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Chartered Association of Certified Accountants

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The Chartered Association of Certified Accountants (ACCA) is the second largest accountancy body recognized by statute in the UK. It was founded in 1904 to provide an alternative means of qualifying as an accountant to the system existing then, which required trainees to pay a premium to serve under Articles with a chartered accountant Certified accountants, having joined the Association, may train in public practice, industry and commerce, or in the public service. They do not have to serve under Articles, though they can do so, but majority obtain their practical experience in salaried employment. This has the advantage of allowing them to move during training between industry, public service and commerce, or different firms and different areas of activity, so that their experience can be wider than that of a chartered accountant who remains with one firm during the training period.

If you decide that you want to train in industry or commerce you will need to obtain varied experience in different sections, both in financial and in management accounting. The financial side is concerned with keeping records: accounts, cash flow, profit and loss, balance sheets, audits, etc. The management side is more concerned with the preparation of financial information for planning and budgetary control and forecasting. Management accountants use the same figures as financial accountants, but they are looking to the future, rather than to the past.

Trainees who decide to qualify with a firm in public practice, offering accountancy services to the public, can themselves practice in this way once they are qualified and have obtained the Association's Practicing Certificate.

The Association sets great store by its open door policy, which aims to give students the widest possible choice in how they qualify. Anyone can register regardless of academic background, age, sex, religion or current job. The breadth of the syllabus is designed to equip students with all the knowledge and skills they need to work in any accountancy or financial position. The three stage modular structure allows students to get through the exams at whatever speed they find convenient, the only stipulation being that they must qualify within ten years of registration.

You can gain the three years' relevant work experience before, after or during your study for the professional examinations, and can work in whatever sector or sectors you prefer. There are no hard and fast rules about the nature of work experience, though the Association offers guidelines as to what students should cover in industry, commerce and the public sector or private practice. Students must keep a Practical Experience Record.

Case Study

After taking 'A' levels in English and economics at an Essex grammar school, Linda went straight into a job and now works for a large builders merchants group based in Bristol.

Although I passed '0' level maths, I was never a great mathematician. That's one of the fallacies about accountancy: it's not just to do with figures. I suppose I decided to take up accountancy when I was about 17. I didn't want to go into teaching, although people at school tried to steer me in that direction and I didn't want to go to university. But I did want a professional qualification and an interesting job. Accountancy seemed to offer a good deal of flexibility; I can see that now, because so many directors and senior managers, not necessarily on the finance side, have had accountancy training.

So then I looked at the various qualifications, and decided against CIPFA (Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy) because I thought that it would be rather restrictive. I went to a couple of interviews with chartered accountants, but found them rather conventional and thought it wasn't for me. When I looked at the Certified Accountants, I realized that I could keep my options open, which seemed a good thing. So I wrote about eight letters, and took a job with one of the nationalized industries in Bristol. I stayed with them for about a year, but didn't enjoy that at all. It was mainly clerical work, so I left and took a job with my present firm.

I started off doing bookkeeping, ratio analysis, budgets, and so on, and after about 18 months moved on, still within the head office. There I worked on profit and loss accounts and balance sheets and I did a lot of the basic work, under supervision, of course, on the published accounts. Then, about 18 months later, I moved into the Financial Planning Department, where the main job was reviewing budgets prepared by the divisions and looking at the cash flows and so on. I stayed in that department for about three years altogether, during which time the job expanded to incorporate taxation work. That's something that often happens with accountancy. Now I'm working in the internal audit section.

We visit the branches, making sure that they are following standard procedures, e.g. that they're recording all their assets properly and keeping the payroll accurately. Although the work we do is based upon tailored audit programmes, it is still necessary to use initiative in interpreting the tests. The report and recommendations are discussed with the audit manager before typing and distribution.

The repetition can be a little tedious sometimes because one branch is very much like another and, having carried out a test once, you know what to do, but there is nearly always some variation to add interest. I suspect that this type of work could get dull if you had to stay in it too long, although we're lucky because our divisions deal with different goods. One week we may be auditing a scaffolding branch; the next, a branch in the glass division, which is an advantage of working for a big company with a variety of activities.

One of the most difficult things to deal with is that you often get conflicting opinions or contradictory statements from different people. You have to be very tactful about that, especially if one is senior to the other.

In a big firm like this it's possible to progress very quickly, as the management are prepared to help by moving you about and giving you lots of experience. You feel that they want to get the best out of you, and that makes you want to give of your best. It's not so much promotion often it may be a sideways move but you do feel you are getting a very wide span of experience.

I like the variety in this particular job. You are always getting out and about, and meeting different people lorry drivers one minute, the managing director the next.

To be a good accountant, you need to have an interest in many things, everything that's going on around you, in fact. It's not just the technical knowledge you need for the exams. Sometimes you read something in the paper that doesn't seem particularly relevant to you at the time, and then it crops up at work.

You must have dedication. It is tough. In fact, I failed my first exam, because I had expected it to be very much like 'A' levels. I had forgotten to take into account that I wasn't doing it full time it was one day a week and what time I could find in the evenings. I got quite a shock it shocked me sufficiently to make me want to go on. I think it's such a shame when trainees give up half-way through although I sympathise with them because there's so much work to do. But it is rewarding not just financially, although that's an advantage. It's also a good job, for a woman, as it's very flexible. Once qualified, you can do consultancy work or work from home, so the training is not wasted if you want to combine career and family. Also, the profession has begun to realise how much women have to offer, and that helps.
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