How getting qualified benefited one accountant’s business

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The government is mulling over whether or not to make regulation of accountants compulsory. With that in mind, what are the benefits of coming into the fold for unregulated individuals?

A mid-career decision to gain an accounting qualification gave confidence and authority to now-AAT Council member Heather Darnell MAAT. Having started her career as a financial analyst in America, Darnell moved to the UK in the late 90s. Then in 2003, she set up a consultancy offering part-time and virtual CFO services for small businesses.

The fact that AAT embraces people that came at it from a different point or a roundabout route is great. It’s for all those people who are already entrepreneurs, or business owners or finance directors. For those people, there is a route and the AAT recognises it.

Heather Darnell MAAT, Founder of Ask the Boss

“When I started out, I was just doing financial planning and recommendations based on whatever numbers the clients had,” she says. “But over the years, there was very much a very clear need to be able to provide bookkeeping services for people so they had up-to-date numbers to work from and talk to the bank about.”

As the business grew and generated demand, Darnell added bookkeeping, payroll before eventually adding accounts, tax returns. “It became essentially a full-service accounting firm,” she recalls.

Difficulties of being unqualified

So far so good. However, over the years, supervising a growing roster of trainee accountants focused Darnell’s mind on her lack of formal accountancy qualification.

“It really came to a head after a couple of years of not being fully in control of the business because I didn’t have the practicing certificate. And there was a feeling that I was held to ransom a bit by staff members because they had it.

There are legitimate reasons that clients can be wary of unqualified accountants. According to HMRC’s research, only 4% of unaffiliated agents follow the Professional Conduct in Relation to Taxation (PCRT), just 18% follow HMRC’s standards of tax advice and 45% are unaware what the standard actually is.

But such wariness can of course feel unfair to those unregulated accountants who have nonetheless been working hard and well in the industry. “So in the end I said, ‘You know what, you’re just going to have to do this yourself.”

Fortunately, a pathway to membership is available.

Let’s help [unqualified accountants] come in, because people need these careers, they need work and if they’re willing to show the same level of competence as everybody else in the profession, then should we not say, ‘We are a growing, open community – come in’?

Sarah Beale, CEO of AAT

Finding a suitable membership body

Heather was initially put off other qualification options by a range of factors – prime among them the need to sell her firm while she studied. But her search for the right accounting body soon took her to the AAT. “I called them up and asked if I could I take the exams while still owning a firm. And they said, yes, of course you can.”

At this point it’s worth explaining that most accounting qualifications follow a traditional route: study for Level One, pass; study Level Two, pass and so on. However, AAT allows experienced candidates like Heather to circumvent the typical route and jump straight to Level Four.

She says the fact that AAT exams rely heavily on the use of real-life examples – looking at everything from budgeting and forecasting to contracts and tax – makes the process straightforward for someone well-established in their career. “If you really are qualified by experience, a lot of it was very much common sense.”

Unexpected benefits of study

Despite the fact that much of the assessment journey covered familiar territory, Heather believes she ended up learning a great deal more than expected.

“It was interesting because there were quite a few things in the course of qualifying I had never come across before. One thing I found incredibly useful, which was something super weirdly technical, was the consolidation of multiple company accounts in one. That was really useful and interesting and I’ve never come across it before.”

“So it was super, super useful. And I think there’s also something else that I realised in retrospect only: It wasn’t about learning something very technical that helped me; but even as a confident person, going through the process gave me a whole other layer of confidence that I didn’t know I needed, but definitely have now that I’ve done it.”

Bonuses of membership

Now, as a qualified accountant, Heather says it does help when talking to some clients’ funders when working on the accounts, as the client can say ‘we have qualified accountants doing their accounts so you can trust them’.

“That’s because investors are more clued up about the difference between qualified and not qualified than most business owners are,” she says.

“It also means we can get bigger clients and have the ability to speak with investors with confidence”.

There are other benefits to joining a supervisory body, too. As a supervisor, AAT helps our accountants manage risk by checking on their anti-money laundering (AML) activities to ensure they remain compliant.

Your AAT qualification can differentiate you from others. You have a toolkit others don’t have, plus your AAT membership gives you a source of information through CPD and lifelong learning that keeps your toolkit up to date.

Kevin Bragg, President of AAT

Continued learning journey

Of course, no accountant worth their salt should ever feel like they’ve learnt all they can. Continuing professional development (CPD) is a huge part of the ongoing process, and Heather says her initial skepticism – ‘Why do I need CPD when I’m already experienced?’ – soon wore off post-qualification in large part due to the way the AAT has designed its ongoing programme.

“I’ve seen that some institutes have an incredibly prescriptive CPD scheme that cost a lot of money in general, and you’ve got to get certain points – it has almost become a little cottage industry.

“Whereas the AAT’s approach is very much: it’s up to you to work out what you need to keep up with and what you need to learn and what’s relevant to your world and your clients.”

A flexible approach

Instead of prescribing a set number of points necessary to progress, AAT-certified members keep a record of all the things they have investigated, worked on, participated in or trained on over the course of the year.

Unlike some CPD schemes that can resemble a tick box exercise the AAT approach looks more like a development plan wherein members are expected to follow their own training and development needs and then explain the benefits of each.

“And I think it’s really useful. For instance, for someone like me – and I think a lot of business owners are the same – you’re in constant CPD mode, always needing to find out what’s out there and what’s new to keep up to date with things.”

Further progression available

And that’s reflected in the fact that Heather enjoyed the experience so much, she even ended up on the AAT Council. “I had originally joined what was called the Members Assembly, which was a group of people who talked to some of the AAT executives every couple of months to get input on what it’s like to be an AAT member,” she explains. “But I got invited onto council around two years ago. A huge reason for doing that was to represent people like me. Because it is quite rare.”

Looking back, Heather’s sure that the AAT route that allows a more flexible approach for those at different stages of their career is a real USP. “The fact that AAT embraces people that came at it from a different point or a roundabout route is great. It’s for all those people who are already entrepreneurs, or business owners or finance directors. For those people, there is a route and the AAT recognises it.”

Key benefits to qualifying

  • Learn about new and unexpected areas
  • Gain confidence in your own skills
  • Gain authority and respect
  • Manage your risk with the help of your supervisory body
  • Continue to develop in a useful and meaningful way


AAT supports bringing unregulated accountants into membership bodies. Read about why we think it’s so important, as well as the benefits that come with qualification.

Find out more

Christian Doherty is a business journalist and freelance writer for AAT.

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