7 September 2016

Revisiting the Accreditation Confusion

Back in February 2015 I wrote an article entitled "Accredited This, Accredited That" in an attempt to address the confusion in our profession about the use of the word Accreditation to describe counsellors and psychotherapists. We have therapists accredited by the BACP, therapists accredited by the National Counselling Society involving a quite different set of criteria and we have therapists who are on an Accredited Register who may or may not have accredited status. 

In that article I questioned the Professional Standards Authority and they offered the following:

"The Professional Standards Authority is aware of the potential for confusion in the different uses of the word ‘accredited’. We are working closely with the Accredited Registers to prevent this confusion by providing clear information to the public. This will include a guide to different types and levels of qualifications in health and care, which we will publish in the coming months."

Counsellor and Psychotherapist Accreditation

The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (the BACP, at that time the BAC) introduced the concept of accredited membership back in 1983 and for a number of years it has been used to separate a tier of members who have been through their accreditation application process involving set criteria above and beyond the basic membership. The criteria is currently as follows(1):

To apply for BACP accreditation, you must: 

Be a Registered Member of BACP 
Have successfully completed a BACP-accredited or other appropriate professional training of at least 450 hours
Have been in practice for at least three years and completed a minimum of 450 supervised practice hours 
Have an ongoing supervision arrangement in place for 1.5 hours per month
Be covered by professional indemnity insurance

You will need to complete an in-depth application providing evidence of your training, practice and supervision. This includes a reflective practice section, asking you to write about your understanding of what you do, using examples from your practice. 

In contrast we have the National Counselling Society (NCS) accredited membership level which requires the following (2):

Accredited Membership is awarded to a member who has successfully completed one of the following:

A National Counselling Society Accredited Course at Ofqual Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF) Level 4 or Ofqual RQF/Framework for Higher Education Qualifications(FHEQ) Level 5 or equivalent
A full qualification in counselling or psychotherapy practice atOfqual RQF Level 4 or Ofqual RQF/FHEQ Level 5 or equivalent which complies with the Society's currently published standards of training

There is also the facility to apply for membership without these requirements based via a complex committee.

The accredited status of these two professional bodies for counselling and psychotherapy is clearly different. Added to that we have had, since 2012, the existence of the PSA's Accredited Registers adding a further type of accreditation into the mix.

The confusion has been the source of ongoing confusion within the profession and not just amongst service users. I have participated and observed many online discussion on counselling forums with what sometimes amounts to petty spats and resentment between BACP and NCS members.

I asked Phil Doré , author of the blog Unsafe Spaces what he thinks about this issue:

Looking at all the differences in types of registration and accreditation - I'm a mental health nurse, I have an interest in psychological therapies, I read and write about the different professional bodies - and these differences make my head spin trying to make sense of it. So if it does that to me, what does it do to a lay person? Would a lay person even know that there's a difference between BACP Registered, or BACP Accredited? Or between BACP Accredited and NCS Accredited? Let alone know what those differences are. Also it's important to bear in mind that when people are accessing counselling or psychotherapy, they're often experiencing a mental health condition, often at a period of crisis in their life. It's simply not a time when they should be expected to parse information that's as clear as mud to begin with.

This is pretty much how I feel about it too.

The PSA, BACP and NCS's responses to this issue

I wrote the following to the PSA:

I wrote a blog post in February 2015 where I asked the PSA for their response to the fact that there is a lot of confusion around the word accreditation in the counselling and psychotherapy profession. There is a substantial amount of confusion amongst professionals too would appear from various online discussion groups. 

I was told by the PSA back in Feb 2015 that they would be working on clearing up the confusion and I would like to have an update on this as it still an issue. I have been involved in a discussion only today on a counselling practitioner's forum.

They responded within 5 days:

Thank you for your enquiry regarding usage of the term ‘accreditation’. Since your blog post of February 2015, we have updated one of our Standards, specifically Standard 9e, which states that the organisation must ‘make its education and training standards explicit and easily accessible to the public to enable all those using the register to make informed decisions’. The assessment of this additional Standard started in April 2016 for both new applicants and existing Accredited Registers submitting their annual review of accreditation.

When registers are first accredited, we provide them with a communications toolkit with clear guidance on how to share information on their new accreditation status with the public. In this, we ask that they make it clear that it is they, the organisation, which is accredited and not their individual members (which distinguishes it from the BACP’s system of accreditation, for example).

