Making a good account - Business Works

Making a good account

Jane Scott Paul, CEO of AAT

As one of the most successful professional membership organisations, the Association of Accounting Technicians is becoming even more well-known. It has rebranded itself, focused on providing a wide and varied training offering and grown. Now in 90 countries with over 120,000 members, Jane Scott Paul, CEO, talks to Roger Prentis about how it was achieved.

q: How did your career develop to take you to the AAT?

a: Almost by accident. I ended up working for one of (the then) GCE Boards at Oxford – known by the wonderful title of the “University of Oxford Delegacy of Local Examinations”. That was in the time of O and A Levels (GCEs): it no longer exists and has been absorbed into OCR. It got me involved in assessments, assessment methodology, curriculum development and a number of educational projects.

That was my start in the education world. I wanted to move to London, so started to look out for similar roles. I saw a job advertised at the AAT to head up its education and training team. The job also called for someone to help AAT take the organisation’s qualifications into the, what was then, new National Qualifications Framework. The objective was to turn the AAT qualification into an NVQ.

I was in that post for 10 years and when my boss retired I applied for the job of CEO and I moved from the specialist, more technical role, to a more general management role. So, in reality, my career has been somewhat “accidental” and wasn’t really a planned progression.

I entered the creative industries straight after leaving Bristol University. I worked as the designer for the National Student Theatre Company and staged nine shows for the Edinburgh Festival - quite challenging!

q: How was the transition to becoming CEO?

a: It was a big change. The first thing that hit me was that I hadn’t really anticipated what a big change it really was, moving from being head of a division, even at the second layer, to being overall “boss”. You soon find that it is quite a lonely role in many ways, so that was an adjustment.

I knew the organisation inside out when I became CEO which was a plus point, but I had to have my own vision for its development – where I wanted it to go and develop. When an outsider comes in, people expect big changes, but I suppose I had to do it more carefully.

I focused on performance to start. How could we tell if we were doing OK, for example. How do we manage internal improvements and performance and so on, but, in the end, it is all about how can we do what we do better and grow.

We got to a point when we had to move from our old offices in Clerkenwell Road to our new offices. That gave us a catalyst for a whole raft of other changes and we used it to take a great leap forward. It showed us that there was scope to get things going faster and do more.

q: IT was obviously an important aspect of the changes?

Jane Scott Paul, CEO of AAT

a: Absolutely. IT is very much “there” and we need to manage it and make the most of the opportunities it has to offer.

We commissioned an IT strategy and, when we read it, we realised that it wasn’t just about IT, it was about everything we do. We had to transform the whole organisation as a result and when the move happened just after, the consultancy we worked with, Corpra, helped us link up people, resources and infrastructure to make the most of the relocation. We had just been through a re-branding exercise and joined everything up to help us move forward.

With our network of 120,000 members that gives us huge opportunities. Around exam time, I look at the student chat forum and it has such a wealth of different topics – from drinking hot chocolate with whipped cream as a good form of relaxation to how to tackle a certain type of exam question. That mix is delightful and it shows how life and work are so intimately linked these days.

Of course, the world continues to develop. Things like Twitter and social networking are there and we have to look at what they mean for us. The world of self-regulating sites is also very interesting – like Wikipedia – and the question is, what does that mean for education. Are we giving people the skills to differentiate between “good” and “not so good” information, for example.

Many of our customers use these tools and we have to adapt to their expectations. Maybe there are opportunities for virtual “branch” meetings in the online environment – from your own local area and, indeed, with our members around the world. This new world is very democratic – we have to decide how we can best make use of these new opportunities and what they have to offer. You have to be open and look at what is really happening and respond to the world as it really is, not how you want it to be.

q: You continue to have a focus on training and development?

a: I went into education by accident, but the thing that caught and held me was the power of learning to transform people. I never cease to be amazed at what learning can do for people in terms of their self-development and self-confidence. That is at one level, but also, if you get the offering right, pitch it at the right level and at the right time and in the right form, you can make a real difference to people’s opportunities.

