The Mania for Certification

By Aidan Moloney

A Spiritual Degree

One day during a workshop I escaped to take a stroll through the building where it 
was taking place. The primary purpose for the building was as a seminary and the 
order still lived and worked there. They had a beautiful small chapel that just to sit
 in it calmed and soothed one’s anxiety. I sat for a while and absorbed its calmness 
and then proceeded to investigate further. I have a fondness for long wide corridors
 and this building had them in abundance. As I walked them I began to notice what
 was on the corridor walls. At one stage there were notices for the young seminarians 
that included the results of their examinations. I was stunned to see that they were 
awarding degrees and diplomas in Spirituality. One person had achieved first class
 honours in Spirituality and another second class and god forbid, others only acquired
 third class honours in the subject. I felt there was something wrong with the
 concept of examining and certifying Spirituality in such a manner. I could say right 
away that the first class honours in Spirituality might not turn out to be more 
spiritual than the third class. When I tried to imagine the assessment procedure I
 thought of the meditation exam. We could measure the time by the clock but how
 does one ascertain the quality or the degree of difficulty? Maybe there was the 
sitting test, the more difficult kneeling test and the ultimate bed of nails test. Just 
then I heard the bell calling me to return to the workshop and I forgot all about it 
until now.


Currently Psychotherapy and Counselling have an obsession with certification, 
accreditation and standards. The obsession is not limited to Psychotherapy and
 Counselling because certification and standards are endemic to professions and 
outbreaks can occur for a variety of reasons.

The origins of the current outbreak are varied.There are at least three drives

  • The EU
  • A new developing profession
  • The risk of professional involvement in or in areas connected to 
prominent scandals.


For administrative purposes the EU empire seeks to have uniformity across all 
members with regard to disciplines, professions and skills. Every single programme
 supported by EU money receives bonus points if accreditation and certification are 
one of its outcomes.

This interest derives from the Treaty of Rome (1957), which established the
 European Community and provided that a citizen of any Member State should
 be free to work, seek work, set up business or provide services anywhere in the community. The Single European Act (1985) defined the single market as “an
 area without internal frontiers in which the free movement of goods, persons and
 services is ensured.

However, although it has been illegal to discriminate on grounds of nationality, 
there was originally no requirement to recognise qualifications in other Member
 States. Lack of recognition of qualifications has been a barrier to the free
 movement of labour. Where the exercise of an occupation is regulated in some 
way by law or administrative rules, the European Council of Ministers issued 
Directives on mutual recognition. Where employers, despite the lack of formal
 regulation, are only likely to employ those whose qualifications they know and
 recognise, the approach has been to improve the “transparency” of information on 

While all bureaucracies have a natural inclination to standardise everything that they 
have to administer, the EU has a particularly virulent form of the disease. One only 
has to think of the fate of the poor banana which the EU bureaucrats decided could 
only retain its identity if it straightened itself and gave up the curves. Chicken giblets
 received a similar treatment. They could only be validly sold if they were put in 
plastic bags inside the chicken carcass. I could go on and on. It is tempting to 
ascribe the particular form of the obsession prevailing in the EU bureaucracy as
 being Germanic in origin. In Germany standardisation, accreditation and
 certification have developed into a form of occupational arteriosclerosis.

But in the case of Psychotherapy and Counselling it is probably the British form of
 the disease that the Irish are most likely to acquire – National Vocational 

National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ)

Criteria for National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ) in England, Wales and Northern 
Ireland are set by the National Council for Vocational Qualifications (NCVQ) 
established in 1986. NCVQ require an NVQ to be a statement of competence which
 recognises the ability to use skills and apply knowledge within the context defined
 by the qualification. Candidates are able to qualify for NVQs by accumulating units
 of competence.


Standards are based on the needs of employment and embody the skills and
 knowledge, and the level of performance relevant to the work activity. They form
 the prime focus of training and the basis of vocational qualifications.


Competence is defined as the ability to perform the activities within an occupation 
or function to the standards expected in employment. A candidate’s competence is 
evaluated by a test or exercise that assesses whether or not he/she has reached the standards specified. Competence is a wide concept which embodies the ability to 
transfer skills and knowledge to new situations within the occupational area. It
 encompasses organization and planning of work, innovation and coping with non
-routine activities. It includes those qualities of personal effectiveness that are 
required in the workplace to deal with co-workers, managers and clients.

Developing standards for a particular occupational area is equivalent to developing
 an operational definition of competence in that area. This is done by deriving a set of individual elements of competence and their associated performance criteria. An 
element of competence describes what can be done; an action, behaviour or
 outcome which a person should be able to demonstrate Each element of competence has associated performance criteria which define the expected level of

A unit of competence is made up of a number of elements of competence (with associated performance criteria) which together make sense to and are valued by, employers so that they warrant separate accreditation. Qualifications are normally 
made up of a number of related units which together comprise a statement of
 competence relevant to an occupation.

To illustrate some elements of the process, a unit entitled “Identifying and Applying
 Concepts” within a Personal Competency Model for managers (but which could
 equally apply to therapists or counsellors) is presented below.

