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The discussion

A new way of learning

OT  speaks to Victoria Unsworth chair of the pan-sector trailblazer group that has been established to lead on the development of a degree apprenticeship for optometrists

14 Nov 2019 by Emily McCormick

In mid-2018 a group of professionals from across optometry and dispensing optics came together informally to discuss the idea of a new route for students to train to become optometrists and dispensing opticians. The notion that they were discussing was a degree apprenticeship programme that would see students train ‘on the job’ in a practice setting, coupled with university learning.

The group reached out to a number of universities for advice and were signposted to the Institute for Apprenticeships. Consequently, a pan-sector trailblazer group for optometry was established with the mission of making degree apprenticeships for optometry a reality.

Group working

Professional learning and development manager at Vision Express, Victoria Unsworth, joined the trailblazer group in February this year and was subsequently elected chair.

The establishment of the trailblazer group is a condition of the Institute of Apprenticeships, who confirmed that the requirements of a degree apprenticeship for optometry did not fit into an existing apprenticeship model and therefore a new model would need to be created.

This process begins with the establishment of a trailblazer group. A minimum of 10 employers are required to officially form a trailblazer group, with a broad representation of the sector also stated. Today, the group consists of representatives from: Asda, Boots Opticians, Specsavers, Vision Express, Optical Express, the Hakim Group, Leightons Opticians, Scrivens, Haine & Smith Opticians, the OutsideClinic, Thompson Opticians and Moorfields Eye Hospital.

A number of universities including Aston, Bradford, City, Hertfordshire, Huddersfield and Plymouth are also represented.

Commenting on the importance of having university representation on the trailblazer group, Ms Unsworth told OT: “The final part of the development of the apprenticeship programme will be an end point assessment plan, which is the final examination that apprentices will have to pass in order to qualify. That is where we really need universities to help us as they are the people who currently train optometrists and are very good at it. We will need their expertise to make sure that we deliver the right programme for students and businesses.”

“I can reassure people that this will not be an easy route to becoming an optometrist. Yes, it is a different way to learn, but students will have to work really hard”

The requirements

Speaking about the creation of the degree apprenticeship, Ms Unsworth explained that there are three clear steps to establishing the programme which can be broken down into the occupational proposal, the occupational standards and the end point assessment.

The group has reached stage three in the process and is currently writing the standards for which apprentices will be required to meet through their training.

Acknowledging comments that Ms Unsworth has heard about the establishment of an apprenticeship route into optometry potentially “dumbing down” the profession, she stressed: “I can reassure people that this will not be an easy route to becoming an optometrist. Yes, it is a different way to learn, but students will have to work really hard.”

“All apprentices will be required to meet the same GOC core competency standards that current university students are required to meet,” she emphasised.

Ms Unsworth confirmed that the group has mapped these standards to the current GOC core competencies, rather than wait for the regulator’s Education Strategic Review to be published.

“Indications from the GOC point to the transition period for new standards being introduced as a staged one that will take a couple of years, so we have decided to work to the current ones and revise them when the time comes,” she shared.

Consultation phase

Currently the standards that have been mapped by the trailblazer group are out for consultation with the profession until 9 December and Ms Unsworth wholeheartedly encourages everyone to have their say and respond to the consultation.

The trailblazer group has been allowed to decide the length of the consultation period and has opted to consult for six weeks because it wants “as many people in the profession to see and share their feedback as possible,” Ms Unsworth told OT.

“I don’t want people to think that as employers we are trying to push this apprenticeship programme through or hide it. That is not our intention. I want people in the profession to share their feedback so that we can mold and make it into something that is as good as it can be,” she added.

Ms Unsworth confirmed that once the consultation closes the trailblazer group will meet to go through all responses and adapt its standards where necessary before submitting them to the GOC.

The standards must be approved by the GOC for the programme to proceed further, after which the end point assessment will be created.

“I don’t want people to think that as employers we are trying to push this apprenticeship programme through or hide it. That is not our intention. I want people in the profession to share their feedback”

A new opportunity

Ms Unsworth confirmed that the degree apprenticeship for optometry that the trailblazer group aims to create is a four-year course, and, on successful completion of the end point assessment, the student will become a fully-qualified optometrist.

If approved, she hopes that the programme will begin delivery in Autumn 2020. She added that the Institute of Apprenticeships is clear that the businesses represented on the trailblazer group should be prepared to offer the apprenticeship programme.

