Achieving the gold standard

Three years after the CISI launched its enhanced CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ certification pathway, Gill Wadsworth and Jane Playdon chat to recently qualified CFP™ professionals about their experience and the benefit to their clients and businesses


In September 2019, a small group of UK financial planners with a level 4 FCA-compliant qualification sat the first ever CISI level 6 Certificate in Advanced Financial Planning exam, achieving 100% success rate. This followed a comprehensive redesign of the previous CFP™ certification pathway, which included raising the CISI’s Diploma in Financial Planning from level 6 to level 7 on the National Qualifications Framework to reflect the inclusion of specialist knowledge, and dividing the renamed level 7 Diploma in Advanced Financial Planning into two parts: the exam mentioned above plus a level 7 case study.

The successful exam achievers were then eligible to complete the new level 7 Diploma, the highest-level financial planning qualification in the UK, which ultimately leads to achieving CFP certification.

David Hearne CFP™ Chartered FCSI, financial planner at Financial Planning Partners, was one of the ‘pioneers’ in the first cohort of achievers. Already a CFP professional at the time he took the exam, he explained in a subsequent CISI interview that he “wanted to test himself to the new standards”, saying of the level 6 exam paper that it was “really good to be able to get on with the answers” because he saw his daily role reflected in the questions.

From recent graduates

However, completing the redesigned pathways is no small undertaking, as two recent graduates of the programme testify.

Gabby Houseman CFP™ Chartered MCSI, financial planner at CISI-Accredited Financial Planning Firm boosst, was comfortable with the technical aspects of the level 6 exam, which gave her an opportunity to apply her broad range of knowledge. She felt the exam was more like dealing with a real client, compared to other exams she had taken previously where the focus was on a specific technical aspect – this made for a nice change, she said.

The challenging part for her was gaining an understanding of the exam technique to ensure she understood in advance how best to structure her answers to achieve the highest possible score. Gabby referred to the exam guide for help with this and reviewed mock answers along with the equivalent marking scheme to ensure her answers “were what the examiners were looking for”.

For the level 7 case study, Gabby “made the mistake of trying to write the solution too soon” at the start of the ten-week timeframe and had to change what she had written once the cashflow was accurate.

A commitment to excellence

The CISI has launched a new CFP™ certification pathway for professionals with a financial planning qualification from the Chartered Insurance Institute (CII), in recognition of the fact that they have already been awarded high level technical qualifications. For these candidates, the level 6 exam will be replaced with an online professional assessment.
The CISI has also launched a new Chartered designation for CFP professionals, members and firms. CFP professionals will be able to use the designation Chartered Fellow (Financial Planning).

And the CISI’s dedicated site for financial planners, Wayfinder, is now available after a rebrand. The site directs consumers to the most qualified and trusted financial planners in the UK, and includes hints and tips for managing finances.

This wasted valuable time but, learning from this, she set up a separate spreadsheet “with a huge number of calculations and cashflows’’ and resisted the temptation to write anything until she was certain of her recommendations and their impact on the client’s finances. “You only have finite resources to achieve the client’s objectives, so it’s important these are put to best use,” says Gabby. She recommends that prospective candidates “take a step back and understand the clients’ objectives before getting buried in the detail.’’

Gabby managed her time by dedicating ten full weekends to completing the work. She achieved her level 7 Diploma in Advanced Financial Planning in May 2020. “I learnt a huge amount and now feel much more confident in front of clients, especially those that have complex needs,” she says. “I also feel comfortable justifying the assumptions we use in our cashflow planning, as I now understand the workings and mechanics behind these. The CFP certification pathway also helped me with areas that I wasn’t hugely familiar with, such as state benefits and complex inheritance tax planning. This really enhanced and embedded my knowledge in a real-world situation.”

For those thinking of doing the new pathway, Gabby says: “Do it! The ten weeks will be hard, but you will look back and be proud of what you have achieved. You will also become a better financial planner as you get to experience dealing with a real-world client, which will greatly enhance the experience you can provide your existing or future clients.”