Identifying and Applying Concepts ³

“Identifying and Applying Concepts” is a subcategory of a higher order category
 entitled “Using Intellect to Optimise Results” which must describe what we do every
day. The unit has a list of associated behaviours;

Analysing relationships

1. Identify patterns or meaning from factors which are not obviously related.
2. Distinguish cause and effect relationships in situations.
3. Differentiate key issues from irrelevant or secondary factors.
 (This includes establishing relationships between elements.)
Generating models

4. Build a total and valid picture from restricted or incomplete data
5. Produce own ideas or theories from experience and practice
Making use of different perspectiives

6. Reconcile and make use of a variety of perspectives when making sense of
 a situation.
7. Check logic of own thought processes with others.

Once the behaviours have been listed then the evidence needed to demonstrate 
these and under what conditions the performance must take place (the 
performance criteria) is specified.

Distinguishing Marks

A new developing profession lacks self-confidence and seeks to acquire it by 
exclusion and self promotion. The urge to form associations is endemic. The need
 for a constitution, a code of ethics are de rigeur to legitimise oneself. We all get
 together in a room and decide to accredit ourselves in a rush of self-congratulation.
 Those who are not in must satisfy the requirements of admission and apply to join
 the club. This is of course all for the protection of the client. Then there are the
 complaints procedure and the appeals procedure. What should we include in the 
code of ethics?

An analysis of the ethical codes of the leading professional bodies revealed a number
 of common key standards. These are listed below;

“It is expected that a member of the profession will….
– earn and retain the trust of the client
– take due care of the client and his/her interest
– exercise reasonable competence in applying knowledge/skills on the
 client’s behalf
– act safely
– maintain confidentiality (unless this would be unlawful or quite 
– act honestly and with integrity towards the client and others
– always retain his/her professional independence and thus act
– exercise due diligence in pursuit of the client’s interests
– be aware of duties to the community at large as well as to the client
– avoid undertaking work which is out of his/her depth, including – seeking 
a second opinion, where appropriate
– never seek to exploit clients financially, sexually, emotionally etc.
– follow established (clinical/others) procedures, seek advice from a senior 
colleague when confronted by an apparent conflict of duties
– operate within the law at all times
– ensure that he/she is professionally indemnified against possible claims 
of negligence².

However the fortifications to keep us on the moral high ground fail to distinguish us
 from anybody else. We could be lawyers (Ouch!), doctors, social workers, managers 

I remember when I received my NLP training from John Grinder NLP practitioners 
had just formed an association to regulate, certify and accredit all those who aspired 
to practice. John Grinder was informed by the new Association that graduates of his 
training would require accreditation from the Association and that he as a trainer
 would be accredited and endorsed by them. I can still see the enigmatic look on his 
face when he informed us and I realised I was a in a timewarp in a parallel universe
 where the founder had been preceded by his disciples who wished to certify and 
accredit him. But maybe that’s a conundrum all disciples present to their founder


How do we assess ethical behaviour?

During the timescale of gaining a qualification a person is unlikely to confront 
many ethical problems and successful demonstration of ethical competence today 
is no guarantee that the individual will continue to behave ethically tomorrow 
let alone next year. Consequently assessors should at least take into account 
several sources of evidence as to the best way to get a fair impression of the 
individual’s standing on this matter.(4)

My dad was a great believer in education, mostly because he thought he didn’t have 
enough himself. Education was the solution to all our problems and I was expected 
to absorb it by the bucketful. There was one thing that shook his faith. He was
 always puzzled when someone who had acquired a university education was guilty 
of criminal or immoral behaviour. No matter how often I told him that qualifications
 do not guarantee ethical or moral behaviour, I can still see the perplexed look on his
 face because he believed that training and education built character. However I have 
yet to encounter a process that guarantees a moral character. The contemporary
 scene is littered with examples of processes that claim to do so failing completely
 to detect the most immoral behaviour. So we should be clear that standards,
 certification and accreditation in the forms they are currently presented relate to 
skills and are no guarantee of how those skills are used and for what purpose. In so 
far as they create the illusion of a guarantee of professional integrity they weaken 
the client’s responsibility to take care and be discerning.

Listening to the radio recently I heard a man assert that the psychics working in his
 centre were all certified and I knew that I could have confidence in consulting them
 when I next needed to know about my future. So not only has Spirituality been 
certified but so has Spiritualism. When I walk into a consulting room and I see all the
 framed certificates I wonder should I do like the man in the restaurant and eat the


1. Twininig, John, Vocational Qualifications – the European Dimension, Competence and Assessment, Issue 27,
 Employment Department, Pendragon Press, November 1994, p.16.

2. Edmonds, Tim, & Melanie The, Personal Competence Where does it fit in? Competence and Assessment.
 Issue 13, Employment Department, 1990, p.6.

3 Fennel Edward, Ethics in the Workplace: The Rights and Wrongs of Developing Occupational Standards,
 Competence and Assessment. Issue 27, Employment Department, Pendragon Press, November 1994, p. 2

4. ibid, p.4