SCoPEd: new consultation responses

Two therapists – one a BACP Senior Accredited counsellor and supervisor, the other a UKCP Registered psychoanalytic psychotherapist – share their SCoPEd consultation responses with the Alliance.

 

Arthur Musgrave, BACP Senior Accredited Counsellor and Supervisor.


The consultation questions

This consultation exercise seeks answers to four questions –

  1. How will the framework affect clients or patients in being able finding the right kind of help to meet their needs?
  2. How will the framework affect employers in being able to establish which counsellors or psychotherapists to employ in their service?
  3. How will the framework affect trainees in their understanding of the pathways open to them for core training with adults? (sic)
  4. How will the framework affect professional bodies being able to promote the skills and services of their members?

Summary

This draft framework promises to provide clarity but fails to deliver. Take, for example, the employment of counsellors and psychotherapists – there is already a well-established and much more satisfactory way of establishing whom to employ and that is through the use of a well thought out person specification and a good selection process. It is hard to see that whatever is finally ratified will add much to this.

Nor does the draft framework offer clarity to other stakeholders who would much prefer that other, more fundamental issues were resolved The key components of training and practice that lead to a good outcome remain as obscure as ever. To what extent, for instance, is there any correlation with the length of training a counsellor or psychotherapist has undergone? Or with hours of personal therapy? Or with hours of supervised practice? Do trainee psychotherapists in practice receive more supervision than trainee counsellors? And, if they do, does that mean their clients/patients are necessarily more satisfied?

Without satisfactory answers to questions of this nature campaigns promoting the skills and services of counsellors and psychotherapists will have limited value. And neither potential clients/patients nor anyone wanting to decide what qualification to pursue will be much the wiser.

“further layers of complexity and obfuscation”

But a document of this kind does more than fail to provide clarity – it actually adds further layers of complexity and obfuscation. The answer to each of the consultation questions must therefore be that the draft framework will make clarity harder to achieve.

Much is being claimed for this exercise, but at root it is an attempt at tidying up discrepancies in documentation held by each of the three sponsoring bodies in order for these bodies to agree between themselves what they regard as the distinguishing characteristics of a ‘qualified counsellor’, an ‘advanced qualified counsellor’ and a ‘psychotherapist’.

Stripped bare of any significant benefit for others, what becomes starkly apparent is that the three sponsoring bodies are set up to be the main beneficiaries. As a result of reaching a shared consensus about common standards for practice and education, they will be better placed to press for control over the entire field of counselling and psychotherapy.

There a serious danger here that once competencies are laid down in this fashion, a common curriculum will be prescribed and good practice will then be judged primarily in terms of adherence to what is taught on training courses. This would undoubtedly have a devastatingly inhibiting effect on creativity and the development of good practice.

Specific concerns: (1) Language

The language is opaque. The competency statements are peppered with words such as ‘suitable’, ‘appropriate’ and ‘relevant’. This language requires a further gloss from those within the profession and defeats the stated purpose of offering clarity to outsiders such as members of the public and potential trainees.

Even when qualifiers of this kind aren’t used the competency statements necessarily lack precision so that, for instance, it is unclear to what extent practitioners of all kinds have “the ability to reflect on their own cultural background and history and have the capacity to work in an authentically non discriminatory manner” (Theme 4.8). It is equally unclear what constitutes sufficient “knowledge and ability” to be able to work within professional and ethical frameworks (Theme 1.1).Two decades and more ago I was involved in helping to draft standards for National Vocational Qualifications and, time and again, found that the language in competency statements was imprecise. At each iteration of the drafting process we were reassured that this would not be a problem since the assessor would be selected by the candidate and would be someone from within the field. In the case of the SCoPEd Framework such an interpreter will clearly not always be to hand.

At other places in the draft framework rather nebulous concepts are deployed in order to distinguish the work of an ‘advanced counsellor’ from that of a ‘psychotherapist’ – for example a ‘psychotherapist’ is able to “negotiate issues of power” whereas an ‘advanced counsellor’ is only able to “address issues of power”. What is the distinction here – that psychotherapists are expected to be in dialogue whereas advanced counsellors are limited to making a speech?

There is great scope for misunderstanding when imprecise language is deployed and this can have serious consequences. In following a case before a Health and Care Professions Council disciplinary panel I had the experience of seeing how problematic matters can become when definitions established in one context are interpreted by others whose professional expertise lies elsewhere. In the case in point a narrow definition of confidentiality based on the notion of consent for medical treatment was utilised to rule that conventional understandings about confidentiality in a group supervision setting were unethical as, somewhat inevitably, personal information about group members was disclosed to other trainees in the group.

