Graham Foster: A philosophical journey to qualification
Outdoorsman and ICAS tutor Graham Foster shares his pathway to CIPFA qualification, from philosophy to exploring the full impact of financial decisions for public services, and why it doesn't stop at the bottom line.
Morality and maths
I studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics. The simplest answer to 'why? was just intellectual curiosity and, when applying as a 16-year-old, not being too afraid of a robust debate. I think I can put that one down to the occasionally combative spirit of the Foster family dinner table.
I was definitely inclined to study something that motivated me and would result in a profession at a later stage. That didn't run 100% to plan (avoid graduating during a recession) but I certainly have no regrets as the degree was fascinating in its own right.
An alternative route
I am a CIPFA member rather than a CA and most of my career has involved working either in or with, the public services. I found that work motivating as I felt that the impact, at its best, went beyond the bottom-line.
My route into accountancy wasn't straightforward - I didn't start training for my CIPFA exams until my mid-20s and switched to PwC a couple of years later, working mostly on statutory audits of public service clients but also some internal audit and advisory work.
Even when I was at PwC my favourite part of the job was coaching and training junior colleagues and seeing their skills and confidence grow.
Once I qualified I wasn't sure about staying in practice and felt like a change of scene, so when a position came up at CIPFA's Education and Training Centre in London, I thought it would be an interesting challenge for a couple of years.
More than a decade later, ICAS attracted me with its reputation for educational excellence, as well as the opportunity and challenge for me to broaden the range of subject matter I get involved in, given the different emphases of the CA qualification.
My parents were both lecturers in other fields and I think my slightly nerdy enjoyment in explaining things might well have drawn me in this direction, whichever profession I'd ended up in. Even when I was at PwC my favourite part of the job was coaching and training junior colleagues and seeing their skills and confidence grow.
Making an impact
The work that made me think most about the impact we can have was some capacity-development skills training for state auditors in Kosovo, where the social and economic impacts of civil war were still very evident in the every-day life and the fabric of the capital, Pristina.
By the time you get to TPE we are looking for a wider appreciation of the business context that CAs work in.
Aside from the difference I hope my work has made and the rewards of seeing students develop (and occasionally win prizes!), I've enjoyed a lot of variety and interesting challenges. I had a huge range of clients when I worked in practice, and delivering training in various Balkan states was particularly memorable.
I've worked with a range of great people and great teams: the CA Education Team is no exception and, almost a year after joining, I'm still struck by their enthusiasm and commitment. There is quite a variety in the team, with a number of newly-qualified CAs bringing a lot of energy and new ideas to bear.
Advice for students
Firstly, answer the question, the whole question and nothing but the question. Most of my work in accountancy education has been focused on more narrative or discursive subject areas. I've seen so many marks lost through missed requirements, irrelevance and tangential waffle. Please don't do it!
Secondly, think ahead in the qualification. A lot of TC is about 'what' needs to be done and 'how' to do it. But by the time you get to TPE we are looking for a wider appreciation of the business context that CAs work in and the much bigger question of 'why' people should make certain decisions.
We obviously provide full and structured training for the demands of the TPE exam, but the soft skills and awareness being assessed are best developed over a longer period of time.
Get into the habit of reading business press and websites, the CA student blog and asking a few wider questions of colleagues, managers and tutors. It will really pay off at TPE and, indeed, throughout your career as a CA.
In my spare time
I've always been quite outdoorsy - I finished the Munros over ten years ago but, for various reasons, I'm more likely to be found wearing out mountain bike tires than mountain boots these days.
Most of my spare time, however, is spent with my two lovely children who are now five and seven years old. Hopefully, at least one of them will soon be interested in helping me combine these two great pleasures in life!
I also have a well-concealed but vicious competitive streak in pub quizzes. I was on a team that won a BBC schools quiz, on national television, long before most current CA students were born!