Thinking of training to be a counsellor? What a good move! – you’ve now reached the point at which you’re deciding which course to apply for. There are a number of issues to consider when looking to train to be a counsellor. Not all courses are equal, in fact there are a vast range of orientations, styles of training, lengths of courses, qualities of delivery, degree of support ….. you get the picture. We offer a Diploma in Professional Counselling training at The Albany Centre and it is all the factors below that needed in-depth consideration before I trained and which led me to design our course. Here are some of the issues to be aware of in your search for the right course for you.
Jon Cooper, Course Director
In reality you probably already know a lot about what a good counselling/psychotherapy training course should be like, just as you know what to a large extent you might need in a counsellor/psychotherapist for yourself or someone dear to you. Bring your subconscious to the forefront!!
If you took stock of the qualities of a counsellor you would consult if you were in a crisis, you would probably want them to be warm, confident without being arrogant or superior, skilful at getting to the root of your struggle, honest without being harsh, and ethical in their dealings with you. Therefore you would expect a good training course to encourage a great depth of insight from their students, helping them to articulate their feelings and experiences and to be skilful in relating both to themselves and to each other. You would expect the students to have experience of being in the client’s chair, in order to understand themselves and hence to develop insight into others; in addition you would hope that students would have experienced the process of self exposure and healing that being a client encompasses. You would also expect the training environment itself to be challenging whilst being warm and supportive, caring about the students’ well-being whilst at the same time encouraging them to develop their skills to the highest level in the service of their future clients.
Many of these values can be identified in your dealings with the course itself and its tutors, and certainly their absence can be felt quite profoundly. When you make initial contact do you feel as if you are are being spoken to as an equally valid human being? Are they interested to talk with you and listen to your questions and concerns? Are they open about how they work and are the key tutors willing to meet you and spend time with you? Do they explain how the course operates, the background and experience of the key people involved in the delivery of the course? Do they have a clear rationale for how they work and why they have made the choices they have made in the design of the course? Do you feel that they are the right people to help you to challenge yourself and to learn to be the best practitioner you can be? In short how does everything about your experience with the organisation feel to you? – in large part how it feels is usually the best indication of how it really is.
Length of training
A minimum requirement for training as a counsellor tends to be three years at Level 4 (Diploma Level). Most training establishments, colleges or institutes would require some preliminary training to embark on such a course, for example at least an Introductory Course (Level 2). Some establishments require Level 3 and need (typically) one year of training as a prerequisite.
For instance – one day a week or a weekend per month? Online or in person?
If the research suggests (which it does!) that it’s the counselling relationship that does the healing, then how do we manage that relationship so that it is holding and safe, and is this relationship possible at a distance? As well as the issue of how the format of the course fits logistically with your job, family and other commitments, think about time for reflection outside the course and the impact of coming away from the course with its risk-taking and intimacy back into your everyday life. What might work best for you and give you the space and time to develop the skills and insight necessary to become a skilled practitioner?
Is it a fixed team, completely fluid or mixed (core trainer/s and visiting trainers)? Ask about their experience, qualifications and style of training.
Does the course cover many theories or hone in on one or two in depth?
There are hundreds of psychotherapeutic theoretical approaches – research in 1996 identified more than 450! Whilst it’s probably fair to assume all approaches have their strengths, in a relatively short course of typically 3 – 4 years’ duration it would be impossible to do any theoretical approach justice. Even if a programme were to look in depth at three or four of the major theories (such as Psychodynamic, Gestalt, Person-centred and Transactional Analysis) this would be fraught with difficulties as to learn any of these approaches to a high level of competence would take a lot more time.
For example, a typical Psychodynamic course may take 4-5 years in itself, for Gestalt between 3-5 years is typical depending on where you train, the two main Transactional Analysis training institutes in England both run a 7 year programme and Person-centred courses also range from 3 to 4 years in duration. So this is very different from covering 4 theories and upwards (many training courses cover more theories than this!) so in 3 years this would mean that no one therapeutic approach could be really mastered; instead one would understand and practise at a fairly superficial level. Indeed some approaches would be almost contradictory in how they require the therapist to behave, for example classical Psychodynamic versus Person-centred. This is confusing for students. Perhaps it is far better to master one or two comparable theories before moving on to other disciplines after graduating ?
Academic or practical?
This depends to some extent on your personality and certainly you can have a very fulfilling experience at both ends of the spectrum. The still comparatively new discipline of psychotherapy has vast amounts to offer in terms of theories and research, and it is so fundamentally fascinating as it’s really about you (and us!) and how we work, how we make decisions, how we shape our world and support or hurt others and how to fix these processes when they get derailed. It’s the closest thing to applied philosophy!
Also there is a great deal of skill involved in being a competent therapist/counsellor, skills that take years to master and then, because of the richness of humanity and our own struggles, we will still get challenges that lead to the most competent practitioner doubting their competence.
In reality both theory and practice are vitally important. Practical skills are important because that is what the client experiences and all research points to the benefits of therapy; benefits are derived from a supportive and nurturing relationship. Theory is vital because that is how vast amounts of experience and study by very eminent capable practitioners is passed on! We very much stand on the shoulders of our forebears and this can be both positive and in some cases inhibiting.