"Take a step back and understand the clients' objectives before getting buried in the detail" Nick Turnbull CFP™ MCSI, paraplanner at UBS, began the new CFP certification pathway after realising that the level 4 financial planning diploma he had previously attained from another professional body, while meeting the FCA’s qualification requirements for retail investment advisers, was not sufficient to prepare him for the “many more complex, in-depth and interrelated issues when working with clients in real life”. He wanted more client-facing opportunities and felt that he needed the CFP certification to be confident when speaking to clients, “many of whom are financially savvy themselves”.

The biggest challenge for Nick was the level 7 case study, which was “a shock to the system”, he says, but meant that he “learnt the most from it”. He was supported in this by CISI-Accredited Training Partner, The Financial Planning Training Academy, which helped him see that it wasn’t just about learning to pass, but about applying the learning to “the financial planning process in real life”.

While Nick is not yet client-facing, he says that achieving his level 7 Diploma in February 2021 has given him the confidence to move to the front office in the future, because level 6 provides supplementary technical knowledge that supports his existing qualifications, while level 7 delivers practical experience through the case study. He feels that he can now put his learning into practice.

Nick is clear that the current pathways, which were “a lot of work” and took him “about 18 months to complete”, are rigorous in their demands on participants’ time and intellect, but they are also enjoyable and rewarding. “I know it gives me the skills to communicate effectively with clients and I have a much clearer understanding of how different, complex elements of a portfolio work together.”

His main words of advice for those thinking of starting the CFP certification process are to enrol on a training course to help stay on track and avoid falling into the trap of “going down a rabbit hole”.

Long-standing professionals

It is this holistic, comprehensive content in the case study that has led experienced client-facing professionals to join their more recently qualified counterparts in completing the current level 6 and 7 pathways.

John Reynolds CFP™ Chartered FCSI, partner at Expert Pensions, was awarded the CFP designation in May 2021, after working for over 30 years as a pensions adviser and trainer of financial advisers at Expert Pensions. He says that the main reason he chose the new CFP certification pathway to supplement his previous “theoretical, tech-based” qualifications from another professional body was for the “practical application based on a case study that reflects real-life experiences”. This real-life experience has enabled him to look across the entirety of a client’s situation and offer recommendations that complement rather than conflict. “The qualifications have enlightened me to make sure that the jigsaw all fits. There are all these interrelated parts to a portfolio, and I ask the question, ‘Does it all work holistically?’”

John says that his recent CFP certification has given him the confidence to help clients achieve a more holistic solution for their later life, rather than focusing on retirement planning. This includes an appreciation for the vital importance of other aspects, like death-in-service (DIS) insurance and private health care, to the point that, having achieved his CFP designation, he “triggered a review of Expert Pensions’ DIS and healthcare provisions for staff – to ensure they had secure and valuable financial planning made available to them to enhance their financial security”.

His number one tip for those about to begin their journey to CFP certification is to schedule the time into your diary in manageable blocks. “I cannot stress this enough,” he says. “The financial plan case study analysis is best done in bite-sized chunks, spread evenly across the week or month.” He recommends doing this “once you’ve got your head around the fact find – and that will take a bit of reformatting in your own words.”

Vicky Fulcher CFP™ Chartered MCSI, director at Chapters Financial, was awarded the CFP designation in December 2020. She agrees that the current pathways provide a more rounded understanding of financial planning requirements.

“It has improved the way I think about my clients’ needs. When I am preparing a report or making recommendations – not that I didn’t look holistically before – but I am very much clearer on how different elements might interact or conflict. The pathways have reaffirmed what we do.”

Support and guidance

Given the demands on candidates hoping to complete the current pathways, Nick suggests planners should thoroughly understand what they are undertaking. “Reach out to the CISI and see if it is something you really want to do. There is information on their website, or you can talk to them. You need to know what you are getting into,” he says.

Vicky, who has three children and worked full-time while doing the qualifications, agrees that they should not be taken lightly. She recommends taking a course to help prepare for the pathways, in particular one that explains how to organise and to brush up on any tech skills.

“I would say when you start out you will feel overwhelmed, but getting organised will stop that feeling and will get you on track. You must be organised, and you need at least a basic competence with spreadsheets.” 

