We spoke to CIPFA apprentice Charlotte Bower, lead finance business partner at the Ministry of Justice, about her CIPFA Level 7 Accountancy Professional Apprenticeship and her work-based learning coach Christine Walls
Charlotte (left) began her career in the public sector in 1996, working for Her Majesty's Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) as an administrative officer. Since then, she has progressed through to her present Grade 7 role as a lead finance business partner at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), which she joined from HMPPS in early 2021. In her current role she provides strategic financial support and advice to HMPPS prison group directors and governors for prisons, alongside a team of three finance business partners.
Although she has been working in a finance business partner role since 2014, Charlotte doesn't yet have her full accounting qualifications. In March 2021, with support from the MoJ, she embarked on a CIPFA Level 7 Accountancy Professional Apprenticeship to gain a qualification that will expand her horizons and enhance her capabilities as a public sector finance professional.
"The service has put me through all my qualifications as my career has progressed," Charlotte explains. "I've been AAT qualified since 2007, and I initially started my training and achieved certificate level with CIMA, but I struggled to be able to apply what I was learning on that programme to the job that I was doing. With that in mind, I got in touch with CIPFA and had a discussion with them about my role and what my aspirations were, around supporting people in public services and helping the public. As a result, I made the decision to transfer my qualification journey to CIPFA."
One of the major motivations during her career has been to ensure best value for taxpayers. "I have a really strong passion for doing the right thing by the taxpayer and making sure that we are using the money in the best way possible," she says. "Throughout my career, I have seen areas where I felt that that standard wasn't necessarily met, which was part of the push for me to work up through the ranks, so that I could make a difference. As you progress and become more influential, you're able to have more impact.
"I also have a strong affiliation with the prison service because although I believe that there is a reason why people are in prison, I also believe there is a way to help them change their lives and to become law-abiding citizens. My role, then, is ensuring that money is available so that we can get the right interventions to the right people at the right time, which again is another aspect of protecting the public."
Charlotte explains that she has "undiagnosed ADHD," which can cause her to procrastinate or be distracted when it comes to a structured learning programme "and put things off till the last minute". As part of the Level 7 Accountancy Professional Apprenticeship, she has the support and encouragement of experienced CIPFA work-based learning coach Christine Walls.
Christine began teaching on professional courses for CIPFA in 2003 and is now involved in learning and coaching roles for the institute on an associate basis. She has also worked in the past for the institute as an examiner for one of the CIPFA Professional Qualification subjects, which form the knowledge element of the apprenticeship scheme. Christine currently has around 20 apprentices under active learning at any one time, and understands well the need to encourage students – and, occasionally, give them a firmer nudge – to keep them on track.
She explains: "I'm an independent professional person, outside their organisation who they can talk to about their work experience and who can help them recognise the value they're contributing. We have a quarterly formal review every three months, but I'm also there to support them when needed, help them navigate tricky situations in the workplace, and help reflect back what they've done well as well as what they need to do. Other times, I'm there to get on their back and focus them on getting organised. It's so varied from day to day."
Charlotte acknowledges the importance of that coaching relationship: "Christine comes in and makes sure that I get on with it. That's the difference between the way I was studying previously and now is so much better for me – it's so well organised and structured, with regular exams four times a year. For somebody like myself in the neurodiverse world, I need that structure and I need to know what I have to do – it really enables me to focus."
Charlotte says that having someone to look over her work and provide honest feedback about what she needs to improve on – as well as what she is doing well – is essential. "Christine is helping me to reflect on my experiences and work that I've completed that will enable me to demonstrate my ability as a CIPFA-qualified accountant. Having that person there to support me, particularly, with my style is really important – I wouldn't be able to do the qualification without that."
The pandemic has, of course, had a major impact on how learning is delivered, with a shift to online teaching and support. "It's been such a challenging time for everybody. I've found the need for wellbeing support from us as coaches has ratcheted up," Christine says.
She believes that the CIPFA coaching model makes that support more accessible for students and can also offer some additional learning that will stand them in good stead for the future. "It's about giving people the skills to recognise when they need extra support and know where to find it," she says. "Ultimately, one day the people I'm dealing with are going to be future finance managers, managing teams of people, and they will be in a position where they have to support others."
From a student perspective, Charlotte says she enjoys the online learning experience, particularly the ability to revisit sessions and, as a result, the opportunity to reflect at greater length on what a tutor had said. She also found the remote learning camaraderie of the chat box and student WhatsApp groups encouraging and possibly more open to sharing knowledge than a regular face-to-face study group. "It's almost anonymous, but it's also very friendly – so it encourages you to engage with people you possibly wouldn't normally talk to if you were in a classroom environment."
Delivering what's needed
Charlotte is enthusiastic about how the apprenticeship is delivering what she needs to support her future career in senior public sector finance roles, and how the course focuses on elements – such as rules, regulations and legislation – that apply specifically to public sector requirements. "CIPFA as an organisation is really helpful. There are lots of pluses for the learning and support, but the biggest plus for me is the fact that it's so relevant to our role. I also feel that a CIPFA qualification allows me to give more back to the community, because I feel I am making a difference by ensuring that, from a financial perspective, public services are provided in the best way possible."
While the course is helping to improve her technical skills, she says that it is also helping to open her mind more to different ways of applying her knowledge and experience. "I feel that the course is really stretching me, making me think differently about things, and encouraging me to challenge assumptions. I can then apply that approach with the team that work for me and the stakeholders I'm working with to think about doing things a different way, to get more efficient economic outcomes that we should be aiming for when we're talking about taxpayers' money."
She continues: "The CIPFA qualification and everything associated with that has enabled me to start looking forward more, to use my experience but also think of new ways to apply that, and to think what the future means in terms of my career."
In addition, Charlotte is thinking ahead in terms of consolidating the gains from CIPFA within her organisation, by making sure career development is in place for people coming through in the future. "I'm keen to help develop other people – it's one of my real passions – and one of my key career aspirations is to make sure throughout my time in this role that I ensure there are plenty of people behind me coming up, achieving their full potential and reaching their goals too."
For Christine, realising the potential of her students is one of the major rewards of her role. "Coaching can be a job of extreme emotions – the pain of supporting students when they are struggling, but also the fantastic moments when people exceed beyond where they thought they could ever get to. And seeing how people have progressed and developed in their careers is certainly one of the best things about the job," she says.
Christine's advice to future CIPFA apprentices? "It may be harder than you think. Nothing can quite prepare you for the commitment involved. However, the reward that you get at the end when you've qualified – not just the opportunities it opens up, but also how you grow as a person – is just huge."
CIPFA offers a range of accountancy and counter fraud apprenticeship programmes. If you're thinking about recruiting an apprentice or using an apprenticeship to upskill an existing member of your team, get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org