So do carefully consider the balance that you feel would serve you best (being wary not to reject either pole!)
Validated or not?
Validation is the process whereby an academic institution or educational standards organisation prescribes how a course is set up and run and then goes on to monitor the delivery.
There are a number of awarding bodies that you may have come across (such as CPCAB, ABC Awards , the Open College Network) which validate courses up to Level 4 and at the moment (and there are rumours that this may change) only universities can validate courses at Level 5 (Foundation degree), Level 6 (Degree) and Level 7 (Masters Degree). The purpose of validation is to give you assurance that there is some monitoring of quality and (in theory) that your qualification is transportable, not just within this country but also to other parts of the world. The down side is that the awarding bodies are by definition academic institutions and are not often best placed to understand current best practice, or because of the bureaucracy involved find it hard to modify and adapt the curriculum accordingly.
On a more pragmatic level validation is a very expensive process (in the case of universities it will double the cost of the course to students). Until recently validation could mean that institutions could attract funding/subsidies which brought the costs back down again; however these funding streams have largely dried up leading to courses either running at “full cost recovery” (meaning you and your peers pay the entire cost of what the training institute has to pay to run your course i.e. the cost gets passed on to the student), or courses have been forced to shut down in large numbers up and down the country as counselling courses become financially unviable!
If the course is UCAS listed it means that it qualifies for student loan status; thus if you are paying a lot more for your course you can delay paying for it for a substantial period of time.
The profession as a whole does not require that you have completed a “validated” course, only that the course meets certain criteria (BACP publish these criteria on their website).
Despite how it may appear, the fact that a course is validated by some outside body is not a cast iron guarantee that it will be a good course or that it suits you. Do please take into account all the other factors being discussed in this post and ask around: have you met people who have impressed you? Where did they train? Have you met practitioners that you wouldn’t rate? Of course it is not fair to judge a training institute by the quality of one or two practitioners but if there seems to be a trend or a certain personality emerging from a particular institute it’s worth noting!
Accredited or not?
During your investigations, you may encounter the subject of accreditation of a course by BACP.
This is quite a moot point within the counselling profession and there are a number of issues:
- Most courses aren’t accredited and nor is there any requirement for them to be. The process is relatively expensive and the cost in time gets passed on in fees to the students. You can get a full list of accredited courses through the BACP website www.BACP.co.uk.
- Accreditation can only be applied for retrospectively, thus an institute has to train and graduate a complete cohort before applying for accreditation. If successful, and accreditation is awarded, the original students will then also be retrospectively recognised.
- The professional kite mark for counsellors according to the BACP (which is by no means compulsory) is that the individual becomes personally accredited through BACP regardless of whether or not the course is accredited and the process is very similar either way. All that really matters is whether the course meets certain requirements for training provision and this can be checked out by comparing the course information with the BACP requirements.
- There is a relatively new process that has been introduced by the government in conjunction with BACP (and other bodies) that is asking for all members to become a member of its “Accredited Voluntary Register”; this means passing a certificate of profiency exam within a year of qualifying and becoming a member if you graduated from a course that was not BACP accredited itself.
For some years now counselling and therapy courses have been required to include seeing members of the public as clients and this is normally achieved by the student finding a voluntary counselling agency that will offer to take them on as student. Counselling businesses are also beginning to take on students.
In principle if the student is well supported, this can provide an excellent experience of working as a counsellor and being exposed to a vast array of clients. Unfortunately the quality of the experience can vary greatly with some organisations; does the organisation have rigorous selection procedures, good in service training, provide and pay for professional supervision with experienced supervisors and compensate for out of pocket expenses? These experiences can be excellent and some of these organisations, as they move towards better funding, then offer opportunities for paid work to qualified counsellors (often these are people who have in the past been on placement).
The other possibility is that a student finds themselves in an organisation that is ill-equipped to offer counselling to the public and that has a range of problems (such as not having suitable accommodation for counselling to take place, not understanding the confidential nature of the work and making demands on the counsellor for inappropriate disclosures, not providing supervision or training and so the student needs to fund this themselves, not compensating for out of pocket expenses).
On the other hand, some courses work really hard to vet placement organisations, contracting with them and setting standards of communication, and inviting those organisations in regularly to meet students and even contribute to course design and delivery.
Other courses literally ask their students to “find a placement”, which for the above reasons can be a bit of a lottery and lead to some students feeling exploited and at times vulnerable, both in terms of their professional practice and indeed sometimes in terms of their personal safety (very rare but possible).
Yet another approach adopted by some training organisations is to provide in-house experience, first offering low cost counselling to the public in return for the clients being fully informed and reassured that they will be seeing a senior trainee who is being professionally supervised (much like one might go to a dental school for low cost dental treatment knowing that your treatment is monitored by senior experienced practitioners). Only after this initial experience are students then introduced to vetted placement agencies. None of this need incur any further cost to the student.
What happens in class?