"The financial plan case study analysis is best done in bite-sized chunks"Jacqueline Lockie CFP™ Chartered FCSI, founder of financial planning consultancy Lockie Consultants, provides support for financial planners studying for the CFP certification. She says that one of the biggest challenges for financial planners lies in building spreadsheets. “Financial planners find it difficult because they are creating a simplified cashflow in spreadsheet form, and they are often a bit rusty on that. I have built a complete suite of how-to videos where you start with a blank spreadsheet and we go through how to do this step by step.” 

Jacqueline also notes that planners tend to “waffle” and “run out of pages” for the level 7 case study. “Many find that when they get to the estate planning section, that they rapidly run out of space because they have written too much in the retirement planning section … It is tempting for candidates to write too much and repeat themselves; some also then give options but no firm recommendations, which leads on to other problems,” says Jacqueline. To avoid this, Jacqueline recommends that candidates write as if for a client and not an assessor and bear in mind that all the client’s objectives need to be met one way or another. For example, if the numbers reveal that a client cannot retire at their desired age of 55, they shouldn’t just state that and stop there. They need to work out when the client can retire.


Completing the level 6 Certificate in Advanced Financial Planning and the level 7 Financial Plan Case Study to achieve the level 7 Diploma in Advanced Financial Planning is not for the faint-hearted, but they do provide planners with a universal and interconnected approach to portfolio management – giving rise to the ‘jigsaw’ analogy used by both Jacqueline and John Reynolds.

Jacqueline says the CFP certification provides financial planners with the ability to build a financial plan like a ‘3D jigsaw’, taking into account how each element fits, which ultimately translates into better outcomes overall, while John refers to the importance of ensuring that all the interrelated parts work holistically.

And it’s not enough to simply put the pieces together; they must be compiled in the best interests of the client. CFP professionals have a fiduciary duty, set out in the UK in the CISI’s Code of Conduct, which defines their ethical responsibilities to the public, clients, and employees. 

The processes detailed in this piece and the stringent ethical requirements help to ensure that the CFP certification remains the global gold standard for financial planning professionals. From those who have completed it, the message is clear: it’s tough but it’s worth it.

Breakdown of the level 7 Diploma in Advanced Financial Planning

Christopher Morris, Chartered MCSI, deputy head of financial planning at the CISI, says the current format is designed to make the CFP certification more achievable.

“The previous level 6 financial plan was one big case study which incorporated all the technical knowledge and application of knowledge tested in one assessment. The new level 7 route splits this into two parts, an exam and a case study,” says Christopher. He explains that the CISI changed the pathways to better align technical knowledge with practical experience.

The level 6 syllabus covers: the financial planning process; financial planning principles; financial management; tax principles and optimisation; investment planning/asset management; risk management and insurance planning; retirement planning; estate planning; and wealth transfer. The narrative exam lasts three hours and the CISI recommends a minimum of 200 hours’ study. Upon successful completion, candidates are awarded 12 CPD hours.

The level 7 case study is designed to align the technical knowledge gained at level 6 with client objectives. The syllabus demands candidates clearly set out recommendations in “concise and user friendly” language, accounting for the client’s level of knowledge and experience. They must also explicitly state how each proposed solution links to each individual problem/objective, include all relevant client data and provide a holistic solution. The solution should “illustrate the ramifications of individual and collective courses of action and any trade-offs that may become necessary”. Finally, the financial planner should illustrate a logical sequence of order and establish an effective review mechanism.

The full article was originally published in the March 2022 edition of The Review

The flipbook edition is now available online for all members. 

All CISI members, excluding student members, are eligible to receive a hard copy of the quarterly print edition of the magazine. Members can opt in to receive the print edition by logging in to MyCISI, clicking on My account, then clicking the Communications tab and selecting ‘Yes’.

Once you have read the print edition, keep coming back to the digital edition of The Review, which is updated regularly with news, features and comment about the Institute and the financial services sector. 
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Published: 11 May 2022
  • Financial Planning
  • Training, Competence and Culture
  • featured
  • Training
  • financial planning
  • CISI exams
  • CFP certification

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