That’s one of the most exciting things about AAT – we really do take all-comers. We have a very heterogeneous population, particularly new students coming through the door for the first time – they can be any age, from all sorts of backgrounds and experiences. We are able to give them a ladder of opportunity. They can go as far as they are able or willing and fulfill their potential.

Our system is not constructed like an array of difficult hurdles to overcome: we do not build people up for failure. In the past, many exam systems were judged by their rate of attrition. The more people that fail, the better the qualification must be. I take the opposite view. The more we can develop people so that they are able to achieve, the better. It may be that one individual’s achievement is at a certain AAT level, but that might be exactly what they want or need and, for them, it is a great success and is as valid as a different level for another person.

I think that we take education too lightly in this country. In less-developed countries, people yearn for education and will do all they can to try to get the very best for their children. I look at what is available here and I worry that we don’t treasure more all the facilities and opportunities that we have.

q: What sort of people are interested in joining AAT?

a: That is interesting – we can probably picture a number of groups – I don’t think that there is a “typical AAT member”, but there maybe some categories. One obvious category is school leavers. We have a proportion of our intake that comes straight from school. That is quite interesting because we are starting to see more people opting for that route. Particularly if they are interested in accounting. They may do the cost-benefit analysis of going to university and decide that they might not want to spend three years accumulating £30,000 of debt, not earning anything and coming out at the other end competing with all the other graduates.

AAT reception

We have seen some interesting case studies of young people opting for this route. I am very impressed that someone at the age of around 16 is focussed enough to decide that they want to go into a particular profession like accountancy. They would rather work and earn while they learn. The other advantage is that, in many cases, the employer will actually pay or contribute towards the cost of your training.

I can think of one young lady who is the youngest ever to qualify as an member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants (ICAEW). She left school at 16 and joined a local accountancy firm and qualified with AAT and then went on to get her ICAEW membership by the time she was 20 – and she had four years’ work experience under her belt too! Her first job when she qualified was training the graduate intake! It has to be said that she is exceptional, but this sort of thing is happening more and more. We see accounting firms taking in cohorts of school leavers with good A Levels to train up and, from their point of view, this enables them to “try before they buy”. By moulding people in their organisation from the start, while they are doing their AAT training, it can be easier than taking on a graduate and finding that they don’t fit so well. They also tell us that people with AAT training tend to be more amenable to the work and are even chargeable sooner in their careers – with a small amount of training, someone advanced in their AAT training or having just completed it can be charged out to clients. They then have the option to develop them further in accountancy by supporting them to progress to the exams of the chartered accountancy bodies or giving them management roles.

That is one group – another comprises people, probably in their 20s, who may have drifted a bit in their life and not settled to anything specific, but have now decided, for one reason or another, to settle down. They realise that one way to take their career in hand is to join AAT as it is so flexible, particularly if they have done something already in a finance role.

Women returners to the labour market is another group. They may have done a bit in a financial or related role and have decided to return to work after having a family, for example. This is a significant category in our student intake – 70% of which are women. We do provide a very accessible training opportunity.

There are also some more mature people, maybe in their 40s, undergoing a career change. One example is people exiting the Forces and going into civilian life having been in the Pay Corps, run the mess or whatever and, because we are so flexible, they can join the AAT training at the point that is right for them.

q: Are Members and Fellows all directly involved in finance?

AAT Botswana

a: Interestingly, they are quite a varied bunch too. On one side there are those working in accountancy practices and middle-management roles. We also have a lot of people in finance and management roles in both local and national government, large numbers in the NHS and MOD, plus people in industry and commerce.

Quite a lot of people retain their AAT membership, but move from being finance specialists into more managerial roles.

