What examiners want


The examining team started with the areas that students do better in. They said calculations are generally performed well – when students have variance calculations they are done competently, as are ROI and RI calculations.

One good thing is that students have got the message that attempting all OTs is a good idea.

However, while variance calculations are done well, students seem to struggle with discussing variances in relation to managers’ performance. PQs don’t really understand why they are calculated, or what they tell us about how the company is performing.

Similarly, whenever there is a transfer pricing question students seem to recoil in horror, no matter how easy the examiner tries to make them. Students just don’t like them and there are always problems.

Sitters need to bring forward MA knowledge. They don’t seem to have that knowledge (flexed budgeting was cited as one example here).

Discussing performance measurement in a public sector context, when not just talking about profit, is also a problem for students.

The examiner asked CBE students to be familiar with the functionality of the spreadsheet. It makes certain calculations quicker.

There were no significant changes to the syllabus in 2018. Just A3b, where profit was added to life cycle costs in manufacturing and service industries.

From September 2019 to June 2020 there will be more of a focus on information systems and technology (A) in the PM paper. The existing syllabus area has been reordered.

Additions to syllabus

A1a: Explain the role of information systems in organisations.

A1b: Discuss the costs and benefits of information systems.

A1c: Explain the uses of the internet, intranet, wireless technology and networks.

A3b: Includes customer relationship management systems (CRMs).

A3c: Describe the characteristics (volume, velocity, variety) of big data.

A3d: Explain the uses of big data for enhancing decision-making.


Clarifications on learning outcomes related to topics, which include graphs/diagrams. You will need to interpret rather than draw them!

Removal of some learning outcomes, eg C2f on spreadsheets, is out.

Finally, watch out for new articles on relevant costing and short-term decision-making, and role of technology and systems in the PM framework. The already published budgeting articles are also worth a read!


The examiner said that when it comes to the CBEs quite a few (too many) candidates come to the exam unable to use the spreadsheets. He said it was like they had never seen a spreadsheet before! Some candidates are using the spreadsheet like a Word document, which makes it difficult to mark. The examiner wants you to practise using the CR workspace via ACCA Student Support. You need to be familiar with functions before the exam, and not become familiar at the exam terminal!

Candidates need to practise on up-to-date questions, too – this is a tax exam after all. When it comes to the SUM function many students are either not using it at all or not using it properly – they are adding up manually or add up each cell individually (A1 + A2 + A3, etc). You will still get the marks, but you are wasting your precious time. The examiner also wants negatives to be included as negatives.

When it comes to working in cells he only wants simple calculations included. Something like a corporation tax calculation (200,000 x 19%) is OK. What isn’t recommended is a whole capital allowance computation worth three or four marks. Don’t net off figures in cells either; that will confuse markers and is not good practice.

If in the spreadsheets you have done the workings then it is good practice to cross-reference totals rather than copying the numbers over by hand. That helps markers find the workings. There is also less chance of errors.

When it comes to the layout of workings, the examiner recommends, after marking quite a few papers, you make your answers vertical rather than horizontal. It is easier to scroll down for both students and markers.

There appears to be a problem with spacing, too. Students are leaving anything up to 10 lines between the main computation and workings – often without any reference, either.

The best option is to move the workings up on completion (cut and paste), explained the examiner. Again, you should have practised doing this.

Better students put negative numbers in brackets, which is better than a minus sign, and better still in brackets and in red (right click and format). That would be a good use of time if you have five minutes at the end, he suggested.

The examiner reminded you there is also an undo button if you make a mistake.

Perennial problems are too many workings. Another problem is candidates not showing workings, even for complex computations.

Students need to always indicate by the use of a zero (0) any items not requiring adjustments, which are not taxation.

The examiner said that written answers are typically quite short, but need to be precise. “This is the nature of taxation,” he stressed.

He felt that the 10-mark questions cause problems for candidates. PQs are often all over the place here. A warning also went out that questions may be different from what has been set previously.

The exam is moving on to the Finance Act 2018. Here are some of the changes:

• Dividend rate being cut from £5,000 to£2,000. Makes incorporation more costly.

• Childcare – out of syllabus.

