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Should trainees be swotting in their own time?

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As thousands of students across the UK gear up for their exams, how much time off should firms give trainees to study?

23rd Oct 2023
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Studying for exams while holding down a position within a firm can make for a heady cocktail of stress for young accountants looking to enter the profession. And while allowances are usually made for those studying, many students can find themselves cramming during the evenings or weekends in preparation for exams. 

However, in a recent post on Any Answers, one member posed a question that got many in the community talking about how much time off students really need to ensure success. “We have staff studying AAT level 3 and 4, and ACCA level 2. All are on day release (some in college, some online). In addition to the day release and day off for the exam, how many days is reasonable to give off for pre-exam swotting/mock exams?” asked kevinringer.

In your own time

The question sparked debate and nostalgia in equal measure as the community offered their thoughts and experiences on what is deemed acceptable time to be put aside for studies.

“Absolutely none! If they really want to achieve, it should be in their own time. Time off to sit the exams only,” wrote turchyna582.

User Viciuno held a similar opinion, recalling that their employers had offered no extra time off to prepare for their course. “If you are relying on one day of study leave to pass, you are probably going to fail anyway. You need to spend weeks/months studying in your spare time,” Viciuno wrote.

Offering support

Others however, took a different approach to their staff’s learning, with some offering a more flexible plan for aspiring accountants on their teams.

“We’ve a staff member who will take his final CTA exams next month and we’ve given him 10 days on full pay. We want him to pass,” wrote mbee1, adding that “if he passes, he’ll get a decent pay rise.”

Others looked back at their own training experiences, remembering how their professional bodies supported their studies.

“I seem to remember that we had at least four weeks at financial training, all paid from 1974–78,” recalled carnmores.

ACCA-certified Hazel Accounts recalled a similar experience, writing: “I did ACCA (quite a long time ago now) and the standard thing then seemed to be one week per paper.”

Focus on flexibility

For Accounting Excellence award nominee Max Whiteley, associate director at Accounts and Legal, supporting staff with their educational requirements has become a key tenet of his firm. He acknowledged how difficult it can be “spinning plates” working full time while studying for exams.

“All our trainees are given full days off for college and exams, and we integrate the syllabus into their appraisals, making sure we back up the theory with real-life examples where it can be applied to clients,” Whiteley continued. 

Yet, Whiteley also noted that, as each person works differently, a focus on flexibility has been paramount in ensuring success among his trainees, offering bespoke support to his developing team.

“For us flexibility is the name of the game. We offer an option for a four-day work week for all staff, so trainees can use the day off as a study day instead of cramming the work into their evenings.

“It really depends on the individual, but we believe that giving trainees the flexibility and time to study alongside their day job is incredibly important. After all, we’ve all been there ourselves!”

Should firms offer trainee staff more flexibility to study? Or, should revising be done on their own time? Let us know in the comments below.

Replies (20)

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By Open all hours
24th Oct 2023 09:02

Yes, but not only trainees. We belong to a profession where studying about and around the subject every day is surely essential?

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By Self-Employed and Happy
24th Oct 2023 09:51

As somebody who couldn't get a job in practice when I changed career (aged 26) I paid for and studied AAT 3+4 in my own time two nights a week after work, ACCA every Saturday and Sunday during term time at Kaplan 10-4pm.

I started in practice when I was 3/4 exams into ACCA, I chose not to accept their training programme as I didn't want to be tied to them for a few years after, it was hard work and sacrifices aplenty but not having to stay with the place I was with was worth it.

Depends what kind of company you are and how many years you want to tie them into after, plus if they turn out any good in the first place!

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By johnjenkins
24th Oct 2023 10:01

With most training you have theory and practice. In many cases (even now in taxation) theory is different to practice but you still need the theory. On site training is most valuable so to get the balance between that and home study leave really depends on the person. On going training is of paramount importance, even if it is just reading articles. A friend in the big four once told me "it's not what you don't know, it's what you forget is the problem".

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By HLB
24th Oct 2023 15:32

In the 1970's my ICAEW training contact allowed 10 weeks paid study leave with a training provider (in my case Chart Foulks Lynch) per professional exam sitting (PE1 and PE2). But, you still had to study outside these periods to stand a good chance of passing.

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By Postingcomments
24th Oct 2023 15:47

I work with a number of firms - and so get to see inside them to some degree.

A few years ago, one firm had a student who seemed to be into a number of internet "Gen Z ideologies".

One was that he didn't see why he should do unpaid overtime. He'd take his lunch hour and leave on the dot.

