Widen your knowledge

Matthew Pinnock proffers some top tips on how to pass CIPFA’s Strategic Public Finance exam

CIPFA’s Strategic Public Finance module (SPF) is a challenge. It is designed to determine if you are ready to be not only a qualified accountant – but also a financial manager. To pass you will need to do more than simply recall material – you will need to demonstrate strategic thinking and application of knowledge.
Fear not! We have some tips to help you. SPF covers a broad range of topics. Indeed, to some extent, it can be considered a ‘capstone’ module, bringing together many principles from other modules such as Management Accounting, Financial Management, Strategy & Policy Development and Business & Change Management.
The module focuses on financial issues at the strategic level. It builds on earlier principles and applies them to medium- to long-term scenarios and decision-making. It considers specific strategic issues affecting public sector organisations at all levels, such as funding, excess demand, collaboration, and performance. So, what tips can we provide you to help you tackle this challenge?

Wider reading

It is expected that students will be capable of applying strategic financial thinking to a situation, and recognizing some of the factors that might impact on decision-making outside their area.
It is strongly recommended you research around the subject. Having a wider range of experience and knowledge will enrich your answers and show how the theory operates in the real world.
Make sure you read publications such as Public Finance, keep up-to-date with current affairs (locally, nationally and internationally) and discuss subjects with your fellow students, colleagues, bosses – indeed, anyone who works in the public sector! This will help you demonstrate your ability to think broadly, apply knowledge to a new scenario and provide you examples you can draw on to help emphasise your arguments within your exam answers.
Students who are unable to demonstrate understanding of the issues will struggle. Poor scripts consist of memorised text and lists from workbooks, with no application to the scenario in question, and no evidence of an awareness of the wider contemporary issues or long-term strategy.

Time management

Poorer scripts all demonstrate a lack of time management. When the exam starts, you have the potential to score
100 marks in 180 minutes, an average 1.8 minutes per mark.
However, to pass you only need 50 marks (3.6 minutes per mark). Perhaps, then, time doesn’t seem so daunting, although to be safe it is perhaps best to work to scoring 60 marks (three minutes a mark).
In any event, use your time well. Consider splitting the paper into thirds: an hour on each 30-marker and then an hour on the 10-markers. Work on them in the order you wish, but move on when the hour is up and whatever you leave to last make sure you are starting it when you have one hour left.


Stronger scripts all have a logical structure to their answers and demonstrate a degree of planning.
While there is no formal reading time, you should not be typing as soon as the exam starts. You need to read the questions and digest what it is you need to do. Therefore, set aside time to read the question before you start typing away at the keyboard. Allow yourself time to:

  1. Read the requirement: find out what you need to be doing before reading any text in the question. This will allow you to know what key information to look for.
  2. Read the question: don’t skim through it, actually read it. Look at the mark allocation and the CIPFA verbs to determine how much work is needed – the fewer the marks, the less work is needed.
  3. Plan your answer: use the question as a guide – split it up into smaller, more manageable questions. Lay out the bones of your answer. What examples from your research will you use?
  4. Answer the question: it’s not until now that you start properly typing. Restrain yourself from going off on tangents – don’t waffle. Be concise and stay on topic. The poorer scripts all include responses (rather than answers) to questions – i.e. lots of lovely writing but very little that relates to answering the question. Don’t waste time giving disadvantages of shared services if the question states it wants just advantages.

Planning pays dividends

These tips, combined with knowledge of the workbooks, will get you well on the way to getting that all-important pass.
Time spent reading and researching issues, and planning during the exam, will pay dividends overall.
I hope the tips above provide you with simple yet effective guidance that will enable you to pass this exam and support you in your journey into the accountancy profession. Keep calm, follow the tips and good luck!

• Matthew Pinnock is a Principal Trainer at CIPFA’s Education and Training Centre and is Module Leader for SPF