• Students must know the capital allowances – they have changed, so use up-to-date material.

• Cash basis for property income has come in. Now the default option.

• Corporate losses – some quite important changes there – set-off is now far less restrictive.

• Indexation allowance frozen at December 2017. Calculation of factors no longer examined. Instead, indexation factors will be provided and students will still be expected to know they cannot create or increase a capital loss!

One syllabus change is to do with loan relationships rules, and candidates will be expected to be able to identify whether loan interest payable is for trading or non-trading purposes.


FR candidates might have been surprised by the sudden appearance of analysing a statement of cashflows, admits the examiner.

This is something you might see more of, and it is very much in the syllabus. It just hadn’t been examined for a little while.

The examiner said there are 25 accounting standards in the FR exams, and he is expecting students to have knowledge of the core principles of all of them. So you have to learn them all, perhaps by creating a one or two-page summary for each standard. That should include the key summary and key rule. So can you explain each standard and what it does?

The examiner is trying to move this exam away from candidates just working the numbers and learning a technique. You need to know the ‘why’.

He wants you to get to love the standards, or perhaps find a lecturer who is passionate about them. “Don’t be afraid to tell people the standard you love,” he said. His favourite is IS38 intangible assets, and feels IS8 is a dreadful one. No one is, he claims, too cool not to have a favourite – remember, this is an FR exam and no one is too cool for anything.

Section A could be the trickiest section – it covers the entire syllabus, so there will be questions on niche areas. You need to learn to move on if you are taking too long answering one of the questions.

Candidates can expect section B to be around the larger accounting standards. All five questions are standalone. The common scenario here will be one, or maybe two, different accounting standards. That will be a mix of narrative and calculations around a real life scenario.

Section C has two big questions, on the preparation of financial statements and on interpretations.

The examiner also believes we have now moved away from any ability to question spot.


The examiner revealed that pass rates are generally higher in the June and December sittings. The pass rates for 2018 were 39%, 40%, 37% and 38% respectively.

There have only been some minor recent syllabus changes, the main one being internal audit moving from syllabus area A to C. With OTs, she said candidates must have a good understanding of the IASs and their key requirements. You are apparently performing well with ethics and governance questions.

However, many candidates struggle with substantive testing. She is worried that some PQs don’t seem to be able to identify the appropriate testing from a list of procedures, or able to differentiate between controls and substantive tests. Completion and reporting is another weak area.

When it comes to the OTs, the distractors catch out many candidates, and there is a concern you are rushing through these questions. In June 2018, candidates spend on average two minutes on each question; in June that rose to 2.2 minutes, and in December it was 2.5 minutes. Candidates spending 1.5 minutes or less generally scored poorly in this section.

When it comes to section B exam, sitters in recent sessions have noticeably performed poorly on pure knowledge questions. The examiner reminded candidates that the key knowledge areas include: audit risk; materiality; internal control evaluation; fraud; and law, regulation and responsibility. She pleaded that you don’t just write everything you know about a topic. Candidates who do don’t generally do well in this paper.

When it comes to planning and risk questions candidates perform ratios well, although the examiner said you should know all the ratio formulas, and not just cherry-pick the key ones.

Explaining audit risks is another key technique candidates need to grasp. She was pleased that there was less confusion between the auditor and management’s response in answers.

When it comes to internal controls candidates are struggling to identify key controls. They are also not clearly explaining the implications of deficiencies, and their recommendations are not addressing any deficiency. Impractical recommendations are also common. The examiner is disappointed too, with the understanding of tests of control. She doesn’t want to see the repeat of the word ‘check’!

Unfortunately, she said there were many poor answers to substantive procedure questions. When it comes to substantive testing the answers are often too vague (eg source without an action), not tailored to the scenario, just a generic list of tests, and/or provide an insufficient number of tests for the marks.

Performance on reporting questions had improved – until 2018. Candidates continue to lose marks for not discussing the issue adequately. Answers must also clearly state when an unmodified opinion would be appropriate.

There are a few changes to the syllabus September 2019 to June 2020. The areas affected are quality control, internal controls, corporate governance, and data analytics (just need a broad understanding). Finally, from September 2019 all exam questions will be set at 1 July 20X5.