09 February 2011

BLOG update: Counsellors and psychotherapists working group meets for the last time

Last week, the tenth and final meeting of the HPC professional liaison group on counsellors and psychotherapists took place before a packed public gallery of observers.

Since the meeting in December last year, the counsellor and psychotherapy members of the group have held meetings to undertake further reviews of the draft standards of proficiency.

There were three substantive items on the agenda – consideration of a new draft set of standards for psychotherapists working with children and young people, the draft standards of education and training, and the revised draft standards of proficiency for counsellors and psychotherapists, aligned with the new version of the generic standards of proficiency.

The Group had already made an in principle decision that the profession specific standards of proficiency should be drafted for counsellors at Level 5 and Level 7, and Level 7 for psychotherapists, effectively creating two level of entry points for counsellors, and one for psychotherapists. This meeting provided an opportunity for the whole group to review these draft standards with a view to making recommendations to the HPC Council in due course.

As ever there was a wide ranging discussion on almost all of these issues, and at several points the group felt it was important to take an indicative vote amongst those from the counselling and psychotherapy professions around the table. The outcome of this voting was as follows
• There was agreement (one abstention) that the first entry point for counsellors should be set at Level 5.
• There was agreement (one abstention) that there should be different entry points for counsellors – one at Level 5 and the other at level 7

These outcomes represent significant progress in the work to describe different levels of practise.

On the other two substantive points, - creating a separate set of standards of proficiency for child psychotherapists and holding two separate sets of standards of proficiency for counsellors and psychotherapists at Level 7 - the group did not reach a consensus. . These matters were therefore referred to the HPC Council for further deliberation.

There were passionate views round the table, not least over the importance of the language of the standards, and a clear feeling that there were differences in identity, philosophy and semantics between counsellors and psychotherapists. There were also differences in practise, which some felt could be more clearly articulated in the draft standards at Level 7. However, the opposite view was that that differentiation at entry level 7 was not supported by evidence from the field – there were currently counsellors and psychotherapists who use the title interchangeably, applying theory and practise from both fields, depending on the context.

The disparity continues to centre around describing differentiation – and specifically how and what differentiates a counsellor and a psychotherapist trained to Level 7 when they qualify from a training programme. For me, the debate is a philosophical and ideological one – tied up closely with identity. I did not hear anyone say that there was no difference between the two – only disparate views on how and what distinguishes them at the point of entry to practise.

Since the outset of the work of the PLG, references have been made to the ‘building blocks’ of regulation – standards, levels of entry to the Register and the structure of the Register being examples of these. It struck me after the meeting that the standards could also be described using the analogy of a climbing wall. The standards are something like the footholds and hand-grips on a climbing wall. If the wall is ‘professional practise’, and the climbers are practitioners – there are an almost unlimited number of ways that the wall can be climbed. For counsellors and psychotherapists, we may not yet have agreement on where the foothold and hand grips should be placed on the wall, but we are significantly closer now than we were a year ago.

This debate will therefore continue well beyond the ending of the PLG. I very much believe that this further work will bring us to a pragmatic solution that is acceptable to the majority. Members of the PLG have been tenacious in their commitment to this work, and have created new milestones, new agreements, new clarity. Without clear standards, there can be no robust regulation. On behalf of the Council, I would like to thank them for their personal investment and considered contribution to this important work.

Anna van der Gaag