In terms of formal national professional standards and competence profiles, educational counselling and adult eduation are the poor relations of career and employment counselling. In five of the six the GOAL countries (all except Iceland), educational counselling lags behind career counselling in terms of professional recognition and standards; this may stem from the lower status afforded to adult education and/or from a lack of clarity over where responsibility for developing employment criteria and standards lies. In these countries some competence standards are in place for adult guidance professionals but at an institutional level rather than a national level and primarily in the sense of defining the job role of those in employment or being recruited. One impact of the lack of recognised standards is that it is harder to get training. The onus is on the individual practitioner, or the practitioner manager, to further their own professional development. Only in Iceland do eduational counsellors require a licence to practise and only there are the competences of educational counsellors formally defined.
Each of the six countries defined the key competences needed to provide educational counselling to their GOAL target groups within their own national contexts. Countries were in general agreement regarding the key domains in which counsellors should be competent in order to provide high quality counselling to low-educated adults. These domains were:
- The knowledge domain of the adult education sector, the clients, and the job market
- The guidance competences domain
- The communication and interpersonal competences domain.
The work carried out by the project teams on this intervention strategy demonstrated that the competences counselling professionals require to deliver eduational guidance, especially to low-educated adults, differ from those required in career counselling, although the latter do provide a good foundation to work from. Counsellors working with low-educated adults require a diverse knowledge base so that they are able to provide information not only on educational and training opportunities, but also on the range of services and supports that may be able to help vulnerable adults or those with complex lives. Those working with low -ducated adults require the guidance counselling skills that enable them to support a diverse body of clients over a relatively long counselling journey on which there are likely to be a number of hurdles to overcome on the way – and, in many cases, a number of stumbles. In this regard, it is not only clients but also counsellors who require persistence. Counsellors working with low-educated adults require particular communication and interpersonal skills as the characteristics of the target group mean there may be more personal coaching required of counsellors than is typical in educational and vocational guidance. Counsellors need good communication skills and cultural sensitivity; they also need to be able to maintain professional boundaries.
The GOAL counsellors had on average seven years of experience in the field across the countries (with the exception of the Netherlands, where staffing was handled differently). In the two years before they were surveyed (in Spring 2016) most GOAL counsellors also had opportunities to develop their skills in CPD courses. Thus despite structural professional standards, the pre-programme environment can be characterised as one where counselling staff were qualified, experienced and had a least some organised opportunities to improve their skills base. The conclusion one can infer from this is that while professionalisation is to be desired it does not appear to be necessary so long as there are rich opportunities for informal workplace learning and career development.
On the GOAL project itself, counsellors had further opportunities for skills improvement, and this aspect of the intervention strategy was generally successful. The drivers of this competence improvement were having a supportive workplace environment where learning can happen on the job and through informal means including peer exchange, and having the opportunity to learn from partner organisations and others in the network that serve the client group. Some learning did happen through external training but the opportunities and resources for this were small.
In improving their competences, GOAL staff were generally successful and there was a very high degree of client satisfaction with the service received (97% of clients were satisfied across the six countries). This said, the challenges counsellors and others in the programme teams faced on this intervention strategy were considerable, and not always overcome. Although counsellors made large improvements to their knowledge and skills are working with a vulnerable target group while retaining professional boundaries, not all clients could be supported to a successful outcome. No work on improving skills could address the challenge presented by the fact that counsellors often had little or no administrative support in their role, and that this role involved many more duties than counselling alone. Lack of time combined with lack of resources meant that opportunities for training and professional development were limited. This situation was exacerbated by the lack of policy support for adult educational guidance as a profession.