UK apprenticeship controversy

Leading industry bodies have spoken out over controversial plans to begin optometry and DO apprenticeships through large employers in the UK, with Kiwis concerned the plans may land here.

The UK Association of Optometrists issued a strong statement, “The Association of Optometrists (AOP) is calling for a halt to the current proposal for optometry degree apprenticeships until the profession’s serious concerns are addressed.”

The AOP, which represents over 15,000 UK optometrists, was the first major optical body to oppose the degree apprenticeship – drawing on member feedback to build a case against the proposal as part of its consultation response in December 2019. Since then, the AOP said it has been working with other stakeholders, including current education providers, to explore the key issues around student supervision and quality assurance. It said, “It is clear that these are already challenges under the current education system, and that the difficulties would be amplified if a degree apprenticeship was introduced.”

The Association of British Dispensing Opticians (ABDO), however, is less concerned about the move by the UK’s larger optometry employers, with ABDO president Clive Marchant saying, “It’s important to understand what or who is driving the desire for apprenticeships for optometrists and dispensing opticians. All large employers in the UK must contribute to the government apprenticeship scheme. Hence, they have a desire to get their money back in the way of apprenticeship training.”

Marchant explained, “Lower level qualifications have very low funding hence they are impractical for many via the scheme. On the other hand, there is substantial funding for degree level qualifications. Hence the trailblazer groups have been formed to explore training for optometrists and DOs.”

Trailblazer groups were set up by the UK government in 2013 to create a new style of apprenticeship, based on a sector’s needs and employer requirements. The groups must include at least 10 large employers, with professional bodies invited to join.

The ABDO published a Guide to degree apprenticeships by its assistant director of professional examinations Miranda Richardson, in February’s UK Dispensing Optics magazine, which said the initial optometry apprenticeship application had been submitted and accepted by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education as a degree level apprenticeship. A trailblazer group has been set up to ‘contribute to the development of the apprenticeship standard’, according Richardson.

The UK’s optometry trailblazer group includes many of the corporate groups, such as Specsavers, Vision Express, Boots Opticians and several universities, as well as the ABDO.

“ABDO has chosen to be part of the DO group purely to be at the table, but it has a neutral view at this stage, said Marchant. “What’s important is any new form of training is safe and public protection must be robust. Personally, I think the profession is reacting to the proposals without any information as to how apprenticeship training would be delivered, this is because it’s currently unclear… we need to be open minded, which is why ABDO is at the table.”

Kiwi optometrists have raised concerns, however. One, who did not wish to be named, said, “The intent in the UK is to have graduates rolled out in an apprenticeship of four years while the corporates benefit by paying for cheap labour. The knock-on effect is plain to see: the market will be flooded with optometrists, and the rank and file will find salaries reduce.”

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