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What is chartered accountancy?

Reviewed: 05 Apr 2022 Update History

In a complex global economy, talented, ethical and committed professionals have never been more highly valued. Combining unrivalled knowledge, skill and commitment, chartered accountants enable businesses, organisations, individuals and communities to achieve their financial and strategic goals – with rigour, integrity and vision.

Chartered accountants were founders of the accountancy profession and have led its global development. Today they hold influential positions around the world as business leaders, decision-makers and trusted advisers. From the largest listed companies to the most interesting and influential organisations, you’ll find a chartered accountant shaping their success. 

What do chartered accountants do?

You will find chartered accountants working in every part of the economy, providing advice and financial expertise that informs the management of businesses and public sector organisations alike.

Many ICAEW chartered accountants become partners or financial directors, with 83% of FTSE 100 companies having an ICAEW chartered accountant on their board. (Source: ICAEW member data at January 2015, FTSE 350 data at December 2014.)

 Key areas in which chartered accountants work include:
Public practice
Close to 30% of ICAEW members work within an accountancy firm and provide a range of accountancy and tax services to clients, including business advice, management consultancy and audits. Firms vary in size from the sole practitioner to one of the Big Four multinational accountancy firms. 
Accountants are often employed within an organisation using their financial knowledge and expertise to control the management of the business and to help it develop. They can occupy roles such as finance director or fund manager. Currently 43% of ICAEW members work in business.
Corporate finance
Large firms often have specialised departments in corporate finance. Work involves securing finance for company mergers, acquisitions, management buy-ins and buy-outs and capital reconstructions. A job in corporate finance requires skills in negotiation with finance providers, lawyers, researchers and other key professionals.
Forensic accounting
Investigations into commercial fraud, personal injury cases and civil cases often require the testimony of expert witnesses in accountancy. Large firms often have specialised departments in litigation support composed of qualified accountants.

What is the difference between an accountant and a chartered accountant?

By law anyone can call themselves an accountant. The title ‘chartered accountant’ and the letters ACA or FCA, however, indicates that the person has undertaken a minimum of three years in-depth training, passed a series of rigorous examinations in financial management, auditing, business strategy and taxation, and committed to continuing professional development to keep their skills up to date.

Although unqualified accountants are subject to the same laws as chartered accountants, ICAEW Chartered Accountants are bound by our Code of Ethics and subject to our disciplinary procedures. They are required to hold a practising certificate and professional indemnity insurance if they offer professional services to the public.

Training as a chartered accountant

The ACA qualification, offered by ICAEW, is an internationally recognised financial business qualification. Training as an Associate Chartered Accountant (ACA) opens the door to a huge range of exciting opportunities in every sector of business and finance.

There are a number of routes to qualify as an ICAEW Chartered Accountant. Training can be started after leaving school or college, after completing a university degree or other professional accountancy qualifications, for example from the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT).

While each route is different, they all require trainees to demonstrate the same high-level of knowledge, skills and experience to qualify, and therefore all applicants must have achieved a high standard in their previous qualifications.

History of the accountancy profession

Although accounts have been kept since records began, it was not until the industrial revolution the accountancy profession took the form it is today.

The demand for professional accountants brought the need to protect the public from rogue practitioners who had the potential to damage the reputation of genuine, honest accountants. To elevate their status and gain respectability for their work, accountants required an organisation that would be able to regulate the training of new members, set standards of conduct and have the authority to punish those who broke the rules.

In the late 19th century regional societies of accountants started to form across the UK. The initial provincial bodies were in the areas of London, Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield. Eventually these merged together to form one national body and The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW), as it then became, was established by Royal Charter on 11 May 1880.

The ICAEW promoted and maintained the integrity and efficiency of the profession in a number of ways. Members received new rights and privileges, but were bound to a set of ethical and professional standards regulating their conduct.

Educational and training standards were set requiring new members achieve a certain level of skill and experience before they could join. The body also had powers to discipline those found guilty of professional misconduct. 

The professional body that exists today has developed standards in accounting and auditing, an ethical code for members, a disciplinary mechanism for complaints, education and training programmes and continued professional development opportunities for members.

Women in accountancy

In May 2020, ICAEW marks a pivotal moment in our history’s advancement of access to the profession – the admittance of our first female member, Mary Harris Smith.

ICAEW is running a global campaign to commemorate the centenary, and full details are available at the centenary hub: icaew.com/100years.