Diploma of Counselling & Group Work for Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Students

Knowledge Circle Practice Profiles


Practice focus

This program provides empowerment and employment opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It facilitates professional recognition and qualifiations for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to provide counselling services in a culturally safe and meaningful way.

Delivered by

Relationships Australia Canberra and Region (RACR): A non-Government community based organisation.


The information provided for this Promising Practice Profile was supplied by the Deputy Chief Executive Officer at Relationships Australia Canberra and Region.

Service type

The Diploma is delivered exclusively for Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islanders who want to gain a qualification in counselling and group work. It aims to reduce the educational disadvantage of Indigenous Australians by increasing the number of Indigenous counsellors with a professional counselling qualification who can work with their own communities and in mainstream services. The program is delivered over an 18 month period and includes a combination of intensive week-long blocks and some weekends. Students are requried to complete a placement as part of the course.


Canberra, ACT and surrounding regional areas


RACR had previous success in delivering a free accredited mainstream Diploma in Counselling and Group Work for Indigenous Australians in 2009-2010. The need for the Diploma of Counselling and Group Work for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Students program was identified through community consultation with Elders from the ACT and Riverina regions, and representatives from a number of community service organisations who specifically wanted to meet the needs of the local Indigenous Australian population. The discussion identified the following issues:

  • many of the skills of Indigenous Australians working in the community sector were not complemented by formal qualifications, and therefore were not 'industry recognised';
  • the pool of Indigenous Australian qualified counsellors is very small in the ACT and Riverina regions; and,
  • the lack of Indigenous Australian counsellors is considered a significant barrier for Indigenous Australians in accessing therapeutic services.

The Diploma aims to reduce the educational disadvantage of Indigenous Australians by increasing the number of Indigenous counsellors with a professional counselling qualification who can work with their own communities and in mainstream services. The Diploma is a Vocational Education and Training Accreditation Board (VETAB) accredited, nationally recognised, mainstream counselling qualification where the content has been enhanced in consultation with Indigenous Australian stakeholders to connect traditional ways of healing with modern day western theoretical counselling concepts.

The Diploma adopts a reciprocal learning model to acknowledge the existing skills that workers have already acquired, and the community partnership arrangement supports the model of program delivery, where relevant community organisations offer work placement and mentoring support to students.


Since its commencement in 2009 the program has received funding from Department of Education Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR), the ACT Government, Healing Foundation, and the Indigenous Coordination Centre at Queanbeyan. Community partners in Canberra and Wagga have contributed by offering placements and/or mentors for the students.


MOST promising aspect

The Diploma is free of charge for students and is delivered exclusively to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community members. It has provided these participants with education opportunities and skills that are formally recognised and opens pathways for further education. As a consequence, the Diploma has increased the capacity of the community to heal and to take care of themselves. The Diploma has also has increased the ability of mainstream organisations to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in a respectful and relevant manner.

Other promising aspects

The process of delivering the Diploma is promising practice for the following reasons:

  • it was in response to a need identified by the community;
  • it has been shaped by the input of students;
  • the learning has been a two-way process between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals;
  • the delivery has always been with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander trainers;
  • the program becomes more sustainable as more students graduate and go on to become trainers.

More Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders now access RACR services. RACR can also work more collaboratively with other organisations as a result of having a wider and more specialised employment pool to draw upon.

Evidence base and opportunities

A quote from a local Aboriginal Elder encapsulates the critical need for Aboriginal Counsellors: "We need Aboriginal counsellors as guides to our healing. The support and information we need is not taught in universities and cannot be obtained from non-Indigenous people, no matter how 'culturally competent' they are. It can be a barrier to our healing process if a non-Aboriginal counsellor dabbles in core issues for our recovery, such as our Aboriginal identity or reclaiming our spiritual heritage. For this, we need authentic Aboriginal input that reflects the diversity in Aboriginal cultures, not 'mainstream' interpretations of what it is to be Aboriginal." This sentiment is echoed by other highly respected Aboriginal women from the ACT and Riverina areas.

Provision of the program in each state or territory by the national federation of Relationships Australia would provide additional capacity and empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to identify, address and provide solutions to their own requirements within the context of their own cultures and trauma.

Cultural relevance

Involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders

RACR was approached by the ACT Nannies group to deliver the Diploma in recognition of the longevity of the relationships that had been respectfully built with Aboriginal communities over many years. For the Diploma program to be effective, RACR needed to engage with, and establish a collaborative partnership between Indigenous Australians, Federal, State and Territory Government funding authorities, the Australian Institute for Relationship Studies (AIRS), and community partners. This has been achieved through a clearly defined strategy, open and transparent processes, and regular consultation with all parties throughout the whole stage of the Diploma. RACR worked closely with the Aboriginal communities in the ACT and Wagga Wagga regions throughout the development, design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the Diploma program.

RACR observed that community protocols in the consultation processes are fundamental to community acceptance of western mainstream programs. As a consequence, RACR supported Aboriginal Elders to introduce the initial Diploma concept with Aboriginal organisations in the community. Elders were provided with support in their community negotiations about the appropriateness of the Diploma and incorporated their advice into the design of the Diploma to be accessible and relevant for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

Cultural practices and materials

Over a long period of time, staff from RACR were approaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations to develop productive relationships. RACR were eventually invited to deliver outreach services to their staff and clients, including supervision, counselling and group work. After students completed the Diploma they were employed as graduates to work at all levels in the organisation. These staff then functioned as a referral 'gateway' for communities. One of the positions was Cultural Mentor who worked with RACR senior managers to deliver cultural competency training.

The training and employment of Indigenous Australian counsellors working to heal their own was supported by evidence-based research from Australia and internationally. The literature supports Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians trained in counselling, psychiatry, psychology and social work working with community healers helps to ensure a balance between clinical safety, quality of care and respect for the Indigenous Australians healing.


Evaluation status

An internal evaluation of the Diploma is currently underway and is expected to be completed by the end of 2013. The instruments used in the evaluation include written evaluations following student participation in the Diploma and the effects of the program on participants by pre-test and post-test comparison.


Demonstrated outcomes

The Diploma has resulted in increased access to therapeutic services by marginalised community members including members of the Stolen Generation. RACR has employed a team of Aboriginal counsellors who have graduated from the Diploma whose work at Relationships Australia includes:

  • providing counselling to the members of the Stolen Generation, after being approached by the National Sorry Day Committee (NSDC) to form a partnership in 2011;
  • providing counselling support to people who attend national forums canvassing people's views on Indigenous Recognition in the Constitution; and
  • co-facilitating Yarning programs for Indigenous Australian men incarcerated in the Alexander Maconochie Centre (ACT) and the Bimberi Youth Detention Centre.

A newly developed partnership between RACR and the Australian Catholic University (ACU) has made a difference in improving access for Diploma graduates to Higher Education. ACU has recognised the Diploma qualification as a Direct Entry pathway into a Bachelor of Social Work, with four graduates enrolling to complete the degree. One student will graduate in March 2013.

Other evidence

Other evidence includes the increasing numbers of graduates who have:

  • been promoted in their workplaces;
  • gained employment; and,
  • proceeded to further education.

Importantly, RACR now has stronger and more productive relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communites.


The national federation of Relationships Australia (a network of community based, not-for-profit organisations based in each state and territory) have now taken up the program and will be delivering it in each state and territory.

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