What Is the ACA?
To become a Chartered Accountant, you will need to pass an ACA qualification from the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW).
Both accountancy firms and financial management teams seek applicants who have demonstrated this level of competency. It is often a prerequisite when applying for senior positions at top accountancy firms.
Being ACA qualified allows the bearer to be referred to as an 'Associate of The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales'. It is considered to be the premier accounting qualification available, noted for the difficulty of its examinations and the requirement to complete three years of technical work experience.
Once you are a Chartered Accountant, the qualification will be recognised and valued by potential employers worldwide.
How the Qualification Is Structured
The course structure for an ACA qualification is split into four components:
- 15 ACA learning modules
- Practical work experience
- Professional development
- Ethics/professional scepticism training
Each of these components takes candidates through the skills, methodology, practical abilities and ethical considerations that modern accountants need.
Progression requires you to fully demonstrate your confidence and ability in a real work situation too.
How Hard Are the ACA Exams?
Make no mistake, the ACA exams are difficult and require dedicated and sustained study to pass them. There is a very large volume of content to learn and intensive study will be needed.
However, the pass mark is 50% or 55% (depending on the specific exam), so it is certainly possible to pass them with sufficient study commitment. Most of the exams have student pass rates of between 70% to 80%, providing reassurance that the majority of students will pass if they put in the hard work.
The ACA Learning Modules
There are 15 areas of understanding that ACA candidates will be examined on by the ICAEW. These modules are split between three levels of progression: Certificate, Professional or Advanced levels.
The Certificate level applies to the first year of training. The six modules are designed to give candidates a broad understanding of the fundamental principles of accountancy and how it relates to financial management and business.
These modules are:
- Business and finance
- Management information
- Principles of taxation
Testing can be completed at any time at an approved centre, in the form of an online assessment lasting 1.5 hours. It is possible to resit each module within the Certificate assessment up to four times, though there is a cost involved.
You can work towards an ICAEW Certificate in Finance, Accounting and Business and then choose not to progress to Chartered status if you prefer. It is a widely accepted and valuable qualification in its own right.
However, completing Certificate level successfully is the mandatory starting point for becoming a Chartered Accountant.
If you do wish to advance further through the stages of the ACA qualification, you'll next spend time studying in-depth topics connected to business planning and strategy.
The six modules at Professional level are:
- Business planning: taxation
- Business strategy
- Audit and assurance
- Financial accounting and reporting
- Financial management
- Tax compliance
These are assessed in an examination lasting between 2.5–3 hours. There are four exam sittings each year at verified centres, and you can retake each one up to four times.
The Professional level modules of the ACA course prepare the ground for candidates to progress to Advanced level, where they will have to demonstrate an even more detailed understanding.
The Advanced level develops your understanding and decision-making skills within ICAEW Corporate Reporting and Strategic Business Management modules.
Also included within the Advanced stage is a case study. This is always the last learning module to be completed. It represents a complex business issue that candidates must solve using their acquired accountancy skills and insights.
There are two assessment sittings for Advanced level each year, in July and November. The modules covered are the subject of two exams of 3.5 hours each, as well as the case study insights which are tested over four hours. The pass mark is 50%.
The good news is that, if you don’t succeed the first time, you can retake your Advanced level exams as many times as you need to.
Practical Work Experience
Passing the 15 learning modules of the ACA qualification is vital, but so is completing 450 days of work experience.
This must be with one of the 2,850 employers that the ICAEW has approved. It must also cover at least one of the following areas within accounting:
- Audit and assurance
- Financial management
- Information technology
Incidentally, each of the 450 days must be at least seven hours in duration to be counted towards your qualification.
This element of ACA accreditation supports a candidate’s learning and practical experience with training to develop more of the important competencies that a Chartered Accountant needs. These include:
The ICAEW Professional Development Scheme usually provides this training and assesses outcomes. However, some employers are accredited by the ICAEW to deliver this in-house.
Ethics and Professional Scepticism
This component of the ACA qualification considers some of the ethical and behavioural aspects of the profession. This includes developing an understanding of integrity, remaining objective, showing due care and maintaining confidentiality.
Learning in the ethics and professional scepticism element of ACA is generally completed online.
The multiple-choice assessments – generally lasting one hour – consist of six modules:
- The ICAEW code of ethics
- Fundamental ethical principles of accountancy
- The threats and safeguards applicable to those ethical principles
- Potential conflicts of interest
- The considerations for professional accountants in practice
- The considerations for professional accountants in business environments
As this is such an important area, the ACA qualification requires that candidates regularly revisit these modules and assessments.
They must also be able to evidence the way they have been applied in their daily working environment.
How and Where to Start an ACA Qualification
The conventional route to qualifying as an ACA is through a three-year training contract with an ICAEW accredited firm.
Clearly, ACA accreditation involves a substantial commitment of time, study and practical work. Many employers accredited by the ICAEW are fully aware of this and provide their staff with support at each stage of the process. This is likely to include an in-company mentor, as well as access to an expert tutor.
If you are taking the employment route to ACA accreditation, you register with the ICAEW when the job begins.
Alternative Routes to ACA
For some candidates, the starting point for an ACA qualification would be to apply to the ICAEW and register as a student before getting a job.
It is also possible to enrol on undergraduate degrees or apply for postgraduate qualifications at some colleges and universities.
It is important to note, though, that whatever route you take to qualification as a Chartered Accountant, you will still be required to do 450 days of work experience with an ICAEW-approved employer.
Can You Apply Prior Learning to ACA Qualifications?
The short answer to this is yes. If you have already completed studies in a relevant field – accountancy, finance or business – you can apply to the ICAEW for Credit for Prior Learning by filling out their application form online.
It’s a good idea to check with the organisation itself, so they can cross-reference the qualifications you have against the criteria for Credit for Prior Learning. If you apply and are rejected, your application fee is not refunded.
The ICAEW has a Credit for Prior Learning directory that lists many of the professional and academic qualifications that are eligible.
What Other Help Is Provided for an ACA Qualification?
The ICAEW runs both the classroom and online learning elements of the ACA, and oversees the assessment process. It also provides a comprehensive service to help candidates work towards their qualification as a Chartered Accountant.
This includes a partnership with your employer – if you already have one – and maintaining a database of approved employers who can offer work experience.
Other help available from the ICAEW includes:
- An ACA planner
- An online training file
- An informative magazine
- Guidance on approved groups, societies and online communities
- A helpline to deal with queries and concerns
- An ACA student app