Counselling Study Routes
Aimed at students of – or people thinking of training in – counselling, this article explains the levels at which counselling training is offered in the UK, and highlights important points to consider when choosing a course.
For those who are considering training in other psychological therapies, including psychotherapy and counselling psychology, the ‘Resources’ section at the end signposts you to information about these careers.
Levels of Training
England, Northern Ireland and Wales
All educational courses in England and Northern Ireland can be mapped to the Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF), which goes from entry level to level 8 courses. In Wales, the Credit and Qualifications Framework for Wales (CQFW) is used, with the same levels as the RQF. The government publishes a long list of examples of course types at each of these levels.
Counselling training most commonly falls within levels 2 to 7:
- Level 2 – equivalent to GCSE level
- Level 3 – equivalent to A level
- Level 4 – equivalent to first-year bachelor’s degree level
- Level 5 – equivalent to second-year bachelor’s degree level (foundation degree)
- Level 6 – equivalent to third-year bachelor’s degree level (honours degree)
- Level 7 – master’s degree level.
Level 4 is the minimum level at which professional bodies for counsellors – e.g. the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) and the National Counselling Society (NCS) – recognise qualified members. (You can also join as a student member, during the later stages of training.)
In Scotland, the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) applies. The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) publishes a table that shows how the levels in Scotland relate to the levels in England, Norther Ireland and Wales.
Universities have the authority to award their own qualifications, while other types of educational institution (such as colleges) don’t. Colleges therefore use a separate awarding body (e.g. CPCAB; Skills & Education Group, previously known as ABC; and NCFE) for their qualifications.
Note: The levels referred to in the rest of this article are those used in England, Northern Ireland and Wales. The professional body Counselling & Psychotherapy in Scotland (COSCA) publishes information on pathways to becoming a counsellor/psychotherapist in Scotland.
Factors to Consider
There is no one best path through counselling training. Different options suit different people, but some of the factors you will need to consider include:
- your existing qualifications
- your availability
- your ability to travel
- your budget
- your career aspirations.
These factors are discussed in the sections that follow.
Your Existing Qualifications
Level 2 courses are generally open to people of any level of education, and you can then progress to Level 3 on successful completion of Level 2. Progression from there to Level 4 courses and higher is likely to require students to have evidence of GCSE-level skills in Maths and English – but the institution can usually help you demonstrate this using their own assessments, and provide support to help you with these.
Having, for example, a higher-level qualification in psychology or social work does not automatically mean you can join a practitioner-level course (i.e. at Level 4 or higher). Counselling training is unique and distinctly different from training in other disciplines.
Also, even if you find it is possible to skip lower-level training stages (e.g. doing a master’s in counselling if you already have a bachelor’s degree) doesn’t mean that this is necessarily the best thing to do for you, so do keep an open mind and ‘shop around’, looking at all options before making a decision. Counselling is a very different subject – and involves a very different way of learning – from traditional academic subjects.
The vast majority of counselling courses are part-time, but they vary in terms of which part of the day/evening they are held, and on which day(s) of the week; they may also be delivered weekly or (less commonly) in periodic blocks.
The amount of time that you need to allow each week for your studies depends on the level. For example, Level 2 and 3 courses are typically delivered in one morning, afternoon or evening a week, while Level 4 courses usually involve nearer to a full day of contact time each week. This is usually (but not always) in termtime only. Of course, you also need to allow time for reading and assignments (at all stages) and for your placement hours, supervision and personal therapy (at the final stage of training).
The institution offering the course – and the awarding body, if the institution is not a university – will be able to provide information on the approximate time commitment.
Your Ability to Travel
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, many institutions are offering part of their tuition online but counselling courses by nature require some in-person contact. This is known as ‘blended learning’ – the ratio of blended to in-person time may vary between levels. awarding bodies and providers. For example, CPCAB sets the following requirements for its centres (though some centres may choose to provide a greater proportion of in-person contact):
- Level 2 and 3 courses can be delivered fully online (so long as this is synchronous, e.g. live lessons on Zoom, thus allowing for skills practice).
- Level 4 courses need to have a minimum of 75% of face-to-face teaching.
- The new young people’s counselling qualification requires at least 50% face-to-face contact.
- Level 5 and 6 courses can be taught fully online.
Finding an institution that is convenient to get to is of course important if you will be travelling there regularly. It can be tempting to think you’ll be fine to travel a long way, but this could become very tiring if, for example, you are doing it every week after a long day at work, including on dark, cold nights.
Don’t forget too to check parking options and costs (if you will be driving) and/or the frequency of public-transport options at the time of day/evening you will need to be there.
Prices for courses can vary quite a lot between institutions, as can the level and accessibility of any financial support that may be available to help you. Since the possible financial support changes frequently, this article doesn’t refer to specific options on this, but each college/university will give you information on what is available there. They may well have a team that specialises in advising students on finance.
In general, financial support is more likely to take the form of a loan than a grant, but loans usually don’t have to be paid back until you have finished your course and are earning a certain amount. At degree level, it’s also usual not to be able to get financial support (even as a loan) if you have already received this for a qualification at the same level in the past. This is one of the reasons why someone with an existing degree may choose to qualify at Level 4 rather than doing another degree of the same level: they would have to pay for the degree in full themselves as they went along, and this would generally cost much more than a Level 4 course.
