AAT celebrates world SME Day, calls for finance in schools overhaul

27 June 2024

Grace Hardy holds a laptop outside an independent clothes shop

On world SME Day 27 June, AAT is calling for an overhaul of financial education in UK schools amidst an election campaign failing to fully address the real barriers faced by small business owners and starters.  

AAT is the Association of Accounting Technicians – the leading professional body representing more than 50,000 accounting technicians and bookkeepers working in the UK and globally. 

27 June is the official United Nations’ Micro-, Small and Medium Enterprises Day (MSMEs Day). The day was established in 2017 to celebrate the contribution of small and medium-sized businesses to the success of wider economies and society. It has a particular focus on the role women and young businesspeople have on driving growth and reducing inequalities. 

“As AAT we wanted to take the opportunity of World MSMEs Day to really acknowledge and celebrate the incredible contribution that all small businesses, micro enterprises, freelancers and sole traders play in driving our economies forward,” said AAT CEO Sarah Beale. 

AAT’s near-7,000 licensed members -  accountants and bookkeepers - support more than 840,000 UK SMEs as clients with practical accountancy, finance and tax advisory services. Additionally, more than 6,000 UK firms employ thousands of AAT apprentices, who are highly valued in the workplace for their real-world ready skills. 

Companies House data shows the number of new companies being incorporated reached a record high last year, hitting almost 900,000.[1] That figure is set to be exceeded this year, should the 244,717 incorporations recorded between January-March continue at the same rate for the remainder of 2024. 

“I am also proud to announce a huge 65 per cent increase in AAT qualified members stepping up to become their own boss in just six years," said Beale. Becoming an AAT Licensed Accountant or Bookkeeper allows members to operate as freelancers, sole traders, and as business owners able to employ others.

"That’s a fantastic result – not only for them, but also for the tens of thousands of SMEs our licensed members support with the financial expertise that’s needed to grow and thrive,”  

“As accountants, we see the value that SMEs businesses bring to our communities daily. We witness the struggles they go through. We know the hard work it takes to start a successful business – and keep it afloat through what have been challenging times in recent years.” 

Beale pointed to record-high insolvency rates recorded in 2023 as evidence more should be done to give small business owners and starters the practical knowledge needed to overcome barriers to starting and owning a successful business. 

With the new generation of young entrepreneurs also growing up in an age of accessing knowledge and information online, they can be at higher risk of consuming misinformation - especially on social media. A cohort of reality stars will face trial next week regarding charges for promoting unauthorised financial products to their sizable Instagram follower bases.

Against a tempest of misinformation and potential financial fake news, AAT is calling for financial and digital literacy to be taught together so young people won't be put off by 'finance fear'.

AAT’s CEO started and ran a small business earlier in her career. She credits financial education for much of her success. However, times have changed, Beale warns: “I started a business in the years before social media crept into every facet of our lives – and with it the rise of false information and financial dangers.” 

“We really need to get a handle on this and give our young people the tools they need to decipher truth from scam, so they can be confident in money matters.” 

“In the meantime, young people are increasingly turning to social media for money advice, which can often be poor quality. Just look at the ongoing court case against the reality stars, charged with using their social influence to promote potentially ruinous financial products: the harm is happening now.” 

Sarah Beale stands with Grace Hardy



Financial literacy is key to small business success – young business starter Grace Hardy 

AAT Licenced Accountant and recent business starter, Grace Hardy (21) agrees. 

“There’s so many online scams out there – and so much fear of what finance terms really mean. So why aren’t we being taught how to be money smart?” 

Barclays revealed in April this year that almost half (48 per cent) of all investment scam claims came from young people aged 21-40.[2]

Hardy is launching her Unconventional podcast, sponsored by AAT, to coincide with UN World Micro-, Small, Medium Enterprises Day because, she says, the podcast is all about non-traditional routes to success and financial freedom. 

As no stranger to bucking prevailing attitudes, Grace resisted pressure to ‘do a degree’ like many of her friends on finishing college. Instead, the now-21 year old chartered her own course: first as an AAT apprentice, and now as the owner of one of the more than 5.6 million small businesses operating in the UK.  

Hardy said a common theme amongst the 16-24 year olds who follow her channels, is that financial terms can be overwhelming – with many not acting quickly to deal with bad debt such as credit card interest repayments, because of ‘finance fear’. 

