Next month AAT’s Chief Executive, Jane Scott Paul OBE, retires after 27 years at the organisation. Here she looks back at some of her favourite moments – from transforming the qualification into a practical test of competence, to the organisation’s accession to full membership of the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC)
When I arrived at AAT in 1987 I found a small organisation of 30 or so employees. I was responsible for Education and the AAT’s membership qualifications which I had been employed to reform.
At the time the quality assurance system was quite primitive. There was an examiner who wrote each paper and one other person who checked it – and that was pretty much that. It was certainly a far cry from the rigorous checks I was used to at the University of Oxford exam board from where I had come.
In those days, our qualification was a largely academic exercise, so I started the process of transforming it into a more practical test of competence. To do that, I asked myself: how do we measure whether someone has the skills, knowledge and understanding to function as an effective, competent accounting technician?
Another one of my early reforms was introducing quality assurance requirements for training providers. At the time anyone could offer the AAT qualification and I felt that was high risk. I introduced accreditation for our training providers and I think we were one of the first bodies to do that. For the first time, you had to apply to teach AAT.
Raising the profile of AAT
Probably my number one achievement has been in raising the profile of AAT. When I started in the eighties few had heard of us. People would take their AAT certificates to employers – and they hadn’t heard of us.
We are now a very credible organisation with sensible things to say. We are often asked for our opinion on Government consultations, as well as from print and broadcast media on a range of issues which affect us and our members.
South Africa: taking AAT to the world
Some of my fondest memories of my time surround the reception you get in Africa if you are part of an organisation that is delivering education and skills (which AAT is). It’s very humbling. I specifically remember a Swazi nightwatchman, whose job involved sitting up all night at someone’s gate.
That was all he did. Despite his job, he was bright and he went on to get a job as a cleaner and then an accounts clerk, when his employer gave him the opportunity to do AAT. When I saw him last he had nearly finished his ACCA. The life he can now enjoy as a result of the grounding AAT gave him is phenomenal.
Aldersgate Street office: a new way of working
Over the years I have tried to change the way we as an organisation work together too. I wanted AAT to be somewhere people were treated properly, empowered and treated with decency, respect and kindness. So in 2006 I launched a project led by a Council working party to move to our current open-plan office in Aldersgate Street.
We moved out of Clerkenwell Road (our old, non-open plan office) on the Friday night and into Aldersgate Street on the Monday morning. When we got in, everything was up and running, and all the things that the designer and management consultant had said would happen, happened.
At the new office we introduced hot desking to facilitate cross-team working and a clear desk policy. The most satisfying moment for me was seeing on that Monday people sit down, start work – then begin talking to each other.
There is a breakout space outside my office (yes I do have my own office, but it is glass and I still have to adhere to the clear desk policy!). Within an hour there were three people working together there. They hadn’t been told to. But build it, and they will come.
Membership of IFAC
More recently AAT’s accession to full membership of the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) in 2012 was a significant achievement. There was perhaps a view in some parts of the world that accounting technicians should know their place. There was a full debate, which in 10 years attending IFAC Council meetings I had never seen before. But we won the argument and now everybody at IFAC knows who we are.
Although I am sad to be leaving AAT after so long, I have no doubt that my successor, Mark Farrar, will thrive. He’s a chartered accountant and former Chief Executive of the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), and so I’m sure AAT is in safe hands.
More information on Jane’s career can be found in her online biography on the AAT website.
Jane Scott Paul was AAT's Chief Executive between 1997 and 2014.