A proportion of our membership are licensed self-employed Members who offer accounting services to business. We have a special extra regulatory system for them. The beauty of accountancy as an occupation is that there are roles almost everywhere. If you look at the sort of jobs that our members are doing, they span industry and commerce – we have quite a few in First Division Football clubs, in the British Olympic Association, it really is a very flexible career option. It also enables people to move from employment into self-employment and back. Our Members in practices also have some interesting niches. I met one recently whose Father had been a Clergyman and he specialises in Church accounts – PCCs etc. Some are also quite large practices because they are offering “right size” business advice for the right size of company. They aren’t going to be advising large FTSE 100 companies, but they are ideally suited to SMEs and, of course, that is the majority of companies in the country.

q: You mentioned government – do you see that as an important sector for your members?

a: I think it definitely is. If you compare central government with local government, I think there is a lot of catching up to do. If you look at the transformation that has taken place in central government accounting – from cash accounting to budgeting and planning – to a more commercial model – they found that the traditional Civil Service approach didn’t fit so well. Chartered accountants were brought in, along with other professionals, but they recognised that the mid-level in the organisation needed people with accounting skills and AAT’s qualification exactly matches the kind of skills that budget holders in departments need.

We have huge numbers in the MOD, Department of Work and Pensions, etc. I think there is a huge opportunity there and, of course, in local government where changes are also taking place.

In fact, earlier this year the MOD appointed Jon Thompson who is head of the Government Finance Profession, as its first ever fully qualified Finance Director. He started out as an AAT member working in local government, but now heads up the whole of the government’s finance team. It is quite a challenge to implement common practices across departments and shared services, so this is a very critical position, particularly with all the criticism leveled at government in the press.

q: You have a clear focus on the occupational and vocational training side at AAT?


a: I believe that there is a role for a variety of different offerings for both young people and adults. Different people learn in different ways and there needs to be choice. Learning by doing is very important to many people. I wouldn’t feel at all confident being driven by a person who had learned solely from a book or lectures with no practical experience. They may well be very knowledgeable about the theory and Highway Code, but that is no substitute for the hands-on practical experience.

The school curriculum has become very “academic” and even the more vocational subjects tend to be more “theoretically taught” – less of the hands-on of days gone by with motor mechanics, metal work, needlecraft and other such classes. There is research on materials, how they are used, designs, course work and so on, but far less of the hands-on. Often, it is only when you do things yourself that the information you have learned suddenly comes alive and you understand. Accountancy is a very practical subject. Of course, you need to know the regulations and theory, but if you are producing a balance sheet, slotting the numbers in the right places is not the most challenging aspect. Persuading the Marketing Department to give you their budget and expenses figures, accounting for stock and assets and the “people” side of things is really what it is all about. The final stage of collating the figures and producing the final accounts is the easy bit.

When our qualification became competence based, we put more emphasis on the communications side, for example. There were a lot of protests from students and colleges, but if an accountant can’t communicate effectively and get the information they need, then the accounts they produce will not be robust, timely and so on. They may often be dealing with people who do not understand what information is required and why, so it is very important that they are able to communicate effectively.

I am passionate about vocational education. It is interesting how attitudes differ too. If you take medicine, nobody is surprised that junior doctors have a couple of years “practical” experience at the end of their training after learning the theory. Why should other professions be different? Also, some people do not find the more didactic approach suits their learning style so “learning by doing” is a better option for them.

q: How challenging was it to move AAT away from an examination-based to a more occupational approach?

a: It was a challenge. You have to balance a number of things. Validity – are we testing what we are setting out to test? Reliability – you have to know that you are assessing fairly and that different people doing the same assessment would reach the same result. Cost-effectiveness is also important – we have to deliver a qualification that can be delivered cost-effectively. We have to get all these things in balance.

Change is always a challenge for people, so moving from the old system to any new one is always, well, a battle. It meant that colleges had to change their approach in some ways – for example, in having to deliver IT modules. Before, they may have had classes of 50 to 100 students – accounting was always a bit of a “cash cow” – but now they have to have the IT facilities to allow students the hands-on practice they need and that often involves smaller groups, for example.

