Trainees quiz Tax Academy chief
Graham Turnbull reports from the North East Centre meeting with tax academy director Toni Bovill.
On the afternoon of Friday 5 February, the ARC North East Centre meeting took place and, in keeping with tradition, there was a guest speaker. In this case ARC, welcomed Toni Bovill, the Tax Specialist Programme (TSP)/Tax Professional Development Programme (TPDP) Course Director, to talk about her role and experience in the Tax Academy.
In a first for ARC Toni also kindly agreed to a two hour Q&A session with the trainees, giving them a chance to put their questions and concerns straight to her.
Thanks go to ARC’s North East trainee representative, Frances Clapham, for organising the event.
Frances and I welcomed Toni to the event; Anna Crawley (North East Regional Lead BLM) was also present. Just before 10am a few trainees turned up, followed by a few more, and then a flood. The large conference room soon filled to standing room only with trainees from all years and BLMs in attendance. It was great to see such an enthusiastic turnout, and most of them were union members.
The first six months
Frances introduced the session and passed to Toni who gave a great presentation: “six months in the life of newbie course director”, opening with, ‘June 2015: the good news is I got the job, the bad news is I got the job!’. Toni explained she arrived into the role to find herself a team of one with the Tax Academy deep in the throes of reorganisation; she knew she had her work cut out for her, but forged ahead with determination. She then talked through her next five months:
July saw praise for the new degree structure of TSP, winning an award for being innovative and business-focused. Toni, just getting to grips with the role, also went through the External Examiner’s Report with excellent results.
August and September saw her tackle the lack of tutors, alongside dealing with the latest intake of TSP 2015, and issues of exemptions, deferrals and the double fail process.
In October it was streaming, timetables and course content to name just a few.
To end her first six months, in November Toni tackled improving the support of the BLMs and communication with them.
What came across strongly was that Toni was willing to take on board new ideas and implement change, both things that ARC welcomes. Many of the issues Toni touched on then arose as part of the Q&A.
Questions from trainees
Following Toni’s presentation, Frances opened the floor to questions. The Q&A was lively, with trainees putting across issues close to their hearts. Toni had questions to field on a range of topics; here are some of the points raised and discussed.
Possible new directions for the course could include bespoke degrees, taking on A-Level students, the possibility of reducing the course length to three years and the concept of using ‘blocks’ of study at the start of the course when there is little casework to kick-start the learning. Questions were raised about the suitability and ‘fit’ of such initiatives, particularly in terms of potential diversity issues. Toni was clear in her response that these are ideas, open to discussion and that she welcomes the feedback.
T&S was raised, particularly the difficulties it causes to trainees by preventing them from taking on opportunities where the Line of Business (LoB) in which they are based does not have the budget to meet their T&S requirements. Toni indicated that Tax Academy are aware of the issue and the problems it can cause. Although there are no plans to change the existing arrangement of T&S being met by LoBs, Tax Academy is trying to reduce T&S costs, for example by moving exams to a later starting time to allow for morning travel instead of trainees being required to stop overnight.
Questions were asked around last minute changes to timetables: for example, TPDP 2013s entering the Employer Compliance and VAT streams had found themselves with an extra module and exam to squeeze in. Toni invited feedback via the Course Director’s mailbox to ensure such issues did not reoccur and reassured trainees that timetabling was being looked at, but said that inevitably, sometimes last-minute changes are needed.
Gender imbalance in the recruitment process was broached and Toni had lots of good news on this front. The process at assessment centres has been reviewed and updated to ensure the exercises are fair across the board. Additionally, marketing of the programme now includes advertising through websites aimed at women who have graduated with science, technology, engineering & maths (STEM) degrees.
There were also some contentious issues which were passionately debated.
Streaming was raised, a topic the TPDP 2013s (recently streamed) and TSP 2014s (about to stream) have particular interest in. The main concern was the change from deciding placement by a national preference exercise (2013s) to a non-preference local exercise (2014s). Anna, in her capacity as Regional Lead BLM, explained that the 2013 process had not worked well (a point with which the 2013s agreed), so something new was being tried. Anna said that although trainees have no direct say in the decision-making process, they could still express their thoughts to their BLMs as to where they believed they would be best suited. It was good to hear open discussion on what is arguably the biggest point of change on the programme.
Differences in treatment between Band Ts and HOs recruited from the same exercise became the hottest topic of the Q&A. The issues being that the recruitment exercise was also used by the business to offer HO and O band positions to those candidates who had almost succeeded in getting through on TSP. It was pointed out that TSP trainees have found themselves working side-by-side with people who have come in on different T&Cs, and that those terms offer better job security, higher pay and an earlier start date. Toni emphasised that successful candidates had been placed into the job they applied for, that it does not make economic sense for the business, which has gone through all the costs of recruitment, not to use the exercise to fill further posts. The programme and the HO posts are on different T&Cs as they are separate jobs, she said. Due to strong feelings on the subject, Newcastle trainees have drafted a motion to AGM around the job security point, which was the most contentious issue.
It was also raised that the various routes to contact Tax Academy (such as First Class, Course Directors Inbox, direct emails, etc.) can be confusing and that national dial-ins between trainees and Tax Academy had fallen by the wayside. Impressed by the level of dialogue coming out of the Q&A, Toni took on board the trainees’ enthusiasm for good communication and invited them to put forward a delegate from each year to work directly with the Tax Academy to setup better and clearer routes of communication. This is a great opportunity for the trainees as a direct result of the Q&A.
Overall the Q&A went really well; Toni said she enjoyed the day and the trainees have fed back that they found it very worthwhile and enjoyable. The links between ARC and Tax Academy have created great opportunities for such events and if anyone out there has points they would like to raise and discuss I would encourage them to contact their ARC representative and see what they can setup in their region.