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Banking, Finance & Accountancy careers

Public Finance

What is public finance?

Think of accountants and you tend to think of those that work for the big firms on the financial affairs of privately owned or publically floated companies. Whilst this stereotype is not far from the truth, it is not, however, the whole truth.

Accountants work across all sectors of the economy, including the public services. This means local government, the NHS, central government, the armed services, the European Union, the UN, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), UK overseas territories, and indeed anywhere where taxpayers’ money is spent.

In the public services, this means specialising in the distinctive challenges of publicly funded, publicly accountable organisations. Therefore, unlike in private practice, accountants in the public services are not just loyal to their employers and the profit motive, but they also have a duty to serve the public interest and to understand and observe the high standards expected in relation to the management of public money.

What skills are needed to have a successful career as a Chartered Public Finance Accountant?

Preparing financial records and statements, reviewing budgets and investments, monitoring spending and cash flows and analysing the effectiveness of services to the public cannot be done on an approximate basis, but are exact sciences. Consequently, good basic maths and computer skills, as well as analytical and problem-solving abilities, are essential.

Most importantly, however, public service accountancy suits people with an inquiring mind, who are looking to play a part in society. Therefore, an interest in current affairs is a must, as well as an interest in having a career which makes a difference.

How do you become qualified?

Most public sector bodies offer training vacancies, which allow people to study for the CIPFA Professional Qualification while gaining relevant work experience on the job in their finance teams. To qualify for this normally, you need at least three GCSEs (A-C) and two A levels (including Maths and English at either level) or an equivalent such as an NVQ level 3 or a BTEC National Certificate. Alternatively, you need to be aged 21 or over and have at least three years’ relevant work experience.

The CIPFA Professional Qualification is designed to equip students with essential accountancy and business skills, which will enable you to operate effectively within an organisation whilst fulfilling your career aims.

Delivered in three stages, the course takes approximately three years to complete. As part of supporting their employees’ career progression, employers normally offer them time-off to study, and tend to cover some, if not all, of the costs of the qualification. A variety of study methods are on offer, from face-to-face tuition to distance learning and online courses.

Once qualified, it’s essential that Chartered Public Finance Accountants (CPFAs) keep their professional knowledge up-to-date throughout their career. CIPFA, like all the professional accounting bodies, runs a Continuing Professional Development (CPD) scheme to help members achieve this.

If you’ve just finished school and are looking for another way for you to become a CPFA – have you thought about joining a finance apprenticeship scheme?

Finance apprenticeships

You can start your finance career with the CIPFA Finance Apprenticeship Scheme. Launched in September 2013 in the West Midlands, CIPFA partnered with a range of public and private organisations to provide young people not in education, employment or training with opportunities to develop a professional accountancy and audit career.

Under the scheme, apprentices enter into a 12 month apprentice agreement with CIPFA and then start working at one of our Employer Partner organisations and receive training for the AAT Level 4 qualification. Training takes place at the CIPFA Education and Training Centre (CETC) in Birmingham for up to two days a week. At the end of the scheme successful apprentices will have a nationally recognised qualification, be part-CIPFA qualified and will have 12 months’ work experience - giving our apprentices the perfect start to their career in public finance.

Typical salaries

Many students progress through their careers very quickly. A CIPFA student can earn over £25,000 as a trainee accountant. As a qualified CPFA, you can expect to earn £40,000 or more as a senior auditor. If you progress to chief executive level you can expect to earn £100,000 or more.

Where our students and members work

The top 10 employers of CIPFA students and members include:

  • Grant Thornton
  • KPMG
  • United Nations Development Programme
  • National Audit Office
  • PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP
  • Department for Work and Pensions
  • Birmingham City Council
  • Ernst & Young
  • Leeds City Council.

Some of our most prominent members include:

  • Permanent secretaries and Director Generals in many Government departments
  • The CEO of the Olympic Delivery Authority
  • Senior staff at international organisations such as the IMF, United Nations and World Bank
  • Partners in the big 4 firms.

About CIPFA

The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) is the representative body for accountants across the public services and it is the awarding body for the professional qualification taken by accountants training in the public sector. They are known as Chartered Public Finance Accountants and they have the letters ‘CPFA’ after their names.