How my employer supported my return to education

Richard Matthews MAAT, left school at 18 with no intention of taking exams ever again. Yet at 37,  he chose to return to education and become qualified. 

Now, there’s no stopping his desire to learn and improve his prospects. Today, Matthews is a financial accreditation manager for the HMRC and is studying towards becoming a chartered accountant.

So what propelled him towards returning to study after such a long time – and how did he manage it?

Never too old

There are about 70,000 over-21s in full time education in the UK. Given the cost, it can be difficult for older learners to countenance full time study, as they need to earn money. However, part-time study is a good alternative as it provides the opportunity to continue to work. And it allows you to work towards the kind of qualifications which could help you to climb the career ladder faster.

What’s more you might find, as Matthews did, that your employer welcomes your desire to study and helps out.

So how did his return to study story start?

“I was working for HMRC and I wanted to take an accountancy qualification, but I couldn’t afford to take time off work for full-time study’ says Matthews.

“I was 37 and had been at the HMRC since I left school, working in the records department. Lots of my colleagues had AAT qualifications and I thought if I studied for one then it wouldn’t only help me, but HMRC too. I chose AAT because its qualifications have a very good reputation and the support you get is really good – and the qualifications are world-renowned.”

Fortunately for Matthews, now aged 42, the HMRC agreed to pay for his AAT studies as long as he continued working full-time and studied in his own time. He passed AAT’s Foundation Certificate (level two) in a year and then took the Advanced Diploma (level three) in another year. He’s now passed his Professional Diploma (level four), and has AAT full membership (MAAT).

I made sure that I managed my time properly and didn’t let study intrude on my home life

Work-life balance

For Matthews, it was really important to make sure his studies, work and home life did not impinge on each other.

“I did all my studying online, in the evenings and weekends. At the time, my daughter was just two years old and I’m a hands-on dad – but what helped me was going to my parents’ house when I needed quiet in order to study.”

However, don’t underestimate how much work you’ll need. “I reckon I did 100-110 hours’ study for each of my AAT levels. The work is challenging – but it was worth it.”

Having someone else studying helped too says Matthews. “I had a colleague doing the qualifications at the same time, so we bounced ideas off each other and helped each other out with challenging topics.”

But sometimes real life has a nasty way of intervening in the best-laid plans. Tragically, just after completing the Advanced Diploma Matthews’ father died. I had been planning to study for my Professional Diploma, but my father’s death hit me badly. The HMRC were amazing: they gave me the time off work so I could study full-time. I’m currently studying towards being a chartered accountant.”

Focus on the goal

When Matthews returned to study it completed changed his life and outlook. He has been working for HMRC for over 23 years, since qualifying he has been promoted and developed a new love for his job.

“I was able to prove that I had dedication to my studies and achieving my goals. I had not been involved in education for nearly 20 years when I began my AAT journey, passing each level as I progressed was a great achievement.”

“Before, I was always someone who just treated work as a day to day commitment: work was just something you did. Now I’ve been promoted I have a role with more responsibility. I’m doing planning, problem solving and find my work really fulfilling and intellectually stimulating. All the hard work studying was so worth it: I would urge anyone else to do the same thing. Yes, it’s daunting to go back to studying years after you left school but if I can do it, anyone can.”

Matthews points out that if you focus on what you can achieve, you’ll find studying easier – but you do need to make sure you can handle the hard work involved.

“Do ask yourself if you have to time to study. Really, you need to be self-disciplined. You can manage to keep all your plates spinning if you try. I didn’t miss out on my daughter growing up – I just made sure that I managed my time properly and didn’t let study intrude on my home life. And HMRC were great: I got time off for exams and used annual leave to study in.”

More than anything, it was a great achievement having the confidence to study again so many years after his formal education finished. Particularly as he hadn’t really enjoyed school nor been very academic.

He adds: “I left school with one A level and really didn’t want to study ever again. And I wasn’t very good at maths. Indeed, recently I bumped into my old maths teacher at a school reunion. When he asked what I did and I said I was an accountant he couldn’t stop laughing!”

Charlotte Beugge spent more than 20 years as the deputy personal finance editor on The Daily Telegraph and then The Daily Mail. A freelancer since 2010, her work has appeared in national newspapers, magazines and websites.

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