For those of you researching our Public Sector Audit graduate schemes you may have come across a previously unheard acronym, “CIPFA”. It stands for the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy and is the professional qualification for accounting in the public sector. After three years of study (and work experience) you will be a Chartered Accountant qualified to work in both the public and private sectors, with CIPFA qualified accountants in senior positions at the IMF, BBC, Olympic Delivery Committee and all of the large accountancy firms.
Since starting I have had a multitude of experiences, from team training days in large manor houses to putting in twelve hours sitting in a hospital building, all which are helping mould the business advisor that I will eventually become. However, by far the most meaningful way I have been able to measure my performance so far has been through my CIPFA study. I have attended a day release course at the CIPFA Education Training Centre in Birmingham, completing the Certificate stage (containing the first four modules) in June and have now moved on to the Professional Diploma stage.
To give a little context to the above I will explain how the CIPFA qualification works. You begin with the “Certificate Stage” which involves four foundational modules covering Management Accounting (MA) , Financial Accounting (FA) , Audit and Assurance (AA) and Financial Reporting (FR). Most students will start out with FA and MA which overlap quite a lot with other accounting qualifications as they set out the basics and so are not particularly public sector specific (once you advance onto the diploma stage you will start to cover the public sector in greater detail). FA introduces the building blocks of statutory accounting such as double entry bookkeeping and the accounting frameworks by which organisations must abide. A big help towards this module is the “Breaking Records” Bradenham course that all trainees attend on starting with GT, it lasts a week (with a full English breakfast every day), covers most of the core knowledge needed to start out in accountancy (including parts of the FA syllabus)and is a great place to meet other trainees from all of our national offices. MA then looks at things from the other side, how management use accounting techniques to aid the day to day running of the business, it includes budgeting, cost behaviour and how management use data to make decisions. The two modules run alongside each other and depending on your study route (day release, block release, online learning) you may either have an exam straight after the teaching has finished (day release) or in a block with other exams which is sat once a year.
In between terms there is no homework or study set so you are free to enjoy your freedom or get stuck into audit (I know which option I would choose). Exam results come through approximately one month after the exams are sat and on (hopefully) passing successfully you can get ready for the next two modules, FR and AA. FR is a continuation of the areas which were started in FA, with more detailed questions and more complicated bodies, you also need to get stuck in to learning accounting standards during this module which can mean memorising lots of rules. AA is a mostly narrative module as opposed to the calculation based modules which have been covered so far, and details the role of both internal and external auditors. It is obviously helpful for a Public Sector Audit trainee and it is rewarding to be able to apply knowledge gained during work into the classroom and vice-versa. Once the first four modules have been completed you will hold the Professional Certificate and be one third of the way through to becoming fully chartered.
Next comes the Diploma stage, which delves into the public sector with modules including Governance, Public Policy and Ethics, Public Finance and Taxation and Public Sector Financial Reporting, as well as some more general accountancy concepts such as Financial Management, Business Strategy and Business Management. This is the stage that I am currently beginning and am looking forward to immersing myself into the public sector, after all that is the job I applied for! For specific information about the syllabuses for these modules you should refer to the CIPFA website (http://www.cipfa.org/training-and-qualifications/current-students/syllabuses) where a comprehensive module guide can be found.
The reason I enjoy public sector accounting is that everything is always changing, from the structure of the NHS to the economic and political climate; you see how the challenges facing large organisations turn out in practice and how large bodies are responding to the ever changing circumstances. It is also interesting because of the number of different stakeholders which have an interest in the workings of public sector bodies; where commercial financial statements are mainly produced for shareholders and focused on the bottom line or profit, accounting in the public sector covers such a wide variety of topics such as how well services have been delivered, if funds have been used for the purposes they were granted and most importantly, how our precious tax money has been spent. Where CIPFA stands out from other accountancy qualifications is that it lets you understand how and why public sector bodies operate, it provides you with the accounting skills required to become an accountant in the private sector should you choose that path, but also offers you a unique selling point in that you can be a specialist in a dynamic and important field. With increased awareness of how public sector organisations spend their money and increasing pressure for accountability, the need for public sector specialists is rising, so it’s a great time to be studying, knowing that after all of the hard work your skills will be in high demand.
Now to bring you crashing back to reality, the qualification is difficult. It takes a lot of study outside of work, taking time on precious weekends and in my case, a lot of my annual leave. There are a lot of calculations involved in some of the modules which require repeated practice to master. There are also many laws and standards of which you must make yourself familiar, as well as keeping up to date with current affairs, such as the latest government policies and economic outlook.
On juggling all of the above and completing the Diploma stage you are then ready to move on to the final, Strategic Stage which covers Strategic Leadership and Strategic Financial Management. At the end of this you sit a final set of exams, including the dreaded case study. It is a day-long exam covering elements from the whole CIPFA syllabus, from Certificate through to Strategic stages. I think A LOT of chocolate and coffee will be required when it’s my turn to sit the case study, but for now I am worrying only about the two modules which I have just started, GPPE and FR, as well as the Local Government clients that I am working on during this busy season. There’s a lot to fit in with work, study, life and general faffing (one of my favourite pastimes), which can sometimes be difficult especially around exams, however I know that part of my job is to pass my exams and therefore it has to be a priority. For the next two years I will have to continue trying to maintain the fine balance between student, accountant, friend, girlfriend and colleague until I come out with a qualification and great work experience which means I can go and explore the world, safe in the knowledge that my skills will always be in demand.