Lack of basic financial knowledge was something that was putting off many people from starting their own businesses, despite many young people having an abundance of energy and ideas. 

The solution was not to simply ‘cram’ financial education into A-level maths, instead, an ‘accessible financial education overhaul’ was needed. For Grace, there were two big reasons why:

“Number one, the social media era has brought the social media scam with it. Get rich quick schemes, shady investments, people pretending to be someone they’re not – it’s never been a more important time for our country to be finance smart.” 

“Two: teaching proper, practical financial education with skills you can use, will lead to young people being more money confident, so more of us can take control of our financial futures. We can unleash a generation of entrepreneurs by removing finance fear from blocking people following their dreams – like starting a business.” 

Grace Hardy speaks into microphone while recording her podcast

Hardy has found support for her call amongst former Conservative Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, Rt Hon. Robert Halfon MP.

The member for Harlow is standing down at this election after a political career that included time as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Skills Group and the House of Commons for Further Education, Skills and Life-Long Learning. An MP since 2010, Halfon is respected across the aisle and is widely seen as a passionate advocate for the value of vocational education.

In an exclusive interview with Hardy for her new Unconventional podcast, Halfon had parting advice for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer:

“I think this is a really important launch because it is United Nations’ MSME Day - a day for supporting small businesses. What better way to support small businesses than advertising apprenticeships and supporting financial numeracy and literacy?”

“Grace is an outstanding former apprentice who has now set up her own business and just shows what the power of what apprenticeships can do.”

“More importantly,” said the former minister, “she is massively focused on financial literacy and I think she’s absolutely right that we need to have financial literacy all the way through our education system: whether we are doing apprenticeships, studying at university, or still at school.”

“The truth is, you can’t go very far if in this life if you don’t understand the numbers.”

“I wish Grace well because she, along with a handful of others, are at forefront of leading the apprenticeships revolution , and that is a very good thing.”

Collage of Grace Hardy talking to Robert Halfon



AAT outlines small business priorities for incoming government   

AAT Director of Policy Adam Harper said given AAT’s longstanding advocacy for comprehensive financial education in schools, the association welcomed Hardy’s enthusiasm. 

“We’re proud of members like Grace who are passionately putting the case to our country’s leaders for these much-needed policies.” 

Harper remarked that whilst manifestos were at pains to laud SMEs as the “lifeblood of our economy”[3], and “the lifeblood of communities and high streets across the country”[4], the parties’ election rhetoric needed to be matched by action in government. Concerningly, neither Labour nor the Conservatives had clear plans to bring in comprehensive practical financial education. 

Action on financial education was key to the political parties showing their commitment to small business went beyond election-time rhetoric.  

“This is about AAT’s charitable goals of widening access to quality financial education and the social mobility potential that this knowledge can bring. If the next government is serious about wealth creation – if they are true to their word in backing the lifeblood of our economy – then they will focus on practical financial literacy becoming a core part of every UK education.” 

Harper said an overhaul of financial education was one of a suite of small business policy priorities AAT would be putting to incoming ministers. Other priorities included prompt payments, access to capital and banking services, and digital literacy that is fit for the future. 

Context: Digital money smarts needed to combat ‘finfluencer’ scammers 
“Just because someone is a digital native, doesn’t mean they’re not digitally naïve,” said AAT’s Director of Policy Adam Harper. 

“Young people are being targeted on social media, on WhatsApp, and through deepfakes by scammers of varying sophistication.” 

Earlier this year, Barclays revealed ‘almost one in five young people, 17 per cent, have been contacted on social media by an individual offering an investment opportunity.'[5]

Meanwhile, the Financial Conduct Authority  (FCA) has seen a 193 per cent rise in online scams being reported to the body since 2019.[6] The authority has brought charges against so-called celebrity ‘finfluencers’ accused of using their social media sway to promote high-risk financial products on Instagram. 

Celebrities made famous by Love Island, The Only Way is Essex and Celebrity Big Brother pled not guilty this month to charges related to an unauthorised foreign exchange trading scheme. They have a cumulative 4.5 million Instagram followers and, if convicted, face up to two years behind bars.  

Harper said in the modern world digital literacy was key to teaching financial literacy. It was a myth that only middle-aged or older people were susceptible to online cons. 

Context: Myth vs reality - ‘We already have financial literacy education in schools’  

  • Since 2014, financial education has been required to be taught as part of mathematics in local authority-maintained (state) schools in England at primary and secondary level (11–16yrs) 
  • the requirement only covers around 10% of English students, because the mandate does not extend to the 9 in 10 students attending academies and private schools  
  • where it is required, only a fifth of those state schools actually teach financial education in practice 
  • many teachers and headteachers are unaware of the requirement: a recent parliamentary inquiry polled secondary teachers in England and found two in five (41%) do not think that financial education is a curriculum requirement, when in fact is. A further 15% were unsure.[7]
  • Only 48 minutes of financial education is given per month on average in the schools where it is provided. 
  • Research from Compare the Market and MyBnk found that almost two-thirds of young people don't recall receiving any financial education at secondary school, despite being a mandatory part of the curriculum 

Learn more: 

The Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT)  

  • AAT is the voice of accounting technicians and bookkeepers. It is one of the largest providers of finance skills in the UK. We are champions of social mobility through the promotion of access to education, skills and training in the wide range of available accounting careers. 
  • AAT’s Ofqual-recognised qualifications, short courses and CPD tools are being studied towards by more than 70,000 learners at any one time, including more than 6,000 AAT apprentices earning while they learn on the job. 
  • Formed in 1980, the charity is committed to increasing the availability of high-quality accountancy education and raising professional standards. We advocate for accessible public education, promote the study of accountancy, the prevention of crime, and promotion and enforcement of standards of professional conduct. 
  • AAT helps school leavers take their first steps in their career as well as thousands of career changers gain and develop new skills to equip them for careers in finance. 
  • Around 7,000 AAT Licenced Members power more than 840,000 UK small businesses with the practical accounting skills and valuable financial insights they need to invest and grow. AAT has seen a fast growing number of its young members starting their own accountancy and tax advice practices – with a 65% rise in 18-34 AAT Licenced Members since 2018. 

Grace Hardy 

(21) is the founder of Hardy Accounting (a small business) and a member of the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT). She provides accountancy services and practical advice to small business clients. She is no stranger to working alongside older people as well as those younger, who follow her on TikTok because of the way she makes tax and accounting relatable. 

Grace left school and went into a workplace apprenticeship with AAT – after her mum, a nurse coordinating apprenticeships in the NHS, opened her eyes to the pathway. By the time she finished, she found herself more skilled and experienced than the grads she was managing. Grace is passionate about helping people to engage with financial literacy and education. 

Her Unconventional podcast is focused on alternative learning and career pathways as well as imparting the advice of leaders in business and finance for the growing number of young people interested in being their own boss, starting a business, or getting on top of their finances. AAT is the official sponsor of Unconventional. 


  1. Companies House (2024). Incorporated companies in the UK January to March 2024. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/incorporated-companies-in-the-uk-january-to-march-2024 
  2. Opinium consumer research conducted for Barclays Bank (2024). Barclays urges action as investment scams rise. https://home.barclays/insights/2024/04/barclays-urges-action-as-investment-scams-rise-by-29-per-cent---/
  3. Conservative and Unionist Party Manifesto (2024). Conservative Manifesto, p.7. https://public.conservatives.com/static/documents/GE2024/Conservative-Manifesto-GE2024.pdf
  4. Labour Party Manifesto (2024). Support for small business and the self-employed. Kickstart economic growth – The Labour Party
  5. Opinium consumer research conducted for Barclays Bank (2024). Study of 2,000 people - data cited is for young people (18-34 years). https://home.barclays/insights/2024/04/barclays-urges-action-as-investment-scams-rise-by-29-per-cent---/ 
  6. FCA (2024). Press release: Armchair detective investors take inspiration from Sherlock Holmes to foil investment scams. https://www.fca.org.uk/news/press-releases/armchair-detective-investors-take-inspiration-sherlock-holmes-foil-investment-scams
  7. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Financial Education for Young People's submission to the Education Committee Inquiry. Financial Education for Young People Building Beyond Barriers – A roadmap for enhancing financial education in schools, page 13. APPG-on-Financial-Education-for-Young-People-submission-to-the-Education-Select-Committee-1.pdf (young-enterprise.org.uk)