AAT offers opportunities for all, says new president Christina Earls

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As Christina Earls (FMAAT) takes up her new role as President of AAT this month, it is the latest step in her journey, which started ten years ago when she joined AAT.

Having never had the opportunity to study with AAT when she was younger, her accountancy route came via working in the public sector and membership of CIPFA.  She joined the CIPFA council in 2010 and from there was invited to stand as a co-optee from the CIPFA council to the AAT council. Not long after, she formally applied to become a member of AAT. Five years later, she became a fellow of AAT, something of which she is very proud.

She is also proud of AAT and the wealth of opportunities it has given her and its other members, no matter what stage of their life or career they join.

“With AAT, there is no age or cultural barrier, and that is what’s so appealing,” she says. “For example, there might be Level 3 and Level 4 students in their 40s or 50s who have never been given the opportunity to do this type of training before. At the other end of the scale, AAT appeals to young people who are interested in apprenticeships and for whom the foundation level is a springboard to an exciting and fulfilling career.”

Social mobility is a key objective

She says that one of her main objectives as incoming president is to encourage social mobility. Her own early life experiences made her acutely aware of how important it was to make the most of any opportunities available. Coming from a relatively humble upbringing, Christina had to work to gain her A levels and a place at Hull University to read Politics. She was the first member of her family to go to university, and the resilience and determination needed to get there have also served her well during the rest of her career.

“It is about giving people the opportunities and skills they need at entry-level qualifications right through to Level 4,” she says. “It is also about ongoing learning – how to ensure that all our members are able to develop professionally and personally and keep their people skills and technical knowledge up to date, even those who have been qualified for a while and are now in their 40s and 50s.”

One of her priorities will be to talk to employers and colleges about the benefits of AAT as an entry-level qualification for students and the opportunities to employ students in apprenticeships to fill the employment gap that is emerging.

The importance of ethics in learning and working

Another key objective is to help students develop a personal ethical code which will help them through the many challenges they are likely to encounter during their careers.

“It is about engaging with the hearts and minds of students right from their first exams,” she says. “Helping them to apply what they are learning to real-life examples.”

This dovetails with the revamped AAT student curriculum, which puts ethics and professional judgement at the centre of all that trainee technicians learn.

AAT’s new qualifications, Qualifications 2022 (Q2022), incorporate a greater emphasis on the fundamental principles of professional ethics from the very first levels. This has become a core part of the curriculum, running through every module at every level.

“We get students really thinking about ethics, framework and rules,” she says. “It helps AAT members and students exercise professional scepticism and work through practical scenarios to understand how to apply the highest levels of professional judgement.”

The new qualifications also look at how AAT can help technicians at Level 3 and Level 4 develop a deeper understanding and confidence in the ethical dilemmas they may encounter later in their careers, she says. Having worked in the public sector, she is acutely aware that decisions that she made affect the public purse and are accountable on several financial and moral levels.

“In terms of ethics, I’ve been challenged several times in my career, and I think having a robust ethics policy is very important,” she says. “The industry is changing, and new challenges are coming up. The concept is to make ethics less of a dry subject and help students look at how they can put it to practical use. Professional integrity is about doing the right thing when no one is looking.”

Making the AAT sustainable

It has been a challenging couple of years for the profession, and accountants and students have had to work through the challenges of Covid-19 and hybrid working.

Having worked in the public sector, Christina has learnt about value for money and sustainable business decisions, and this is a specialist area of knowledge that she hopes to bring to her role as AAT president.

“The public sector is well used to being sustainable and giving value,” she says. “Along with this theme, I will also be looking at how what we do in our professional lives impacts the climate.”

Communication and empathy

For students, learning communication and empathy as part of a portfolio of skills which includes technical knowledge is very important.

“You need to be good at communication as well as understanding the changes that technology has made to our profession,” she says. “Students and members are now facing lots of challenges, for example, Artificial Intelligence and Making Tax Digital, which will impact the way they work. In addition, they will need to develop new skills around networking, better communications, and problem-solving to complement these new technical skills.”

A key objective is also to bring to the forefront of people’s minds an understanding and empathy for mental health and how it impacts people both on a personal and professional level.

Christina’s AAT journey

After university, Christina got a job in Revenues at Leeds County Council and joined AAT 12 years ago.

“When I was 21, I never thought I was going to be an accountant, but it was the best job that I could have done,” she said “I was the first in my family to do A levels I had to work at weekends to fund them. I had to take a year off and save for university because my family couldn’t afford it. Now at age 63, I’ve worked for five different local authorities and five different departments.

“I am so supportive of AAT and all that it does because it can be a life-changing qualification for people who didn’t necessarily get opportunities earlier in their life or who are looking for a qualification which can help them start a second career. I am looking forward to my role as AAT president and am keen to provide my skills and knowledge to really make a difference.”

Marianne Curphey is an award-winning financial writer and columnist, and author of the book How Money Works. She worked as City Editor at The Guardian, deputy editor of Guardian online, and has worked for The Times, Telegraph and BBC.

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