A company secretary qualification is offering expanded skills and career opportunities for managers. Scroll down for more information and case studies

With increasing workloads and broadening remits, there is growing demand for high-level professional skills in a range of areas, such as law and risk management. In response, the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators, the qualifying body for company secretaries, has developed a qualification programme with the support of the NHS.

Now in its third year, the scheme enables NHS managers to undertake the institute's company secretarial qualification programme, covering law, finance, governance, company secretaryship and management. Candidates who complete the 18-month course take away skills directly relevant to their role.

Job prospects

According to ICSA, the qualification can offer enhanced job prospects, since qualified company secretaries, or chartered secretaries, are able to work at a senior level in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors. They are the primary source of advice on the conduct of business, and this can span everything from legal advice to the development of strategy and planning. Chartered secretaries act as chairs, chief executives and non-executive directors as well as executives and company secretaries.

The course includes study days on topics from study skills through to professional administration and regulation. The study days on financial appraisal of projects, share structures and market efficiency, depreciation and amortisation, and private finance initiative funding have all proved popular. Training days can be done as standalones.

Entry points to the programme depend on previous qualifications.

Intensive course

Penny Bolam was recruited by Luton and Bedfordshire Mental Health and Social Care Partnership trust in July 2007 as secretary to the board. She will eventually take on the role of deputy company secretary. One of the trust's requirements was that she should undertake the ICSA course. Penny started the course earlier this year and is required to complete eight modules and two exams.

Luton and Bedfordshire expects to be awarded foundation trust status early next year, so the course will help Penny and her boss - who is also taking the course - deal with the changes that lie ahead.

"I've learned a lot on the course in a relatively short space of time and it helps that my employer is so encouraging - they see this training as an investment," says Penny.

But she acknowledges that combining study with a full-time job has not been easy. She says: "I go to classes in London to get some extra support and without that extra tuition I don't think I'd pass the exams. The modules only last 10 weeks so it's very intensive."

She also attends the extra study days run by ICSA, which she says are invaluable for networking. "ICSA ran an extra day in March specifically on finance and it was brilliant. So far I've found the course really interesting and informative and the skills you gain are applicable outside the NHS as well. It's very useful."

New scope

Andrea Saville, corporate secretary at Basildon and Thurrock University Hospital foundation trust, started ICSA's NHS qualification in 2006. Basildon and Thurrock was one of the first foundation trusts to be formed and she says she realised early on that the role of a company secretary in an FT was very different from that of a traditional board secretary. With a law degree and an MBA, Andrea was only required to do four modules to complete the course. She is enthusiastic about the experience.

"With the scope of the new role falling way outside the boundaries of the traditional board secretary, I found the course really helped me to understand the corporate governance aspect of my job. I learned so much about the different responsibilities that I was taking on and studied new areas such as corporate financial management and company secretaryship. It was invaluable."

Andrea's new skills also helped her develop a better understanding of her colleagues' work. "I thought I knew all about audit committees," she says, "but your understanding just grows. I was able to ask the head of our audit committee some questions and realised that my awareness of the function of the committee had increased significantly."

Andrea says the extra study days run by ICSA were a great opportunity to network with fellow students and she maintains that she would not have got through without this extra support. Self-study, she adds, requires a great deal of self-motivation and determination, but the hard work has paid off.

"I've just been asked to set up a compliance unit and I've been encouraging my compliance managers to take the ICSA course," she says. "Anybody in the NHS who gets the ICSA NHS qualification has reached a very high standard and should be extremely proud."

Mark Wearden, an independent business consultant and a fellow of ICSA, has run and structured the study days for ICSA for the past two years. He says: "The ethos of these days is to provide underpinning, mind-stretching, and thought-provoking input from a range of different speakers.

"The ICSA qualification requires a breadth of business and commercial awareness and our intention through the programme is to help NHS delegates apply commercial and theoretical considerations to their environment."

For more information, visitwww.icsa.org.uk