Specific concerns: (2) Skills must be tested in context

A serious and even more fundamental problem lies in the fact that skills cannot be adequately tested in isolation from one another as they are in the draft framework. Let me give an example as to why not. I was once approached for help by a student on a counselling diploma course counsellor who had failed her viva apparently because she hadn’t demonstrated basic counselling skills. She brought a tape with them of the session she’d presented at the viva.

When I listened to it in was clear that, at one point when she said something like, “So what you’re saying is A and B”, the client replied, “No I’m not! What I’m saying X and Y!!!”Although the student got things very ‘wrong’ her client was able, as a result and for the first time, to state his viewpoint forcefully and congruently. The trainee then gave her whole attention not to the ‘mistake’ but to what her client had to say. This exchange proved to be the turning point in their work together – which, of course, was why the student had selected it for the viva.

Overtly, then, there was direct evidence of this trainee’s inability to meet Theme 3.8 (i.e. the examiners had detected a failure to sustain the therapeutic relationship) to the point where the existing relationship had been disrupted. However there was other, more subtle evidence, that the student had been able to deal with this rupture in a wholly positive fashion, thereby not simply responding successfully to a difficulty in the relationship (Theme 3.10) but also demonstrating both an ability to work therapeutically with ruptures and difficulties (Theme 3.10 b) and an ability to work proactively to minimise further damage.

Paradoxically, then, this trainee counsellor, in failing her viva, demonstrated that she was able to do something over and above what this draft framework claims only a trained and qualified psychotherapist is capable of doing.

Specific concerns: (3) A flawed threefold separation of roles

The distinction in the draft framework between ‘qualified counsellor’ and ‘advanced qualified counsellor’ doesn’t really work. It is better understood if it is viewed not as a difference in training but as a difference in experience, e.g. in the use of supervision (Themes 1.6 and 1.6a); team working (Themes 1.10, 1.10a and 1.10b); working online (Themes 2.10 and 2.10a); critical reflection on the client/patient’s process within the therapeutic relationship (Themes 3.8 and 3.8a); ability to find ways of making progress in the face of difficulties (Themes 3.12 and 3.12a); and so on.

The ‘advanced qualified counsellor’ reads more as someone who has assimilated what they gained from their training in the light of some years of practice. The threefold division between ‘qualified counsellor’, ‘advanced qualified counsellor’ and ‘psychotherapist’ is therefore fundamentally flawed as like is not being compared with like.

“There is a fundamental problem that training and experience cannot easily be separated when talking about competence”

There is a further fundamental problem in that training and experience cannot easily be separated when talking about competence. Someone whose initial training was as a counsellor can, for instance, obtain further training and experience that gives them the ability to “understand medical diagnosis of mental disorders and the impact of psychotropic medication during assessment and throughout therapy” (Theme 2.4b). Previous attempts to define competency have sometimes floundered on an artificial attempt to determine that labels are acquired only at the point of qualification, a view that can be hard for commissioners of services, employers and members of the public to appreciate when what they are primarily concerned with is practical applications, not demarcation disputes.

Even more problematic is the point that what distinguishes ‘psychotherapist’ from others is largely to do with matters that aren’t essential to what therapy is and that are perhaps better viewed as distinct areas of expertise.

A surprising number of extraneous activities are captured within the rather eccentric definition of psychotherapy used in this framework including being able “to take an active role within the professional community locally and nationally” (Theme 1.10c); being able to “resolve contradictions between ethical requirements and work requirements” (Theme 1.6b) as if psychotherapists are automatically capable of resolving these matters whereas others are necessarily either incapable of dealing with issues of role clarity or only manage to navigate their way pragmatically through intractable situations and irreconcilable expectations; being able “to assess and formulate when working with chronic and enduring mental health conditions”(Theme 2.1b); being able to being able “to critically appraise the history of psychological ideas”(Theme 4.2b) as opposed to simply being able “to critically appraise a range of theories underpinning the practice of counselling and psychotherapy” (Theme 4.2a); being able to utilise audit and evaluation tools/methodologies “to contribute to improving the process and outcomes of therapy” (Theme 4.9b) as opposed merely monitoring and maintaining standards within practice settings (Theme 4.9a); and being able to undertake substantial research projects (Theme 4.10).

A number of somewhat grandiose claims are made for both ‘advanced counsellors’ and ‘psychotherapists’. Apparently they are able to critically challenge their own values and beliefs, whereas mere qualified counsellors aren’t able to do this (Theme 5.3a). They are also able it seems, and again in contradistinction to qualified counsellors, to critically appraise published research on counselling and psychotherapy and integrate relevant research findings into practice (Theme 4.10a).

