Having completed the ICAEW CFAB with a Level 4 apprenticeship, student Matt Barnes is embarking on the next stage in his training. We chat to him and his manager and mentor Alison Hook FCA.
Matt Barnes, ACA student and finance administrative apprentice, Tonbridge Grammar School
My interest in finance started at school – I had an inspirational A level business teacher who was an ex-accountant at Tottenham Hotspur football club. He had a lot of great stories, and it just seemed like a really interesting career. I didn’t fancy going to university – I didn’t want the student debt – so once I finished school, I started applying for various entry-level finance jobs. Then the pandemic hit.
I ended up getting a temporary job at Tonbridge Grammar School, rearranging classrooms and things like that. I mentioned to someone that I was applying for finance roles, and they put me in touch with Alison – and she offered me the apprenticeship. I’m the first finance apprentice they’ve had here, though it’s something Alison has wanted to do for a while. I hadn’t heard of the ACA before, but Alison is an ICAEW Chartered Accountant and therefore was keen to go down the ICAEW route. When I looked into it, it suited me too: it offered the flexibility to start with a Level 4 apprenticeship – I didn’t want to start with a Level 3 qualification as I had already completed my A levels, and I wanted to feel like I was moving forwards rather than backwards.
It was a steep learning curve. My first module was Management Information, and I struggled a lot. I failed the exam the first time. I didn’t have any prior accounting knowledge, and I’d been out of education for a year or two, so it was getting back into the swing of classroom-style learning, revision and exams. I found each of the ICAEW CFAB exams hard, but failing and resitting them helped me build resilience. I definitely have a deeper understanding of the subjects I failed first time around.
Initially my plan was to complete the ICAEW CFAB and then move on – Alison wasn’t sure she could give me enough varied experience to be able to continue to the ACA here. But since completing Level 4, she’s giving me increasingly complex work, so I jumped at the chance to stay on. Alison has really supported me through everything so far: she’s always happy for me to get on with revision during quieter times, and if there are any topics I’m struggling with she’ll sit down and give me her perspective. She’s always believed that, because she’s working for a school, education shouldn’t just stop with the students – staff can be getting educated as well.
It’s slightly strange being back in a school environment – I sometimes have to remind myself that I am actually allowed in the staff room! But it’s a really nice place to work. Everyone’s very friendly, and there are a few newly qualified teachers around my age. My day-to-day role is mainly management accounts; we’re going through our annual external audit at the moment, so I’ve been helping Alison produce the year-end accounts, and she’s given me some interesting projects to do, like carbon reporting.
I’m finding what I’m learning really transferable and easy to put into practice, which I wasn’t necessarily expecting. At school it’s hard to find something this transferable, but everything I’ve learned during the ICAEW CFAB has some sort of practical use in my day-to-day job. I’m a bit nervous about the step up to Professional Level, but I know it’s going to be so worth it in the long term. It’s really motivational to tick those exams off, so I’m looking forward to it.
Alison Hook, director of finance, Tonbridge Grammar School
I was an all-rounder at school – I studied maths, Greek and Latin at A level, then did a degree in Classics at Cambridge. I’d always quite fancied becoming an accountant, so after university I trained with Touche Ross [now Deloitte] in London. I then spent 15 years working in asset and liability management at HSBC. In 2007 I decided to leave – my husband was travelling a lot with work at the time and we had two young daughters, so I needed something more flexible. I worked part-time in church accounts for five years, which fitted in well with family life, then the job at Tonbridge Grammar School came up.
The opportunity to do more with my education and give something back really appealed to me. I remember at my interview in 2013 saying that as well as educating pupils we should be training staff, and that I’d like an apprentice. For me, that’s the sign of a successful organisation – where everybody is being developed all the time. It only took seven years to get our first finance apprentice! At the time, the finance team was still working from home, and we needed someone based at school to carry out some tasks for us.
Initially I looked into the AAT apprenticeship, but it was only Level 3, and Matt had already completed his A levels. Then I saw the ICAEW Level 4 apprenticeship and it was perfect. The teams at ICAEW were really encouraging and helpful. I had to have an interview to become an authorised training employer, but it all happened quickly and was very straightforward. The person I dealt with questioned why I wasn’t an ICAEW Fellow and arranged that for me as well.
Matt found the studying difficult at first. It had been a few years since he’d been in formal education, and he didn’t particularly enjoy the classroom environment. I think other members of the team wondered why I was ‘making’ him do it when it was so hard! But nothing worth having is easy. And after a few stumbles at the start, he was passing exams first time. As he was nearing the end of the Level 4 apprenticeship, we realised we really didn’t want to lose him. He was doing so much work, and he had become really quite effective very quickly – I think studying helps in terms of that fast development. We’ve managed to arrange some external support with the two audit firms we work with, so being able to draw on that occasionally, and give him more of my work, means we can give him enough experience to continue on and complete the Level 7 Accountancy Professional apprenticeship route to the ACA. We’re really pleased he’s going to be staying.
I think we have a responsibility to train the future generation. Last year the Department for Education ran a pilot programme for a chief financial officer (CFO) mentoring scheme, and I spent six months mentoring a new CFO. It was the experience of mentoring Matt that made me think I could do that. He’s filled a gap for me – now that my children have left home, it’s been nice to have someone else to take under my wing. And he’s part of my exit plan, too – my husband has retired now, and I’d like to retire myself in the next few years, so I’m hoping that by then Matt will be ready to step into my shoes.