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Three steps to take on public legal education: a teacher’s perspective

Dr. Rick Rhodes from Sirius Academy in Hull sets out the evidence for greater public legal education in light of our recent panel event featuring The Law Society president I. Stephanie Boyce.


Loving the law 

I started teaching A Level Law in 2014. My class comprised five students: interested, dedicated, capable, but five and five alone. Fast-forward to 2022 and I now teach eighty-seven, 74% of the total Sixth Form cohort. My ego would like to attribute this statistical transformation to my magnetic personality, charm, and passion. Unfortunately, such a conclusion would be a misrepresentation of fact and reality. So, what was the cause of such disproportionate growth? 

It’s very simple: law is incredibly interesting. Even better, students find law incredibly interesting.  From macabre fatal offences and necessity-incited cannibalism (confused readers may want to – or not – Google ‘R v Dudley and Stephens’), to the practicability of Consumer Rights and returning that Amazon package. Every lesson affords students the opportunity to develop their understanding of their social space and the wider world. Legal education builds functioning, informed, and engaged citizens. A single lecture can be transformative, developmental and (dare I state) fun.


Facing the facts 

Students agree. 11,245 in England made a choice to study A-Level Law in 2019.  Whilst these numbers pale in comparison to the more embedded subjects such as Biology (64,460), and History (47,920), it is the case that now more students study Law than Physical Education (9,905) and combined English Language and Literature (7,580). From these data we can conclude that there is a market for legal education for those aged 16 to 19. This begs the question: why is there such a paucity and inefficacy of legal education for 11–16-year-olds? 

An expert panel explored this central point in a recent webinar hosted by Young Citizens. From this, further questions emerged as to how legal providers can work with schools to imbue students with a better understanding of the law.  


Making the case 

In the following section, I will offer my perspective on these key ideas.  This is a perspective borne from years of working in schools as a member of a Senior Leadership Team, an adviser to government on legal education and most importantly a teacher who advocates the importance of good legal literacy in the social armour of our young people.   

I will elucidate three key components that can propagate better, functional legal education in our schools and enable practical legal providers to forge more impactful relationships with schools. 


1. To firms: divest greater funding to outreach programmes.

Be proactive in seeking out organisations that can link you into schools, or ask schools who they are working with.

There is a reason that around a third of barristers (in 2019, at least) attended fee-paying schools. Many law firms will only direct their resources for outreach to institutions/establishments where they can guarantee themselves a potential employability return.  It’s time to stop that. Let outreach be a loss-leader. Use what you have and go to places that you otherwise wouldn’t.  Don’t wait to be asked. The metrics of performance should be the number schools visited and positive engagement received – nothing else. 

What can those in the sector do? Go. To. Schools. Or, preferably, use gatekeepers like Young Citizens.  Go to as many schools as possible, deliver as many interesting sessions as is feasible.  There will be indirect mutuality somewhere along the line. One of those students may be the next Bingham, but you aren’t looking for them. You’re appealing to the kid who thought they couldn’t – the disinterested many. We hear, ad infinitum, the importance of social mobility. Let’s put our money where our mouth is.


2. It is all about implementation

The gap in legal education is obvious. It’s not access to materials. It is not temporal (time is built into the curriculum to deliver these sessions). It is implementation.  Schools are poor at delivering legal education. It’s complex, dense and in the wrong hands, dangerous. There is no incentive and minimal training that can enable teachers to deliver good PHSE.  Schools know it is statutory necessity but treat it in a transactional way. ‘We have put PHSE on the timetable: done’.  The inevitability is something delivered for the sake of delivery. The consequence: zero impact and social disillusionment.

What can those in the sector do? If I was being idealistic, I would say that we need a state-level refocus of educational priorities. However, I am a keen observer of treating things as they are, not as I would like them to be. So, firms and governmental bodies need to work with charities such as Young Citizens to raise the general standard of legal education, to provide open-the-box-and-deliver materials that can ensure every student receives a basic foundational standard of legal education. Only in this way can we give teachers something verifiable, safe, and of a high enough standard to ameliorate the concerns raised earlier. 


3. Engagement is key; pursue engagement.

Students below the age of sixteen, and many above that age, are not interested in commercial awareness; they don’t care about promissory estoppel, or positive covenants. They are interested in money, murder, pertinency and gruesomeness. Before we can teach, we must engage. My most successful sessions focus on tortious liability; particularly negligence, consumer rights, equality and justice, and anything criminal (thank you, Netflix true crime). Students want their knowledge to reflect what they see in the wider world. Bluntly, don’t make your outreach activities or your educational packages boring. 

What can those in the sector do? Firms, particularly, need to go with programmes designed by and supported by educators that are deliverable and interesting and that engage and forge passion.  Do not tell them what you want them to know. Teach them things that they need to know. Then use the help of your bridging organisations to align it with things that get people excited about the law—like the Big Legal Lesson, focusing on your rights in a social media context. Also, put aces in places. Only send your best practitioners and your most motivating speakers. There is a volunteer or support opportunity for every kind of legal professional – just ask Young Citizens!


Breaking down barriers 

My final point is a general plea to all involved in working with young people and the law. I know law is a competitive pursuit.  However, the most dissuasive thing you can do is to create additional barriers when so many already exist.  I have worked with thousands of young people from very disadvantaged backgrounds, all who were incredibly passionate about law. Young people already think a career in law will not be accessible to them. So, please, at no point tell them that it is too tough, or not for them. Progression in law is complex enough, and young people, especially those from extremely poor backgrounds know that better than us, trust me.

Dr. Rick Rhodes is a Law Lecturer, Head of Sirius 6th Form College in Hull and adviser to OFQUAL. Follow him on Twitter @drrichrhodes.


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