But to what extent do ‘advanced counsellors’ and ‘psychotherapists’ do either of these in practice? And to what extent do they differ in these respects from qualified counsellors? It is often forgotten that access to published research is limited for those in private practice who do not hold an academic post.

Some of these grandiose capabilities are in the purlieu of psychotherapists alone. They can apparently even “resolve contradictions between different codes of practice and conduct” (Theme 1.6b). They apparently also have a unique ability “to integrate relevant theory and research in the areas of diversity and equality into clinical practice” (Theme 4.8c).

Finally, over and above this substantial list of supposed distinguishing characteristics, one of the most immediately striking aspects of the draft framework is how many gaps it contains. In only a third of the listed competency themes has the draft framework so far been able to distinguish a ‘psychotherapist’ from a ‘qualified counsellor’.

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Joe Suart, UKCP registered psychoanalytic psychotherapist, working and living in Cornwall.


There is a problem with the Roth/Pilling methodology [used to draft the SCoPEd framework], as pointed out in 2008 when Skills for Health were trying to develop National Occupational Standards for the profession. These problems have not been addressed and so have not gone away. The Council for Psychoanalysis and Jungian Ananlysis (CPJA) sent to Skills for Health its response in April 2009, in which it stated:

“Following continuous discussion and debate throughout this process, within the CPJA and with our colleagues in other professional organisations representing psychoanalytic and psychodynamic psychotherapy in the UK, the CPJA has concluded that it cannot support either the process or the outcomes of the Skills for Health consultation. The CPJA will be recommending to the UKCP as a whole that it withdraw its participation and support from the project in favour of its own more appropriately-derived statements of occupational standards for psychoanalytic/psychodynamic and other modalities of psychotherapy”

While the current attempt to standardise Professional/National Occupation Standards is not the same process, its reliance on the Roth/Pilling methodology (which was produced initially specifically for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy practice and then applied to other modalities) repeats the problem that was endemic to the previous attempt.

The SCoPEd Consultation claims to be evidence based, and yet there is no evidence that it’s methodological basis of matching perceived competencies of the therapist to improved life experience of the patient actually works. The collection of descriptions of activities of the therapist, presented under the term competencies are themselves not based in evidence gathering but in the opinion of practitioners and trainers concerning what it is they think should be the case.

The model of gathering empirical data is not well suited to the confidential conversation of two people in camera. At best it can only be done by reportage, usually only done by the therapist. This is an argument that is well known and leads to a well-worn criticism of the process of the ‘talking cure’, however the attempt to get round this problem by defining competencies in the manner done fails. Rather, in attempting to do so, it presents an image of a reality that has been distorted by the wishes and intentions of the presenters. As workers in the field of Freud’s legacy, this is not something that should be ignored or brushed over.

“there are many different and conflicting psychotherapeutic views, some of which would support the competencies and their implications, and some of which would be vehemently opposed to them”

Even within the framework itself, in its own terms, there are problems. The use of the three terms, ‘Counsellor’ ‘Advanced Counsellor’ and ‘Psychotherapist’ is confusing at the outset. It would have been better to use non-specific terms to denote different levels of sophistication and complexity, such as level 1, level 2, level 3. For the use of these terms that imply a reflection on current qualifications and associated capacities appears to mirror and reinforce a hierarchy of professional status that many would say is already in place.

There is then the additional problem that this implied hierarchy of professional status and capacity is one that is intended to become enshrined in nationally recognised standards which training bodies will be obliged to adhere to, and which, when the next attempt to statutorily regulate the profession occurs, will become enshrined in law. When that happens it will become an offence to practice unless you fit yourself into these frameworks.

The success of this attempt to standardise the activities and responsibilities of counsellors/psychotherapists whilst being carried out in the noble desire to protect patients, will have the effect of both reducing patient care and therapists’ ability to respond to the specific and individual needs of the patient. Many of the competencies as set out in the document are written as if they are neutral and non-controversial in their import. This is not the case as there are many different and conflicting psychotherapeutic views, some of which would support the competencies and their implications, and some of which would be vehemently opposed to them.

For example, there are assumptions which would be vigorously challenged when the competencies use terms like ‘conscious’ and ‘unconscious’, ‘inner world’ and ‘outer world’, ‘transference’ and ‘countertransference’. The nature of the complexities and even existence of some of these apparently neutral terms, let alone how the mechanisms, phenomena and experiences that these terms are meant to refer to have been the subject of debate and even controversy for decades. The validity of this history of debate and disagreement is given no recognition by the consultation.

The consequence of this standardisation attempt being successful will be to reduce the options of talking therapy work available to the public, and risk making it an offence for them to be provided with options that are not in agreement with it. This point has been made with full description and elaboration in the Maresfield Report.

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