Education and Professional Standards

One of the most vexing questions surrounding counselling and psychotherapy in Ireland over the last 20 years has been the subject of educational and professional standards.

The principal difficulty with unregulated professions is that of differing standards and a lack of standardisation. Within the fields of counselling and psychotherapy in Ireland, there are currently over 20 different professional bodies all aiming to represent the needs of their members and to advance counselling and psychotherapy according to their own individual ethos, while at the same time all claiming to represent the best interests of the public. Likewise, counselling and psychotherapy are currently not protected titles, therefore anyone who wishes may legally (though clearly not morally or ethically) refer to themselves as either of these titles. Therefore there is currently no legal impediment to using such titles and thus limited legal protection of the general public.

Having so many diverse Associations attempting to voluntarily regulate practice is clearly problematic for a range of reasons. Firstly some Associations fail to make a distinction between Psychotherapy and Counselling and continue to have the same qualification requirements despite the recommendations of the PTF to government in 2008.

In turn this means that the ranges of qualifications are currently being used in Ireland, without the public having the assurance of uniform standards of skill, competency and knowledge.

The Psychological Therapies Forum succeeded in making shared recommendations to Government in 2008. Achieving that consensus between such a diverse body of professional associations was an achievement. Likewise, since that time a number of developments have occurred which are significant.

  1. In 2011, HETAC (now QQI) – building on the recommendations of the PTF, commenced a process of setting award standards for educational programmes in these fields.
  2. In late 2012, Minister Alex White  issued a statement in Dail Eireann committing to statutory registration of counsellors and psychotherapists as early as possible
  3. In that speech the Minister clearly specified that these “QQI qualifications will be the minimum qualifications required of counsellors and psychotherapists to register under the Health and Social Care Professionals Act 2005”.
  4. The development of award standards by QQI have now been released for public consultation in August, 2013
  5. The role of CORU in overseeing the professions of Counseling & Psychotherapy is now much clearer.
  6. The commitment of the Minister to work with CORU to ensure that there will be “no delay” in bringing regulatory frameworks about.

In essence this will bring about a set of professions which will finally have developed and implemented standards and whose on-going practice will be overseen by a regulatory agency with statutory authority.

Counselling and Psychotherapy – How are both professions likely to evolve?

While there are areas of similarity and overlap between Counselling and Psychotherapy,  differences relate to the level of complexity which fall within the scope of practice of counsellors or psychotherapists and these in turn, reflect the different levels of training undertaken.

Internationally the ‘norms’ of training in psychotherapy require practitioners to have undertaken a minimum of seven years training, including undergraduate study in relevant health/social care areas followed by a minimum of 4 years training at postgraduate level, including a minimum of a Masters level qualification in the area of psychotherapy practice and four years training at that level. As a generality, Counsellors would tend to  work with people who are anxious to make changes in their lives or perhaps with those who present with problems which could be described as falling within the category of the ‘softer mental health areas’. Likewise they might use their skills in an integrative way within such diverse practice areas as youth work, community work etc. Psychotherapy practice on the other hand, because the training is more comprehensive, longer and at Master level means that practitioners are normally more qualified to work in specialist areas of mental health or illness.

These distinctions are consistent with the recommendation of the Psychological Therapies Forum (2008) in Ireland, endorsed in the new draft award standards recently developed by QQI and now the subject of public consultation.

So what is this going to mean?  At the very least it means that the education of Psychotherapists will be distinct from that of Counsellors and will be more intense and specialised. Psychotherapists are likely to be employed to deal with more complex issues of mental health/illness and to be frequently engaged in multi-disciplinary teams with other health professionals.

Should these recommendations be approved, placing minimum educational qualifications for Counselling at Level 8 and Psychotherapy at Level 9 on the NFQ, will in effect, send out a clear message to the public that those wishing to professionally practice in these areas will require a level of competency to carry out this work that reflects the standards of education set out above.

Statutory registration and the involvement of CORU as the guardian and overseer of both areas of professional practice should lead finally to standards which when nationally implemented will become a benchmark for others to follows.

What does the future hold for the practice of Counselling in Ireland?

The current professional environment for the practice of Counselling in Ireland is beginning to take shape. Within the past year the Irish Government has committed to regulating the practice of Counselling and Psychotherapy which to date has been unregulated, and thus the protection of the public has not been assured by any State agency.

In late 2012 the Irish Government reaffirmed its commitment to implementing Statutory Regulation “without delay”.  This will mean that the professional titles of Counsellor and Psychotherapist will become a protected title under the Health and Social Care Professionals Act (2005) and those wishing to practice as Counsellors or Psychotherapists will need to be professionally registered with CORU, the regulatory body set up under that Act, which regulates a range of professions under Statute.

Regulation means that the registration body, namely CORU in the case of Counselling & Psychotherapy will set entry requirements to professions and that both entry requirements, qualifications and requirements for on-going professional practice will be set by a statutory agency which in turn will bring with it a level of public confidence that will assure the public that appropriate standards of professional practice apply, which, in the case of counselling and psychotherapy, do not exist.

The road to Statutory regulation has been a long one.  In 2008 the Psychological Therapies Forum made recommendations to Government recommending that entry to the profession of Counselling should require a minimum 4 year degree and distinguished counselling from psychotherapy on the basis that entry to psychotherapy would require a Masters level qualification for psychotherapy practice. Since that time most professional bodies within the Psychological Therapies Forum have been moving towards these standards, though they are not universally applied by all current Professional Associations. In essence these recommendations of the PTF have separated the two areas into distinct yet interrelated professions.

More recently QQI (Qualifications Quality Ireland) has published a consultation document on award standards which endorses the distinctions recommended by the PTF.  These proposed award standards are currently the subject of public consultation and are available via the URL: