to LILI and the VTF and hello to an even more dynamic and innovative annual conference. No pressure there then?

Last Modified: 30 June 2010