When questioned about how accessible the apprenticeship programme will be for independents and smaller optical groups to offer, Ms Unsworth said that the aim of the trailblazer group is to create a programme that can be implemented by all optical businesses, large and small if they wish to. “I think that the independent is a really interesting environment for students to work and learn in. We don’t want to develop a programme that is too onerous for independents to use and that is why we have such a broad representation on our trailblazer group,” she said.

Speaking about why she believes the establishment of a degree apprenticeship for optometry is important for the profession, Ms Unsworth explained: “Introducing a degree apprenticeship for optometry provides the profession with a real opportunity to adapt and make a change to the way in which it attracts and retains people in the profession.”

Ms Unsworth emphasised that the way in which students attend university has changed vastly over the last decade and the profession requires an alternative way forward in order to attract the next generation of optometrists. “Students are very much commuter students nowadays, opting to study and stay close to home during their university years. I do not think it’s right for a person’s geographical location to dictate their access to a profession,” she said.

In working with universities on the trailblazer group, Ms Unsworth has learned that many institutions have plans to ensure that 20% of its courses are degree apprenticeship programmes within the next five years. “If we don’t keep driving this forward, we will end up missing out on students who will enter other professions as optometry doesn’t offer this option,” she said.

Ms Unsworth said that she is not naïve enough to think that if the apprenticeship route is approved, everyone will sign up to study in this manner. She does not see it as a replacement to the traditional university route, but an alternative option that can aid the profession in recruiting high caliber students.

“We see it as a slow burner and it will take time for people to get used to this option, but what is the alternative; start opening universities in every corner of the UK in order to meet the demands of the changing way that students are choosing to study nowadays?”

To have your say and respond to the consultation, click hereYou can also share your views on the AOP community forums

Image credit: Getty/Pengiiin

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Comments (18)

  • Avatar image of person name

    Anonymous4 days ago

    Ms Unsworth "If we don’t keep driving this forward, we will end up missing out on students who will enter other professions as optometry doesn’t offer this option,”. Of cause, and what about all thoughs good students who wanted to be doctors but can't pass their A level biology. If only there was another way into medicine then all our health care issues will be sorted?

    Report 2

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    Anonymous4 days ago

    Trialblazers say that 'they wouldn't make getting into optometry easy'. they say it is just a 'different way of getting into optometry'. I say what is wrong with the current system into optometry? If there is a problem then why can't the trialblazer act on fixing it rather then creating a whole new system that no one knows how things are going to turn out. The only thing I can see is that companies just want to float the labour market with Optoms holding these 'willy nilly' apprenticeship, and simply profit on it.

    Report 1

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    Anonymous4 days ago

    What a joke... Optometry needs people who appreciate the science behind the subject. Students who have studied biology and physics at an A Level standard and gone on to do optometry at uni will only truly appreciate the subject. Its these people that we need for the field to progress through research. Students who do apprenticeship are less likely to go into further research and therefore optometry as a science will seize to exist. What a loss considering the aging population and that our eyes are now more important then ever.

    Report 2

  • Avatar image of person name

    Anonymous2 weeks ago

    Also kudos to Manchester Uni for not helping implement this dreadful VE run scheme

    Report 2

  • Avatar image of person name

    Anonymous2 weeks ago

    Glad that AOP opposes this. Will they be forced to accept apprentice trained optoms as members?

    Report 2

  • Avatar image of person name

    Anonymous2 weeks ago

    There is lack of (objective) information to make an informed decision. The idea is good, as this is a very focused, inclusive way of learning. It is unfortunate there is no clear information. If physiotherapy can provide this, why can't optometry?

    Report 1

  • Avatar image of person name

    Anonymous2 weeks ago

    I'm appalled that anyone could think this is a good idea.
    Our degrees gave us an enormous amount of information on a vast array of topics. When we encounter something new, we can delve into our brains and remember a relevant fact or technique. Having a broad knowledge base is essential.
    While studying, we were able to interact and practice with fellow students in a non- pressurised environment and I think this experience was invaluable. Would apprentices be expected to try out techniques that are new to them on members of the public?