What we have achieved is not a perfect competence-based assessment, but it is fit for purpose and continually developing. We give people the core skills, competence and confidence that are needed in everyday work. The critical thing is that the feedback we get from employers is that they want to employ our members. That is the only feedback that really counts in my view.

q: What are your views on education in general in the UK?

a: It seems that there is a lack of trust between the policy makers and the people in the classroom and I think that there are faults on both sides. The whole thing about SATS etc has turned into something that was not originally intended. I think that it was meant to get a snapshot of how the school was doing at a particular point in time, but it has turned into parents and teachers cramming the children so that they do well and an over emphasis on league tables.

A good and confident teacher will help their students do well. I feel that society has become neurotic about education. We need some basic measures, but we don’t need to measure absolutely everything and regulate the curriculum all the way down to lesson plans. The process is driving things, not the outcome.

q: What about changes in universities and fees?

a: I think that it is a complex issue. At one level, I can see the argument for fees – although I benefited personally from the system before they were introduced. I can see the issue of people paying, through taxation, for those that are benefitting from university when they are not themselves. You could say, however, that now many more people can benefit from university education there is an argument for paying for it through taxes. On the other hand, there is also the argument that people get personal benefits and so they should be prepared to invest in it themselves. I can see both sides to the argument, but I don’t think we will ever go back to a no-fees option.


What is interesting, is the growth of consumerism by students. They are starting to say, I am paying £3000 for this, what am I getting? Also, there is the concept that all degrees are equal. Everyone is paying the same whether at Oxbridge or a university that does not have the history and reputation. The Oxbridge student is getting something quite different – you wouldn’t be happy to pay the same for a pair of M&S shoes as you would for a pair of Jimmy Choos. If the M&S ones cost £300 people would be surprised.

To be honest, I suppose that I am torn. I don’t think that the current system is very rational. We are still not good at getting people from less privileged backgrounds into universities. We need to find ways of identifying those with the potential and nurturing it.

q: Do you see the recession as a challenge or opportunity?

a: I think, for our members, that it is an opportunity. When times are difficult, organisations have to tighten up on credit control, cash flow, scrutinise outgoings – all of those things that our members are trained to do.

Many SMEs and start-ups fail for some quite basic reasons – cash flow, for example, and our members are well placed and qualified to help in this.

Whilst I am sure that some of our members have sadly been affected by redundancy in these very difficult times, I think that they generally have the skills and value to the organisation that will help them hang in there above others.

q: How do you see the future for AAT?

a: We still believe that we should be bigger. Our research shows that there are still a lot of people employed in finance roles that could benefit from our qualifications. We offer a good framework of qualifications, continuing professional development and, of course, the backing of a professional body with the ethical background needed. In these days of whistle blowing, we have an ethical helpline for members so if, for example, they are asked to do something which they are not happy about, they can get help and advice. It is sometimes good to be able to say, “I can’t do that because I am a member of AAT and I am not allowed to as a professional”, for example. It is a little bit of armour and protection to help in difficult times. We have a lot to offer in terms of guidance, support and help with members’ development.

We introduced podcasts via the web site and many other useful things for members so that we can deliver much more personalised content. Our podcasts had over 30,000 downloads in the first few months. We can offer content specially tailored to our students when they log in and different things to our Members and Fellows when they log in.

We also want to expand the ways in which people can develop their skills. At the moment people generally learn in some sort of FE College, but we also want to look at the potential for distance learning, e-learning and blended approaches so that people can learn at their own pace and in their own time and in a location that suits them. Our research shows that mixing learning with other aspects of life can be challenging and we want to offer as many opportunities to help people as possible, whether it is online or via a different route.

The Association of Accounting Technicians
t: +44(0)20 7397 3000

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