Post-qualification paths to expertise

The continuing professional development (CPD) of counsellors and psychotherapists has been researched and theorised by a number of writers.1–4 In differing ways, they all view counsellor development as leading ultimately to the emergence of a new, individualised, creative way of being. However this maturation process is dependent on counsellors’ continuing ability to access certain learning resources. The research summarised here, which was funded by a BACP seed-corn grant, sought to map counsellors’ post-qualification learning opportunities.

Our research drew on literature from the fields of education and sociology, and also business management, which theorises workplace learning. This literature acknowledges the importance of ‘situated’ learning – that is, learning through context-specific problem solving. It recognises that opportunities for such learning may be formal (as in the case of workshops or meetings) and also incidental and informal (as when colleagues chat during tea breaks).

One particularly influential body of theory with evident relevance to counselling is Lave and Wenger’s ‘community of practice’.5 This model stresses the need for novice workers (referred to as ‘newcomers’ or ‘apprentices’) to take on suitably graded levels of work in the company of more experienced colleagues (‘journeymen’ or ‘improvers’), as well as acknowledged workplace experts (‘craft masters’ or ‘old-timers’). This learning process, which is guided by the senior practitioners, is called ‘legitimate peripheral participation’.

There are obvious analogies between this apprenticeship model and early counsellor development. While in training, counsellors will be on placements in which the numbers of clients with whom they work are strictly limited and assessments are carried out to ensure that client presentations are ones that they can safely handle. With the more experienced counsellors they have opportunities to ask questions and learn from the experience of others; when they meet with their tutors and clinical supervisors they are being guided by ‘craft-masters’. However, this safety net of support is removed once they have qualified to practise.

We carried out semi-structured interviews with 26 qualified counsellors with varying levels of work experience and theoretical allegiances. They practised in a wide range of settings, including student counselling services, employee assistance programmes (EAPs), agencies run by local and national charities, Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) services, drug and alcohol services and private practice. Many had ‘portfolio careers’6 and worked in more than one setting. Most commonly, they combined part-time employment or voluntary work with part-time private practice.