    Report 7

  • Avatar image of person name

    Anonymous3 weeks ago

    I just completed the apprenticeship consultation and was very disappointed. It didn't ask our views on this new apprenticeship programme nor did it give any information on how this would be implemented to meet GOC standards. It read as though it had been copy pasted from a university optometry course handbook.
    The fact that this apprenticeship is employer led says a lot, for them its about the money. More optoms at a lower cost to them. Very surprised to see some Unis and hospitals are also on board with this. The market is already very saturated, jobs in some areas are hard to come by and rates are dropping.
    This is a real backward step for the profession and does much to ruin the image and prestige of the work we do.
    Not sure how someone with no A levels can go on to do a 4 year apprenticeship course and come out with the same qualification as someone doing 3 science/math A levels, 3 years at Uni and a rigorous Pre reg programme with intense exams.
    The College have set the Pre reg year to a strict standard and now they are on board with an apprenticeship programme? so much for upholding the standards of the profession. And I thought the GOC was supposed to uphold the image of the profession in the public eye??
    It seems that everyone is on board when its in their financial interest.

    Report 22

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    VC3 weeks ago

    I really hope that AOP members could be included in formal discussion. Looks a real backwards route in the quality of optometry in the UK!

    Report 16

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    Anonymous3 weeks ago

    A noble profession that has really gone downhill. Such a shame.
    We already deal with underfunded nhs eye tests. Free eye tests to justify people to come in then to try flog glasses just to pay our wages.
    The public devaluing us going online.
    Sales pressures feom multiples salaries dropping. And now forget going to uni. But you can just do an apprenticeship.
    Can you imagine a dentist learning on the job? And studying.
    I get it not everyone is academic. But then surely you dont become a doctor or a pharmacist.
    Why can't these trailblazers set up a pre uni course to gain the necessary a level equivalent to then go to uni. Like everyone else before them.

    Shameful the GOC entertain this. Can you imagine the GMC saying to current doctors right we want to get people to be doctors but on the job training and some distance learning now ....

    Report 17

  • Avatar image of person name

    Anonymous3 weeks ago

    After visiting the link for the consultation link and looking at the questions i can see that this consultation is about the structure of the course rather than what we think about the idea and whether we agree to it or not!!
    Surely What we need is an official consultation to see whether aop members agree with this proposal or not!!!

    Report 15

  • Avatar image of person name

    Anonymous3 weeks ago

    Ms Unsworth:

    “I don’t want people to think that as employers we are trying to push this apprenticeship programme through or hide it. That is not our intention. I want people in the profession to share their feedback so that we can mold and make it into something that is as good as it can be,” she added.

    Doesn't sound like vetoing is going to be an option based on that quote.

    Report 18

  • Avatar image of person name

    Anonymous3 weeks ago

    Although I'm not shocked to see names of large multiples as part of this trailblazer group - who are mostly interested in increasing their bottom line - I'm suprised to see some hospitals and universities included in the mix.
    The profession has come a long way by introducing post-graduate diploma and IP courses to improve clinical skills, and the introduction of this apprenticeship is a step backwards. The profession is already devalued in the public eye and at a time where universities should be concentrating in improving current optometry courses to ensure graduates start their pre-reg with up-to-date knowledge on how to use the latest technology, their interested in introducing this apprenticeship route where trainees are unlikely to have the same clinical knowledge and grounding; it will be retail based and companies will focus on increasing their return on investment.
    Supervising a pre-reg is tough, especially when the supervisor has to run their own clinic at 20-25min testing time. Having to supervise someone on this apprenticeship, who doesn't not have the background knowledge in optics, will be extremely difficult for a supervisor, and not to mention the clinical risk that would be shouldered by the supervisor and practice.

    Report 21

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    efarqu113 weeks ago

    A better alternative is surely reduced tuition fees and/or government payment of tuition fees (as in Scotland) or possibly part-time courses so students can spread the cost and earn more money while studying, or subsidied accommodation to make it more feasible to move away from home for uni, or probably a bunch of other options I've not thought of... The problem of geographical/financial barriers to education goes beyond optometry and I don't see that this helps when it may also damage public perception of us as healthcare professionals

    Report 16

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    Anonymous3 weeks ago

    Not very happy to hear about this move.
    I wonder if future dentists, doctors or pharmacists would so be trained in the same way?

    Report 15

  • Avatar image of person name

    Anonymous3 weeks ago

    Will potential supervisors go through rigorous training to get their knowledge up to scratch? With they have to qualify as instructors/teachers? If not, why not?

    Report 18

  • Avatar image of person name

    Anonymous3 weeks ago

    ‘Supervised’. Right. If the supervision is anything like pre-reg, God help The future of optometry.

    Report 20

  • Avatar image of person name

    Anonymous3 weeks ago

    This is very upsetting a very slippery slope into a profession worse paid and respected than working as a manager in a supermarket

    Report 21

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