Throughout North America, school and guidance counsellors have been essential professional resources in helping students cope with the many issues that they face. These issues often take the form of a career choice, opting for the right apprenticeship or post-secondary program, or problems related to stress and or other psychological challenges. For decades, the role of school counsellors has been filled by certified teachers. However, with the evolution of knowledge and the complexity of today’s school reality, more and more North American jurisdictions require that school counsellors hold a master’s in areas related to counselling psychology and/or school counselling.
Indeed, an overwhelming percentage of American jurisdictions (93%) require that their school counsellors hold at least a master’s in a counselling-related area. However in Canada, only New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Québec impose the same requirement. In Ontario in particular, school counsellors are required to be certified teachers and it is recommended that they complete three additional qualification (AQ) courses.
These AQ courses are in essence the equivalent of three undergraduate courses. By contrast, in Quebec, school counsellors need a specialized bachelor’s degree as well as a master’s degree. These degrees together must entail 32 courses (or 96 credits) in areas directly related to career counselling. In other words, when compared to the majority of North American jurisdictions, school counsellors in Ontario are underqualified.
The limited educational training required to become a school counsellor in Ontario has been the subject of several criticisms within the realm of academia and international organizations. For example, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has underlined the limited training of school counsellors in Ontario in two separate reports. In their first report, published in 2002, the OECD highlighted that school counsellors working in the vast majority of Canadian provinces, including Ontario, not only lacked sufficient training but also were weakly professionalized and typically trained in areas other than career counselling. Similarly, in a second report published in 2004, the OECD underlined that the training and competencies required to fulfill the role of school counsellors in Ontario were imprecise and variable.
Unfortunately, since the publication of these reports, the situation in Ontario has not improved by any significant degree. In research published in 2010, Patrick Keats and Daniel Laitsch noted that Ontario school counsellors are usually teachers with very limited training in counselling. Results of more recent research, published in 2018 and conducted by a team of professors from four different Canadian universities (including Dr. André Samson, co-author of this article), show that some Ontario school counsellors perceive themselves as incompetent due to a lack of knowledge. This knowledge discrepancy encompasses domains such as:
- vocational development
- tests and measurement
- mastery of the use of specific theories and approaches in counselling
- psychology of human development
- psychopathology and mental health
- use of career models to facilitate decision making
Above all, Ontario teachers in the process of becoming school counsellors are not required to complete supervised clinical training – an essential component of all counsellor education. These researchers also noted that school counsellors in Ontario spend as much 40% of their time on tasks often unrelated to their professional position, such as organizing graduation ceremonies, managing student files and performing other tasks required by the school administration.
Because school and guidance counsellors in Ontario are not equipped with sufficient knowledge in their area, they often rely on their intuition and personal experiences to provide counselling-related services. Research published in 2015 indicates that counsellors working in Ontario high schools usually operate without a theoretical framework and a strong clinical background. As a consequence, school counsellors may not be equipped with an objective frame of reference to question the appropriateness of the role the school system demands of them. This could explain the fact that an important percentage of their daily tasks are unrelated to career counselling.
This reality is not without real risks or consequences. There are potential dangers of having teachers-turned-counsellors administering counselling services. Indeed, Keats and Laitsch (2010) also expressed concern about students receiving poorly delivered mental health services due to improper training of service providers. That research also suggested that school and guidance counsellor interventions are often dictated by their personal feelings of competence rather than the real needs of their students. In other words, there is a possibility that counselling interventions do not always take into account students’ individual situations.
Rather, school and guidance counsellors in Ontario tend to use the same kinds of interventions for all students, regardless of their particular needs. As an example, career counselling in this context is usually limited to information about post-secondary education programs and job markets. Another consequence of this kind of practice is that school and guidance counselling can vary greatly from school to school depending on the competence of individual counsellors, resulting in a lack of standardized services across the province.
With all of this being said, we have to consider the realities of present day and recognized that school counsellors are dealing with very complex and serious issues. According to Boak et al, mental health crises are increasingly affecting our high-school student body, with approximately 34% of Ontario high school students reporting moderate-to-serious levels of psychological distress. School counsellors are relied upon to help their students manage these sorts of crises, leaving little time for other responsibilities normally required of the position. From our point of view, the psychological needs of students could be the responsibility of trained professionals in the field of psychotherapy. This would make the Ontario school system more respectful of the legal requirements of Psychotherapy Act, 2007 enacted by the Parliament of Ontario.
The arrival of psychotherapists in the school system – who are required to be a member of the College of Psychotherapists of Ontario – would allow school counsellors to solely focus on career counselling. In addition, systemic changes are needed for our students to receive proper, evidence-based services with regards to career counselling. Such changes need to begin with the development of standardized core competencies that must be acquired by all prospective school counsellors. These core competencies should reflect those that are already required by the American School Counselling Association (ASCA) and the International Association of Educational and Vocational Guidance (IAEVG). Finally, the College of Teachers of Ontario must require that their members seeking to become school counsellors hold a master’s degree in the field of counselling psychology or school counselling, bringing us on par with most of the North American jurisdictions.