We are aware that the terms ‘accredited’ and ‘accreditation’ are both widely used in healthcare as well as many other professional and public sectors. We addressed this in our original formal consultation and it was agreed that this was still the best descriptor for the programme.

I then wrote the the BACP and the NCS as follows:

When I applied for BACP Accredited status 2 years ago I was unsure about whether it was worth it with the ARs in place although decided to proceed for the professional development and personal validation that the process entails i.e. the self-reflective essays and defining of my approach. BACP Accreditation has also been nationally recognised as a mark of a particular level of experience (3yrs post qualifying and 450+ hours)

There is much confusion between therapists about the value of BACP Accredited member status. Added to that we have the National Counselling Society's Accredited member status that, as far as I can, requires significantly less experience and written work to apply for. I have seen numerous arguments on therapist forums where some believe that NCS Accred status is the same thing as BACP Accred status. NCS therapists seem to express concern that BACP therapists think that they are somehow better than NCS therapists if they point out the difference in criteria and BACP therapists are perturbed by the perception that their Accredited status is potentially being devalued in some way by it being stated that they are like for like. I can appreciate both view points.

This is all secondary though to the main issue, whichever emotions are provoked within (and without) the profession, which is that since the creation of the Accredited Registers we now have a confusing situation around the use of the word accredited which as far as I am aware, is not being addressed by the BACP, NCS or PSA.

I wrote to the BACP on 1st June and after some chasing up I received an apology for the delay in replying along with a response on 19th July from Helen Coles, Head of Professional Standards:

We agree that there is confusion as the same or similar titles are used for professional counsellors/psychotherapists in different contexts by different organisations.  To some extent such confusion is inevitable given the small number of words to indicate similar professional statuses. `Accreditation’ and `Registration’ are not protected titles.  What this means in practice is that any organisation can use them as a descriptor.  As well as BACP  and NCS there is UKCP’s registered status (as distinct from being on UKCP’s PSA Register) and NCP and BABCP use their own terminologies.  Perhaps I should also point out that counselling is not the only industry (accountancy is another) served by a number of professional bodies.

BACP is working more closely with other therapy bodies, including UKCP, which provide fora for addressing such confusions.  We also have regular contact with the PSA and were heavily involved in discussions about setting up the Registers.  However it is important to recognise that other therapy bodies and the PSA are all independent organisations, making independent choices about the choice of titles to reflect different statuses and in the case of the PSA, using the word ‘accredited’ to describe the Register programme.  BACP is always willing to meet other bodies and discuss such issues, while recognising it can influence, but not order.

As BACP it isn’t appropriate for us to comment on the quality (or not) of the schemes of other therapy bodies.  The requirements for PSA registers are well publicised, enabling people to make their own judgment on quality.  We would never encourage members (accredited or otherwise) to imply that members of some other professional counselling/psychotherapy bodies are of a different standard, but that does not negate our pride in our Accredited Members.

We are proud of the quality of BACP’s Accredited members and the BACP Accreditation scheme. A well-established, longstanding scheme, its quality is recognised by therapists, government, the NHS, employee assistance programmes and a wide range of counselling employers.  The requirements of the scheme are well publicised, as is guidance on making applications, allowing all to form their own judgment about its worth.  The demand for accreditation by counsellors and psychotherapists is steady.  Because of this wide recognition as a quality kitemark we would be reluctant to have no current plans to  change the title.

I wrote to the NCS somewhat later on 1st August and received a response from their interim CEO, Jenny Parker on 16th August:

Thank you for your email and apologies for the delay getting back to you. The Society is restructuring our membership grades at the moment, and the standards of registration and accreditation will change in 2017.  Accordingly there is little point in our answering your queries until these changes have taken effect.

This is a new and interesting development and I do wonder whether they will be looking to bring their level of accredited status more in line with the requirements of the BACP.

Further opinions

Roslyn Byfield, a BACP Accredited counsellor working in Central London, also has concerns around the use of the word accreditation in the profession:

The BACP Ethical Framework is clear that adherents must not misrepresent themselves or their qualifications - a no-brainer, you could think, as this would constitute dishonesty, the opposite of what counselling and therapy stand for.

