Research demonstrates that learning through application is the key to the effective development of trainees: is the PEAT 2 regime a step forward?

Recent changes to legal education, in particular the route to qualifying as a solicitor, have introduced the profession to many new concepts that were once considered to be the reserve of educationalists. The bespoke nature of the new traineeship, or Professional Education and Training 2 (PEAT 2) – structured around the achievement of outcomes, supported by Trainee Continuing Professional Development (TCPD) – has undoubtedly encouraged those responsible for trainees to re-evaluate their approach.

However, these new regulations come at a time of great economic uncertainty and when budgets are particularly tight. Extra diligence is therefore required when selecting TCPD to ensure that training is effective, and that learning takes place delivering the highest return on investment.

All change

As widely reported, the manner in which someone qualifies to enter the legal profession changed on 1 September 2011. This has been a much-awaited development and plans are well underway by firms and other organisations to ensure compliance. Within the human resource teams of many firms, the focus appears to have been procedural, with some of the larger firms applying for and achieving “authorised TCPD provider” status. For supervising solicitors (i.e. those who are responsible for trainees), the focus has been to understand the structure of the new arrangement in relation to that which was previously in place, and ensure that appropriate milestones are met.

What has arguably received less attention, and yet key to the success of the traineeship, is the move away from a curriculum based approach to learning, towards one which is outcome based. With the emergence of a new vocabulary and the introduction of various acronyms such as “PEAT”, “TCPD” and “PQPR”, one could be forgiven for perceiving this as just another change in nomenclature. However this shift is by no means superficial or indeed merely symbolic; rather it represents a significant change in the approach to the learning and development of trainee solicitors, and correspondingly the approach required by their supervising solicitors.

Approaches to learning

There are two main approaches in relation to the training of solicitors, and indeed other professionals. The first conjures up images of a stereotypical academic environment that relies heavily on traditional teaching methods. Supporters of this approach claim that professional knowledge cannot be adequately learned through reflective practice (i.e. learning gained from evaluating and reflecting on an actual experience), and that more traditional methods of training are not only desirable but essential for the development of professional competence.

The second approach challenges this and focuses on the application of knowledge in practice, as opposed to learning about practice in a classroom situation. This still embraces traditional classroom teaching, but where this occurs its advocates suggest that the conditions for learning and its impact on professional development must be thoroughly considered.

This debate raises questions about the manner in which TCPD should be managed and, in particular, the identification and selection of training, both in terms of delivery and environment, to ensure effective learning.

Training: a distraction from learning?

Under the previous regulations, the Professional Competence Course (PCC) was designed to develop further the knowledge and skills that trainees gained from their degree, Diploma and traineeship. With the exception of a few electives, this curriculum based “sheep-dip” approach to training – where everyone completes the same course irrespective of existing knowledge or experience – is fairly typical but arguably flawed.

The underlying assumption of such an approach is that while there is a common end point in terms of certain objectives to be met, there is an implicit requirement also to have the same starting point. Such an approach therefore ignores the range of learning styles or differing levels of competence that already exist; it also provides no opportunity to adapt flexibly to changing circumstances, the needs of individual firms and businesses, or to varying needs of the trainee solicitors as they grow and develop professionally.

Therefore, rather than being viewed as supporting the traineeship, the PCC was considered by many as simply another box to be ticked – a costly inconvenience of little practical worth. Indeed research suggests that for many, the approach and format of this kind of training was actually a distraction from the learning. This is not suggesting that the content of the PCC was poor, but rather questions the method used to deliver it.

Out of the sheep dip!

The new regulations present an opportunity for a significantly different approach to managing the trainees’ learning. Although the PCC has been the subject of some criticism, it did establish a degree of comfort for those responsible for trainees, as it ensured regulatory compliance with minimal effort. This, however, can no longer be the case.

The absence of a set curriculum in PEAT 2 requires trainees and supervising solicitors to engage with and plan learning in a structured manner that focuses on the achievement of outcomes, rather than simply attending training. Despite mandatory prescribed TCPD hours being in place, achievement of outcomes may, in theory, require no attendance at training at all!

What the trainees say

A recent study that gathered the opinions and experiences of some trainee solicitors in Scotland revealed interesting findings on the subject of professional development. While a key feature was the value that trainees attributed to work based learning, it also found that legal trainees have difficulty in articulating their learning in terms of their own professional development. For example:

  • legal trainees consider the acquisition of knowledge as being confined to black letter law;
  • skills, on the other hand, are understood to be limited to those which are readily applicable and directly related to practice;
  • trainees frequently refer to learning through observation and learning from anecdotes as “learning skills”, despite not actually having the opportunity to apply them in practice; and
  • for many, “developing skills” does not necessarily equate to “learning” in the mind of the trainee solicitor.

In order to engage effectively with classroom learning, the study suggests that trainees must understand the direct application of training to their work. When practical elements or discussion of practical application are absent, it leads to a negative perception of the training, reduced engagement, and correspondingly impacts negatively on trainees’ learning.

The value of learning through peer interaction and collaboration is another consideration which is thought to make a positive contribution to the professional development of legal trainees. Indeed many trainees highlight it as a principal benefit of work-based learning.

While the trainees enjoy learning in this format and report this aspect of their traineeship positively, research demonstrates that the degree to which this actually assists in developing them – from a professional development perspective – remains questionable. Of greater significance is the degree to which collaboration appears to be embraced in other contexts beyond that of working with other trainees. In fact learning from and alongside more experienced colleagues is perceived as having the greatest impact on their professional development.

Choosing TCPD

The introduction of an outcomes based traineeship therefore requires a degree of diligence in the selection of appropriate training to ensure that it is effective. Research demonstrates that learning through application is the key to the effective development of trainees: they engage with it, they understand it and they rate it.

However, effective on-the-job learning does not merely consist of reflection on learning or practice, but is best facilitated through interaction with more experienced professionals. For the purpose of TCPD, where training is mandatory, it would be sensible therefore to mirror the approach that best resonates with trainees as closely as possible.

First, TCPD should be managed as just that: “continuing” and “professional”. Training is best delivered within a professional context, by professionals who relate the content as closely to professional practice as possible. This also applies to the development of personal skills, particularly in relation to “soft skills” (e.g. negotiation and communication), where delivery by a trainer with experience of professional practice is essential.

Secondly, when selecting TCPD, it must be remembered that traditional classroom-based activity does effectively contribute towards professional development, but care must be taken to ensure that the content is not considered to be independent of practice.

Finally, those who design and deliver classroom based TCPD should be aware that the experience of sharing and learning with others – and in particular the opportunity to engage with more experienced legal professionals – may impact greater on the trainees’ learning experience than the content of the training itself.

The future

Over the last two decades there has been a move from “training” to “learning” in many professions, where terms such as “reflective practitioner” and “self regulated continuing professional development” have emerged. This arguably demonstrates a less bureaucratic but more planned approach to individual professional development. The recent changes to legal education, including the new route to qualification and the new PEAT 2 regulations, are perhaps the clearest indication that the legal profession in Scotland is also embracing this shift.



The Author
Hugh Anderson McKnight, MSc, FITOL, is Director of Business Development with CLT Scotland
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