We'll have no bowler hats in this office, thank you

Accountants long to shed their boring image. Roger Trapp reports on recent efforts to widen the range of recruits
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The Independent Online
If ever a comedy sketch struck home, it must have been Monty Python's mickey-take of accountants. Though many of those in the profession can have been barely out of short trousers at the time, the image still looms large in their imaginations.

When KPMG formally an-nounced its change of name from KPMG Peat Marwick last month, a senior partner, Colin Sharman, could not resist admitting that the caricature of boring ex-public-school types still rang true with much of the public. Hence the advertising campaign promoting the firm as, among other things, opinionated. Likewise, when a couple of weeks later the Institute of Chartered Accountants launched its own advertising campaign, Roger Lawson, the president, was sent up a ladder clad in a Monty Python-style bowler hat.

Now, in an apparent attempt to prove that it is far from the dull, stick- in-the-mud organisation of popular lore, the body has started a fresh initiative before the ink is dry on the first. Indeed, the institute insists it is part of the £230,000 marketing campaign to promote the value of the qualification.

On the face of it, the latest effort would appear to be at odds with the former, since it is designed in part to make training more widely available. Entry-level requirements are being reduced so that students with two A-levels can embark on four-year training contracts, while it will no longer be essential for firms to met full examination and tuition fees and provide long periods of paid study leave. However, the institute is keen to emphasise that "the changes will not undermine the qualification in any way, but are part of a move to increase student entry to the smaller firms of chartered accountants".

Mr Lawson, who trained in a smaller firm and has a particular interest in the issue, believes the body needs to maintain training standards and at the same time help the smaller firms. "The number of students in this sector has halved over the past 10 years because of the expense involved, and this initiative is intended to encourage employers to train students, which is vital for the future of our profession," he says.

Phil Armitage, the institute's director of education and training, says that the proportion of students trained by large firms had risen from 60 per cent to 80 per cent in the past decade, and the organisation is "not comfortable with that balance".

Everyone will benefit from the scheme, he says. Students will have more opportunities, employers will have greater discretion about funding of training and the institute will get a better "base profession".

But there is a certain scepticism that the initiative is really as dramatic as is being made out. An observer with extensive experience of smaller firms says it was essentially a non-event. "I don't know anyone who feels it's an issue to them," he says.

Indeed, Mr Armitage could have been spot on when he admitted that perhaps the institute should have responded sooner to changes in the market. It is generally agreed that many small firms are avoiding training problems by developing accounting technicians - many of whom go on to take the chartered examinations, or training certified accountants.

If the planned rationalisation of the accounting profession had gone ahead earlier this year, the latter would not matter. But with the institute throwing its merger energies into talks about talks with the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, it is the cause of competition. After all, the Chartered Association of Certified Accountants (Acca) can boast rising student numbers at a time when the institute finds its trainee head-count under pressure.

Anthea Rose, Acca's chief executive, confesses to finding it a bit strange and says: "Once again, they're repeating what we're doing. We don't feel threatened by it. We feel secure."

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