But unintentionally or otherwise, this could be happening due to widespread confusion about qualifications terminology. It could be argued that professional and standards bodies have been short-sighted in not anticipating the confusion which could arise between being an accredited member of an organisation and being on an accredited register (but not personally accredited). Since it’s well-known that there is still public confusion as to the roles of and differences between a psychotherapist, psychologist and psychiatrist, it follows that there is potential for more confusion when it comes down to the detail of levels of qualification.

Recent exchanges on counselling forums have shown that some practitioners are suggesting they are ‘accredited’ when, in fact, some are on the BACP register (accredited by the Professional Standards Authority) as a registrant or they are ‘accredited’ by the relatively new body, the National Counselling Society, the requirements of which are not comparable with BACP accreditation. Understandably, those who have gone through the rigours of BACP accreditation do not wish their qualification to be confused with one which is not comparable in terms of work, learning and reflection required. In addition some Senior Accredited BACP practitioners are aggrieved that the register icons, which since March 2016 must be included in practitioners’ websites and literature, do not include one for the senior accredited category (the two are for BACP registered and BACP registered and accredited).

This situation could easily result in some practitioners telling clients and potential employers that they are ‘accredited’, when in fact that is not the BACP accreditation which would be assumed by many.

To make the provisions of the Ethical Framework meaningful, BACP and other relevant organisations including the NCS should take steps to clarify this situation and issue advice to members and the public to prevent such confusion arising. BACP could also produce a third icon, which Senior Accredited practitioners could use in their marketing materials. If this situation continues unaddressed, it risks bringing the Ethical Framework and the profession into disrepute.

And finally, I requested some input from peer Patrick Killeen, a philosopher trained in counselling skills who has contributed to this blog before.

The British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) has a strange quirk in the way it uses the word “accredited” that can be summed up in one sentence.  You don’t have to be an “Accredited Member” of the BACP to be an accredited member of the BACP.  This anomaly stems from the difference between the standard English meaning of “accredited” and the jargonistic way that word is used within the BACP.

According to Google “accredit” means to “give authority or sanction to (someone or something) when recognized standards have been met”. The BACP have a register of counsellors and psychotherapists which they say is “a public record of therapists who have met our standards for registration” [http://www.bacpregister.org.uk]. So by including someone on their register the BACP are literally accrediting them.

However, they don’t include Registered Membership in their so-call “accreditation” programme, instead they refer only to “Accredited Membership” and “Senior Accredited Membership”.  They clarify the situation by saying “BACP accreditation is a quality standard for the mature, experienced practitioner who can demonstrate high standards of competent and ethical practice” (my emphasis) [http://www.bacp.co.uk/accreditation/Individual%20Practitioners].  So “Registered Membership” accredits all counsellors including the newly qualified, while “Accredited Membership” and “Senior Accredited Membership” only accredits experienced counsellors.

This idiosyncratic use of the word “accredit” has become an issue recently because the BACP’s register has itself been accredited by another organisations, the Professional Standards Authority (PSA), and so anyone on the BACP register can now say that they are a member of the BACP’s Accredited Register, even though they may not be an Accredited Member of the BACP.  A state of affairs that some might find more than a little confusing (even though the underlying situation is quite straight forward: registered members are accredited by the BACP and the BACP’s register is in turn accredited by the PSA).  

The BACP could clear this up by renaming the membership categories to make their use of the word “accredited” more consistent with standard English, for example by renaming “Accredited Member” as “Accredited Experienced Member”; but that would stir up a lot of trouble among their members.  For years there has been a strong cultural expectation within the BACP to become an “Accredited Member” as soon as possible after joining.  They never had a rule saying you must do so, but by withholding the word “accredited” and the public acknowledgement that goes with it they were able to get a high uptake of their “accreditation” scheme without the messy business of making and enforcing official rules.  There’s no way for the BACP to resolve the “accreditation” ambiguity without admitting explicitly that (although it is worth it for its own sake) members don’t, and never did, actually have to become “Accredited Members”.

If you have any comments regarding this please comment below. These things get discussed on Twitter and Facebook forums and the arguments therefore get strewn about. The organisations mentioned above will read the comments here so please comment here if you want to be heard.

(2) http://www.nationalcounsellingsociety.org/join/criteria/levels/  
(NB This link no longer work as checked on January 2024)

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