CA syllabus, then and now

By Callum McKenzie, Director of Courses

18 May 2016

How does ICAS decide what goes into the syllabus, and how does it change? Callum McKenzie, Director of Courses explains how your learning experience is shaped.

The syllabus changes every year; sometimes in small increments, and sometimes in large chunks depending on industry changes. The process for change is very inclusive: we ask a wide range of stakeholders, including the firms, examiners, and teachers, whether they think we should be adding or dropping matters from the syllabus.

The Institute’s education strategy committee, the Qualification Board, adds its views and then weighs up relative merits. There sometimes isn’t a choice other than to change the syllabus because the laws or regulations have changed, and on other occasions the case for change is compelling because the business landscape has changed. 

This review is completed on an annual basis to ensure CA students receive a relevant and regulated education that moves with the times.

The syllabus change does not have to be incremental though; the Qualifications Board, could - if they judged there was a case to do so - make a major change to the syllabus. 

The last major amendment was in 2000, when Advanced Finance came into the syllabus and Advanced Management Accounting dropped out. Previous to this, the case study exam was introduced in 1988, what we know as the forerunner to TPE.

It’s worth noting that it’s generally much easier to get a consensus on adding a new topic to the syllabus than to take something out. 

An important review task is monitoring the volume of learning that lies underneath the syllabus learning outcomes: it’s impossible for students to remember absolutely everything about chartered accountancy!

What was expected 25 years ago?

Twenty-five years ago the accounting standards were called SSAPs, and there were twenty-five of them in total. There were a few other pronouncements on urgent issues, but nothing more. 

Students were expected to have a working knowledge of most! Today there are forty-one pronouncements, so we have to be more selective about the coverage.

There were also just 2 tax books used by students in 1991, for classes and exams; a yellow book and an orange book. This has since increased to 7 books, and our students would need a pretty big backpack to carry them all around! Studies are getting more complicated all the time and the syllabus has to judge what to set aside.

ICAS has fascinating documents in our archives, retained from the Institutes’ 162-year history.  A document from 1936 has many topics in the curriculum that you would still recognise today, but there are some that you might find surprising.

In 1936 you would have been examined on:

  • arithmetic and algebra
  • office routine
  • the meaning and use of business terms
  • correspondence
  • agenda and minutes of meetings
  • framing statements of trust and executry accounts
  • schemes of division and interest states

The exams that tested the syllabus were similar in length to those set today and the cost for sitting an exam was £1, 1 shilling (around £63 in today’s prices). And if you wanted to see a past paper, then you needed to buy the January and June issue of ‘The Accountants’ magazine’, where they were reprinted, for 1 shilling each!

The next syllabus for 2016/2017 is already complete and is being used for updates to course material update and exam writing.

Full course coverage for 1936

First division

  • Paper no 1: Arithmetic and Algebra
  • Paper no 2: Compound interest, annuities certain and elementary statistics (Candidates will not be required to give proofs or demonstrations involving mathematics beyond what is prescribed for paper no 1, but they are expected to have a knowledge of the practical applications of the basic formulae).

Final examinations

  • Paper no 1 (3 hours 100 marks): The Law of Scotland concerning: contract, bills of exchange, sale of goods, the general principles of insurance, insolvency, bankruptcy, trust deeds for creditors and sequestration.
  • Paper no 2 (3 hours 100 marks): The Law of Scotland concerning: joint stock companies, partnership, trusts and judicial factories, including appointment and fee and liferent.

Second division

  • Paper no 3: Book-keeping (prep of balance sheets, trading accounts, and profit and loss accounts, departmental and branch accounts, consignment and joint adventure accounts).
  • Paper no 4: Accounting: auditing of commercial accounts, office routine, the meaning and use of business terms, correspondence, agenda, and minutes of meetings, framing statements of trust and executry accounts, schemes of division and interest states, elementary income tax practice

Final examinations

  • Paper no 3 (3.5 hours for 120 marks): advanced bookkeeping, including the preparation of balance-sheets, trading accounts, profit and loss accounts, business statistics and cost accounts.
  • Paper no 4 (3 hours 80 marks): The law and practice with regard to income tax and surtax.
  • Paper no 5 (3.5 hours 120 marks): The law and practice with regard to audit of all classes of accounts.
  • Paper no 6 (3 hours, 80 marks): Trust and executry accounts, Schemes of division amongst beneficiaries under a trust settlement and in intestate succession, Fee and liferent, appointments.
  • Paper no 7 (3 hours, 100 marks): The investigation of accounts and preparation of reports thereon; States of affairs in insolvencies, bankruptcies, and liquidations, including schemes of ranking and division; The duties of arbiters and referees, and the preparation of statements in connection with arbitrations, remits and proofs.


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