Pay attention

We are three years into the current AAT standards so why talk about them now? Well, primarily because they are updated regularly, so we should be monitoring changes, especially as pass rates for some units are still challenging.

Students should look at the standards to ensure that they know what is included in each unit as, reading the examiners’ reports, some of the areas where students are failing are where level two or three skills are also included at the next level up (for example break-even analysis in MDCL). Tutors understandably focus on new skills, assuming that students retained knowledge and skills from earlier studies.

Secondly, the standards do not simply focus on unit content, but include a range of information about the qualification and AAT in general. In my role as an EQA for AAT I visit many colleges and speak to a range of tutors and students. I am constantly surprised by questions or comments like ‘I didn’t expect to have to do accountancy in the spreadsheets section of the synoptic’.

Perhaps that student had not been paying too much attention to his studies, but I am also asked about the type of jobs that can be done with the different levels of the qualification, how the overall grade is determined, what mark is needed for a distinction, whether anyone checks the marks given by the markers, and whether students can resit to get a higher mark even if they passed the exam (yes they can, and the highest mark achieved will be the one that counts towards the overall grade). The answers to all these questions are in the standards which are designed to be a one-stop-shop for information about the qualification.

Students use the practice assessments to help them study, as they should. Perhaps if the student who didn’t expect to find accountancy in his synoptic assessment had paid more attention to the practice assessments he wouldn’t have been so surprised.

However, it is dangerous to focus too much on them. The current incarnation of the AAT qualification does not have to test the whole syllabus in each assessment so, especially at level three and four, not everything that can be asked is included in the practice assessment.

If the examiners write 10 versions of task one of an assessment, each version may cover a slightly different element of the standards. Tasks that require the posting of a book of prime entry are fairly repetitive, but questions about accruals and prepayments or standard costing can vary considerably.

Students should not fall into the trap of learning to complete the practice assessments rather than learning the syllabus. They should remember that everything in the syllabus is covered by at least one question in the bank of assessment questions and simply use the practice assessments to identify weak areas for further study.

Now let’s consider the information about the units that make up the qualifications. The specification identifies the guided learning hours, details the syllabus content, outlines the test specification, and identifies the weighting given in the assessment to each learning outcome of the unit. Most people look at this section of the document in detail; however, the unit introductions are often overlooked. Establishing the level for the unit, they give context and set expectations. For example, ELCO expects students use the costing system under supervision. MMAC expects students to develop understanding of the fundamental principles that underpin management accounting, and MDCL expects students to work with minimal supervision as a member of a management accounting team. The progression is clear.

Each unit details the learning outcomes using the words ‘students need to know ’or ‘be able to’. These differentiate between knowledge and skills. As accountants become business advisors, knowledge and the skill of communication increase their importance so, to get high marks in assessments, communicating the knowledge elements of the standards is vital.

Where there may be controversy the standards are very precise, for example listing all the journals required at level two or all the ratios to be calculated in each level four unit. This is a great resource for tutors and students who want to be sure that they are using the preferred version of a given ratio.

So, three years into the qualification, with fresh students every year, we should continue to focus on the standards as the primary source of information about the qualification.

They keep us up-to-date, but more importantly, answer the many questions that students continue to ask.

• Catherine Littler is an External Quality Assurer for AAT