Opinion: the current syllabus falls well short of reflecting the knowledge and expertise required for modern accountants
If I were to pitch accounting as a career to a secondary school student in 30 seconds or less, I would say the following: studying accounting provides you with broad business knowledge and skills. Few careers offer greater flexibility regarding potential industries, roles, and locations that accountants can target. The pay is excellent for newly qualified accountants, and a high proportion of CEOs in some of the world's largest companies have backgrounds in accounting.
Unfortunately, none of this enthusiasm is found in the current Leaving Cert accounting syllabus. The first description of accounting on the site’s landing page is "Leaving Certificate accounting provides students with the knowledge, understanding and skills in accounting and financial management necessary for managing personal and basic company accounts." It's hardly the stuff that will stoke the flames of ambition in a modern teenager.
Our Leaving Cert students are being examined on guidance two generations out of date.
In fairness, Wikipedia does no better with its opening definition of "accounting, also known as accountancy, is the measurement, processing and communication of financial and non-financial information about economic entities such as business and corporations".
To be fair, accountants do indeed have strong technical skills related to the above areas. However, what the definitions miss is that modern accounting also requires the development of more general business competencies like strategic management and leadership, data analytics, risk management, and sustainability, and key personal values like ethics and professionalism. Right now, professional accounting bodies and firms are using their wide breadth of competencies to position themselves as leaders in meeting the business challenges of a VUCA future: more volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.
So how exactly does the current Leaving Cert syllabus fall short of reflecting this necessary knowledge and expertise?
Too much focus on financial performance
Accounting is the language of business and, historically, business was all about financial profits. However, modern accounting is evolving with businesses to more sustainable models. The definition of success is now much broader and requires businesses to determine a more well-rounded perspective of their operations and relationships with the community, environment, and economy. Rather than solely focusing on bottom-line financial profits, we now talk about the "triple bottom line": people, planet and profit.
The people category requires businesses to consider their impact on all stakeholders, like employees and the local community, and not just business owners. The planet category requires businesses to consider the impact on their natural environment, the size of their carbon footprint and use of natural resources. Even the definition of profit is different from the old-school model because businesses now need to consider their economic impact beyond profits for owners, such as creating employment and driving innovation.
It's clearly out of date
The syllabus requires students to know about an accounting standard called SSAP 2. Accounting standards are legal guidance on accounting for certain transactions and events and are often revised and updated to incorporate emerging issues. SSAP 2 was issued in 1971, but was superseded by a new standard in 2001, which was superseded again in 2015.
What this means is our Leaving Cert students are being examined on guidance two generations out of date. That might be fine if a client is a history lover, but not so much if they need up-to-date business critical advice.
These two observations highlight the growing gap between how accounting is taught to Leaving Cert students versus the wider societal role of accounting that we are witnessing.
We owe it to students to help them develop knowledge and skills to tackle a different landscape than any prior generation has faced.
However, accounting also faces another endemic problem spread across the leaving cert: the bias towards rote learning. At its simplest, rote learning is a memorisation technique that involves repeating facts and figures until they are stored in memory banks. Rote learning has advantages and is an important tool in developing foundational knowledge (think of primary school children learning the alphabet). It is not without its value in Leaving Cert accounting but unfortunately, it completely dominates the learning landscape for students in their two-year points race.
I meet some of these students when they come to study accounting in UCC. They arrive as "recall experts" in content judged important 30 years ago when the current Leaving Cert syllabus was developed. They lack the level of understanding, insight and authenticity that we associate with more meaningful types of learning.
This is not their fault; they played the game the way it needs to be played to maximise grades. However, it sells these students short and is a poor reflection of who they are and what they are capable of doing if given the right mix of opportunities and guidance. They have strong ambitions and a wide range of interests. They are often highly skilled in other pursuits like sports and the arts. A lot of them admirably balance their university studies with part-time work and often volunteer with charities and other fund-raising activities.
Ultimately, what’s most disappointing for me is that the Leaving Cert has the potential to help secondary school students gain an earlier realisation of who they are and what they can achieve, but is falling well short of this attainable goal. Solutions and the appetite for reform exist, and we are on a path to change, but the pace of that change is too slow and damaging any meaningful progress.
Learning from the past is one thing, but being stuck in the past is another. We owe it to students to help them develop the knowledge and skills required to tackle a more dynamic and complex landscape than any prior generation has faced.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