Well, he failed his CTA twice and was asked to leave. That's despite full classes and plenty of study leave.

Especially when you're a student, it is a 2 way street. You are getting a valuable qualification and experience - which you can sell to many firms for good money - so it is only fair that some of the investment comes from the person. This is a knowledge based profession after all.

There is a heck of a learning curve and it isn't fair to think that can all be done on company time, especially when the person has the option to go to a new employer as soon as they qualify.

All in my opinion, of course.

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Replying to Postingcomments:
Stepurhan
By stepurhan
25th Oct 2023 08:29

Postingcomments wrote:

A few years ago, one firm had a student who seemed to be into a number of internet "Gen Z ideologies".

One was that he didn't see why he should do unpaid overtime.


Not sure what relevance of this is to the discussion.

Training is a two-way street. Both the firm and the student benefit, so the student should also be putting in effort in their own time to succeed. Unpaid overtime is a one-way street. The employer gets extra benefit and the employee gets nothing (in fact they end up worse of from loss of free time). There is no valid argument that unpaid overtime should be the norm.

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Replying to stepurhan:
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By Postingcomments
25th Oct 2023 10:02

There is a certain amount of knowledge and experience that a person needs to get before they can really be badged as "qualifed" and get qualified pay.

I'm sure some people can accrue that in 20 hours a week over 3 years. Others might take longer.

Either way, the student has all the incentive in the world to be a really good quality qualifed by the end of 3 years. That is certainly the case at larger firms - if you can take on new and interesting work for new managers - that's beneficial to you. If you are rated well, you can be considered for interesting opportunities.

Personally, I crammed a lot into my Big 4 time (both pre and post qual) as the plan was never to stay too long. 20 years on, I still benefit from knowledge and experience I gained during that time. I'm glad I wasn't too shortsighted about it.

I think the student I mentioned was being a bit shortsighted. He was at a good firm and could have learned a lot. Post-failure, he is at a much smaller one and there are likely far fewer opportunities and interesting pieces of work there.

But, yes, if someone is doing 50 hours a week for Messrs High Street Firm & Co, bashing out plumbers' tax returns all night - that's just being used.

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Replying to Postingcomments:
Stepurhan
By stepurhan
25th Oct 2023 15:18

Postingcomments wrote:

There is a certain amount of knowledge and experience that a person needs to get before they can really be badged as "qualifed" and get qualified pay.

I'm sure some people can accrue that in 20 hours a week over 3 years. Others might take longer.

Either way, the student has all the incentive in the world to be a really good quality qualifed by the end of 3 years. That is certainly the case at larger firms - if you can take on new and interesting work for new managers - that's beneficial to you. If you are rated well, you can be considered for interesting opportunities.

So, just to be clear, people should work unpaid overtime because they MIGHT get more experience and they MIGHT get more interesting work and they MIGHT get increased pay.

Or the sort of firm that would insist on unpaid overtime MIGHT just get them to do donkey work and say they still cannot get qualified pay because they are only doing donkey work. (also they haven't passed their exams because the lack of training support and loss of free time to unpaid overtime means they could not study properly).

That's ignoring the fact that someone that takes on a lot of "new and interesting work" is probably not having a good quality of life. If someone wants to make such sacrifices to advance quickly, good luck to them. That doesn't mean those that prefer to enjoy a reasonable quality of life should be treated as "short-sighted" or dismissed as having "Gen Z ideologies".

It's that sort of toxic thinking that allows unscrupulous employers to exploit their employees.

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Replying to stepurhan:
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By Postingcomments
25th Oct 2023 17:13

"people should"

No, any individual person can form their own view and do what they like, as far as I'm concerned.

Just like you can be argumentative, as you often are. Just like you can deliberately misinterpret what someone is saying, as you often do.

I hope tomorrow is a better day for you.

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Replying to Postingcomments:
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By AW95
26th Oct 2023 12:37

Postingcomments wrote:

A few years ago, one firm had a student who seemed to be into a number of internet "Gen Z ideologies".

One was that he didn't see why he should do unpaid overtime. He'd take his lunch hour and leave on the dot.

I don't see what's wrong with this? The partners sure aren't regularly working for clients for free.

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By Dogracer
24th Oct 2023 18:02

The great think is that in this profession every day is a school day

You never stop learning and thanks to online resources research tools are at your fingertips

The passing of the exam is a bit like taking your driving test you only start really learning once you have passed your test

I didn’t start studying until relatively late in life (late 20’s) because the first firm I worked for didn’t want to employ anyone qualified (apart from the owner) because they’ll pinch my clients!