Course fees are the most obvious element of cost in counselling training, but there are other costs to factor in, including the following:
- Residentials – some courses will include residential elements and these may be charged separately from the main course fees.
- Travel – remember to budget not only for getting to the college/university but also for transport to placements at the final stage of training.
- Books and stationery – bigger and public-sector colleges will likely have their own library, but there are not always enough books for all students at the same time. Smaller colleges and those under private ownership may not have a library.
- Care costs – for students who have young children or other dependants, care may be another cost to take account of in the total.
- Insurance and professional-body membership – once you are working with clients (at the final stage of training), you will need to have personal indemnity insurance in place; your course provider and/or placement organisation may also require you to be a student member of a professional body for counselling and psychotherapy (e.g. BACP or NCS).
- Clinical supervision – once you are in placement, you will need regular clinical supervision (which may be funded by the placement organisation, but is more likely to be up to you to pay for)
- Personal therapy – most final-stage counselling courses (and a few earlier-stage ones) require students to have personal therapy (as a way to experience being the client in the therapeutic relationship, and to deepen their self-awareness and extend their personal development). This is generally at the student’s own cost. The number of hours required can vary greatly between providers, which obviously influences the total cost.
Your Career Aspirations
Counselling skills are highly relevant to many roles and to many aspects of personal life too. Hence, not everyone taking counselling courses necessarily aspires to work as a counsellor. It could be that you will use your new counselling skills in your existing role – or maybe you’ve spotted another type of role that a counselling qualification would help you get into.
If, for example, the role you want needs a Level 3 counselling qualification, then it may not be the best use of your time and money to sign up to a degree-level course. Similarly, if you’re unsure whether or not you may wish to work as a counsellor in future, taking the Level 2 > Level 3 > Level 4 route gives you choices to ‘step off’ with a useful qualification at various points if you later on a different role.
Have a look at adverts for the kind of jobs you think you want: the person specification should then tell you what qualifications the employer would expect. The level of qualifications expected for employed counselling positions seems generally to be increasing – and this may be affected by the SCoPEd project (covered in Counselling Tutor’s BACP and NCS podcast special editions) – but many employers accept Level 4, including the NHS for some counselling roles.
Many counsellors choose not to be employed, instead working in private practice. Level 4 is the minimum qualification needed for this.
Other Important Considerations
Placement Hours and Clinical Supervision
While counselling is not a ‘protected title’ in the UK – that is, in theory anyone can call themselves a counsellor and charge members of the public for their services – it is generally considered good ethical practice to be qualified (at a minimum of Level 4) via a course where the final stage contains a minimum of 100 client hours under clinical supervision as part of a placement in an agency or a clinical setting.
There are many ‘lightweight’ counselling courses that you can do online without the above placement hours and supervision, but (despite some of their marketing claims) it will be difficult – and, most importantly, unethical – to work as a counsellor afterwards.
Without placement hours and clinical supervision, you will not be able to get employed work as a counsellor or join a professional body that is recognised by the Accredited Registers Programme of the Professional Standards Authority (PSA). You can check online, using the PSA’s Find an accredited register page, whether a particular professional body is recognised.
Most employers of counsellors require membership of a recognised professional body, since this evidences a minimum level of initial training, continuing professional development and clinical supervision. Members of a recognised professional body also commit to following its code of ethical practice.
You may come across other ‘professional bodies’ (often created by providers of ‘lightweight’ counselling courses as a way of trying to make their courses appear to lead to a more solid career path) but if they don’t appear on the PSA’s register, they won’t be recognised by employers.
Some courses are accredited by the BACP, but all this means is that students who successfully complete that course are exempt from the BACP’s Certificate of Proficiency. The latter is an online multiple-choice test, which is free of charge to BACP members.
If you don’t wish to belong to the BACP (e.g. if you decide you would rather join the NCS), then you don’t need to do this test: it relates purely to BACP membership.
Free Handout Download
Careers in Counselling and Psychotherapy
Useful Web Links
Association of Christian Counsellors (ACC): https://www.acc-uk.org/become-a-counsellor/so-you-think-you-want-to-become-a-counsellor.html
Counselling and Psychotherapy in Scotland (COSCA): https://www.cosca.org.uk/our-services/find-training-course/training-pathways
Association of Child Psychotherapists (ACP): https://childpsychotherapy.org.uk/training-events-0/how-train-child-and-adolescent-psychotherapist
British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP)*: https://babcp.com/Careers/Careers
British Psychoanalytic Council (BPC): https://www.bpc.org.uk/training/
UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP): https://www.psychotherapy.org.uk/psychotherapy-training/
British Psychological Society*: https://www.bps.org.uk/find-your-career-psychology
Other psychological therapies
British Association of Play Therapists (BAPT): https://www.bapt.info/play-therapy/play-therapy-training/
Play Therapy UK (PTUK): https://playtherapy.org.uk/training/
University of Worcester’s guide to careers in counselling and psychotherapy: https://www2.worc.ac.uk/careers/documents/Careers_counselling.pdf
* At the time of writing, the BABCP and BPS have applied for – but not yet been accepted by – the PSA’s Accredited Registers Programme.
Resource created: 21 January 2022