Role play versus real material? Risk-taking or going for safety? Practising with peers or practising in the company of the trainer/s? How is the work reflected on? Is feedback helpful? When you get stuck is there support to work through it? Does the trainer demonstrate good practice? In a lot of ways, learning your skills by role playing seems to make sense: how could you possibly encounter the breadth of issues in the group that you will in practice with “real clients”? How could students keep themselves and each other safe if they work on “real personal issues”?
Well let’s look at this. If we are role playing then we are relying on the person playing the client to have a really accurate emotional and physical knowledge of what it might be to be this fictitious client with this presenting issue, to know how we can aid them in moving forward, or to know how to hold back and not to sabotage their development. A very high demand indeed. Role play is also often chosen because of the assumption that there is not sufficient life experience within the group; this can be gently challenged as an awful lot of people come to a decision to train to be a counsellor having experienced some personal crisis of their own. In addition, day to day life experience can also be valued material to work on. Other life stories and areas of work can be recovered in a more meaningful way by the use of guest speakers who are practitioners with the life experience regarding the topics covered. A danger of role play is that when someone is role playing they unearth some real emotion and discover untapped issues that have laid buried perhaps for years but because the exercise is seen as purely role play the real feelings may be skimmed over.
What about practising skills away from the qualified trainers? Again this sounds feasible but what is being learnt if you are all fairly new? You could learn so much more if you were practising in front of the trainer where the work can be paused or stopped and reflected on with the trainer then taking care of the person who is in the position of client. That way everyone feels safer to take risks knowing that they and their colleagues will be supported, and more crucially perhaps learn what to do when they do become stuck or overwhelmed! In addition, learning about what genuine distress looks and feels like, and what needs to be done to support people through these very human experiences, is vital.
Most courses have some version of this, termed for example community time group process, personal development group, study group, and it refers to a time of self reflection and group reflection as a learning experience and to the care of the ongoing group culture of the training community. Often these groups are misunderstood and observed in a fairly rigid way i.e. one hour every week with nothing outside of the here-and-now allowed. Some courses have even started to phase this facet out of their training. Other courses will pay attention to group dynamics with experienced professionals facilitating these groups for maximum learning and some courses allow as much time as is necessary to process any issues as they emerge; the experience of this process is essentially the stuff of therapy.
Theory sessions and practical exercises
Are these intrinsically linked or do you feel there is a mismatch?
Again, this needs to be about developing your skills as a reflective practitioner, looking at your experiences in the group and applying that processing to the theory you are learning along the way. Is it a good fit?
Assignments and assessment
Do these genuinely test your competence, insight, ethos and knowledge in terms of the service you will be delivering to clients or is there again a schism?
In short: does the course prepare you for the breadth of possible future client experience?
Are you prepared for the workplace?
Does the course teach you about working within the context of a large organisation and/or setting up in business yourself as a private practitioner? Do you learn about what it means to manage a counselling service/organisation?
Consider the training venue/environment
Does it feel safe enough to do the work?
Cost for the course
What does it include/exclude? Do look out for all the extras that you can incur such as interview fees, validation fees, exam fees. Do you have to pay for supervision? Do you have to pay extra for a residential component or to study a particular extra module that is considered essential to the course? Most good quality courses will want you to be in your own personal therapy and it is important that this is separate from the course and hence paid for separately. It can be helpful to buy certain books, however there are also ways of sourcing materials for free or low cost.
A word of warning: good training costs if you are going to use competent experienced trainers. It may be more expensive if guest speakers are used, and the ratio of tutors to students is small, as well as the group size being kept down to develop intimacy, attention and safety. So in some ways be wary of courses that are very low cost. This could be because they are somehow subsidised which is fine but it could be because corners are being cut and/or there are hidden extras.
What support is there for you after you’ve graduated?
re there more learning opportunities? Are you supported professionally in your future practice?
What if you’ve already started a course?
Perhaps you realise the course falls short of your expectations or the funding has been reduced or cancelled leaving you without a place? Can you transfer? Ask!
If in doubt – ask questions, visit the institute, meet the trainers but most of all trust your judgement as this is a huge undertaking in time spent, it is hard work emotionally and intellectually and it is significant in terms of financial commitment. You need to be as sure as you can be. At least research it as much as you might do in choosing a new place to live because in a way you are choosing somewhere to live, REALLY LIVE!
To find out about training to be a counsellor with Jon at The Albany Centre in St. Albans, Hertfordshire please click below:
This post was written by Jon Wilson Cooper Dip IGC MBACP
Jon has spent over 30 years working therapeutically with a wide range of individuals and groups, and over 16 years training counsellors and psychotherapists, including some years as Course Co-ordinator for the Foundation Degree in Counselling at Harrow College (validated by Middlesex University).
He has also written a Foundation Degree in Counselling for the University of Bedfordshire and spent some time leading a Foundation Degree in Humanistic Counselling at Metanoia in Ealing.
For a very basic article on counselling/psychotherapy in England try this link
To get more detailed information about counselling/counselling training and training requirements go to the BACP website