We spoke with Rachel Pizzey (left), Trainee Accountant at Gateshead Council, and her line manager finance business partner Carole Smith about the highlights, challenges and benefits of the CIPFA Level 7 Accountancy Professional Apprenticeship Rachel is undertaking.
Rachel Pizzey is currently in the final year of her CIPFA Level 7 Accountancy Professional Apprenticeship, having begun her journey towards qualification to be a Chartered Public Finance Accountant (CPFA) in September 2020. She has been in her current role as a school budgets support officer at Gateshead Council since December 2021.
“I really enjoy the school budgets support officer role,” Rachel explains. “It's really interesting – I get to provide financial advice and support to a number of the maintained schools within Gateshead. I provide budgetary advice and support, handle queries and all sorts of different elements that come with the financial management of schools. I am also involved with year-end and budget setting, which is quite a complex process that involves liaising with a variety of different people to get the work done. The variety of funding and grants for schools adds to the challenge and complexity, but it’s also a very rewarding role.”
Rachel began her career at the local authority in September 2009, initially joining as a business administration trainee, and moving a year later into the council’s exchequer services department. It was here that she realised she wanted to build a career in finance. After obtaining an AAT qualification, Rachel developed her experience, skills and responsibility working in a number of roles within the organisation – from finance lead for the Gateshead Goes Local Community-Led Local Development (CLLD) project, and accounting technician in financial management supporting various departments within the authority, through to her current role on the schools team.
“I have always wanted to be an accountant, so I am grateful for the opportunities that Gateshead Council has given me in order to achieve this,” Rachel says.
Rachel started the ACCA qualification in 2018 soon after she moved to financial management. However, she soon identified that the CIPFA qualification would be the more appropriate route for developing her career in the public sector. “I asked if I could switch to the CIPFA Level 7 Accountancy Professional Apprenticeship, which fortunately was agreed,” she explains.
“The CIPFA apprenticeship is setting me up for my future career by providing me with the specific knowledge and skills that I need to be a public finance manager,” Rachel says. “It's also given me a great deal of self-belief to know that I can present to head teachers and budget holders – people who have a finance background as well as those that don’t – and to provide advice with confidence. I've been able to develop my communication skills, too, as well as gain experience in leadership and management.”
The ethos at the core of public sector finance was a key factor in influencing Rachel’s career path. “What attracted me to working in the public sector in the first place was the ability to be in a job that is helping residents and businesses,” Rachel explains. “In my current job, for instance, the work I do is helping children to get an education. I know that by providing the budget and giving head teachers the information and advice they need, they can recruit staff, and they can buy equipment and materials. I always find it fulfilling to know that my work's helping other people in the community.”
Carole Smith is a finance business partner at Gateshead Council and Rachel’s line manager “I’ve had a couple of CIPFA apprentices in my team now, and there have only been positives,” she says. “The only challenges have been for us to ensure that we provide the apprentices with a sufficient breadth and depth of experience to help them complete their portfolios.”
She says the CIPFA accountancy apprenticeship approach benefits not only the trainee, but also the wider finance team. “Going through the apprenticeship process within the organisation means we can help to mould the trainee for the roles we need them for – we can ensure they come through the process with our ethos and values embedded,” she says. “But – as Rachel has proved – having an accountancy apprentice also brings enthusiasm and new ideas to the team. It brings a freshness and buoyancy.”
Intensive, but manageable
For Rachel, while the CIPFA apprenticeship is challenging, requiring plenty of hard work and commitment, she believes the structured approach it is based around works well in terms of managing the workload, while developing skills and practical knowledge as the course progresses. “It’s intensive but manageable,” she says “For anybody considering taking an accountancy qualification, it’s a fantastic opportunity. If you’re prepared for the hard work, there’s so much you get out of it – not only the qualification at the end, but also the skills you develop as you progress and the people that you meet along the way. The support network that you get from the CIPFA apprenticeship is really beneficial, too – people are friendly and helpful if you’re struggling on a particular subject or just need support. It’s great to have around you.”
While Rachel enjoys her current position, she is keen to finish her apprenticeship and finally achieve her ambition. “I’d like to get an accountant role, and maybe become a finance business partner. But I’m happy working for Gateshead Council and making a contribution to my local community.”
Her line manager, Carole, believes that Rachel represents the value of developing home-grown talent through the CIPFA apprenticeship programme. “I would always encourage any organisation to employ an apprentice,” Carole says. “You might need to put a bit more time and energy into them and they may need a little more nurturing – but you’re absolutely going to reap the rewards. I’d advise anybody to look at what an apprentice can bring to your organisation – if you employ the right people, they’ll only ever enhance your business.”
CIPFA has two Level 7 Accountancy Professional Apprenticeship intakes a year, one starting in the spring and one in the autumn. If you have any queries, including how to go about recruiting an apprentice, contact the apprenticeship team: firstname.lastname@example.org