I was able to agree a paid for evening class but the on the job training I had already received helped

Personally any help you can give someone to pass should be given and that includes ongoing CPD during work hours for qualified staff.

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By Kaylee100
25th Oct 2023 10:05

Our study time was clear in our contract and anything more we took from holiday. However, we had to pass all exams in one sitting, so to some extent it was easier to schedule study time. As exams can be sat piecemeal now, exams are being sat all the time, so that it's easier to swot for one in ones own time with the revision study leave we used to get littered as maybe a day/half day a paper depending on the number and difficulty involved.

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By Markcairns67
25th Oct 2023 10:19

A long time ago, I chose a training contract with an employer that offered paid training hours and generous time off to study prior to exams. That doesn't mean I never studied on my own time (I did) but that I wasn't expected to put a full day of work in and then fit studies around that for an upcoming exam.

The companies that expected that from their trainees didn't pay a lot more so to me that was a fair deal.

And this was back in the day when a qualified accountant had more value in the job market. Today, I wouldn't even consider a training contract that involved unpaid OT.

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By Mark Lee
25th Oct 2023 13:19

Im reminded of the apocryphal story about a senior partner arguing AGAINST being generous re time off to study etc. "What if we give them time off and then they leave?"
To which the team manager is reported to have replied: "What if we don't give them time off, they don't qualify and they STAY?"

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Replying to bookmarklee:
Stepurhan
By stepurhan
25th Oct 2023 13:37

The horror is real.

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Replying to bookmarklee:
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By johnjenkins
25th Oct 2023 14:38

Reverse psychology or a form of sods law?

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By Amy Chin
25th Oct 2023 14:04

I qualified 12 years ago and spent the next ten as an ICAEW tutor.

I set the expectation for all of my students that they would be spending the majority of their free time studying during exam periods, and in my experience most of the good ones did. Very few were given study leave outside of tuition and revision courses and the exams themselves. The focus was on encouraging them to build in an hour or two for leisure or relaxation but studying most of the time.

When I was qualifying we used away jobs as a good opportunity to revise (often preferable to sitting through awkward dinners with the audit team at the Premier Inn...). We spent all our evenings and weekends revising and it paid off - I always told my students there's a reason it's such a valuable qualification, it takes a lot of HARD work and personal investment.

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By sherodwilliams
25th Oct 2023 15:32

I am probably giving away just how old I am but I began studying for ACCA by completing ACCA Foundation A&B. To do that I had no allowance for study save for my employer paying I recall about £40 per level for a Foulkes Lynch Correspondence course. I worked 9.00 -5.30 plus 3 hours every alternate Saturday morning. Almost every night I would sit down for a couple of hours study & completing papers which I then had to post off for marking & feedback at my own cost. I did it because I wanted to be part of a profession which was respected. I later found out that some trainees in the firm were studying ICAEW courses which were fully paid for block release courses lasting 8 weeks to which were added exam days and study days. None of those ICAEW students qualified & left the profession whilst I continued on until some 9 years later I became a partner in a different firm. My involvement with my own firm & staff extended to Investors in People and involvement with AAT & the local careers service. I am therefore a believer in encouraging those trainees who show a keeness & aptitude for the work , those who display a level of common sense & those who direct questions to senior staff rather than sitting there puzzled. If they are worth employing then they are worth encouraging & if that means allowing someone to have one or two days off pre exam then the increased level of fee achievable by them will more than outweigh 2 days salary. I preach the same mantra whether it is relating to staff or to clients " if we don't look after them, someone else will "

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Replying to sherodwilliams:
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By johnjenkins
25th Oct 2023 15:50

Those alternate Saturday mornings, having to call the junior and senior partner Sir and of course taking it in turns to man the phones lunch time. There were 5 of us juniors, all had time off for studying. Mercantile Law, now that was something else. I was so surprised how easy I found Accountancy and taxation practical, it was the theory I had problems with. Being an argumentative person at times did not help my case.

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Replying to johnjenkins:
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By sherodwilliams
25th Oct 2023 16:53

General principles of English Law & Mercantile Law ! Donoghue v Stevenson and the slug in the lemonade bottle ......... People now laugh but about 20 years ago I was supporting a case in the High Court in the Strand when a matter of promissory estoppel came up. I wrote down Central London Property v High Trees House on a post it note which eventually found its way to the QC via a solicitor & junior Counsel. It was cited in the matter & afterwards the QC ( Now a leading Judge) asked how I as a mere accountant would know about case law . Because I spent every evening studying in my own time. My client won the case but probably not down to me !

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