Hardly a month goes by it seems that the General Optical Council doesn’t consult on something, and most recently it has been asking the public, registrants, professional bodies and educators to comment on consensual disposal of fitness to practice cases and its draft policy on Accreditation of Prior Learning (APL).

The Accreditation of Prior Certified Learning (APCL) and the Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning (APEL) between them allow colleagues moving up the career ladder, or across on to a new ladder, to get credit for their previous experience and qualifications.

This might give them exemption from the traditional course entry requirements (A-levels in the case of optometry), or certain subjects, modules or even whole academic years of study. For example, lab technicians with the level 4 SMC Tech qualification have had almost complete exemption from the first year of the dispensing course, needing only to do certain sections of the part one practical exam such as facial measurements.

I have worked with many dispensing opticians and optometrists who came to their chosen profession after doing something else in optics, including some who have qualified as SMC Tech, then FBDO, then CL before moving to optometry, often with little or no APL along the way, studying for 10 or 11 years.

Along with colleagues who have previously qualified as orthoptists, pharmacists or nurses, those that have qualified as dispensing opticians first before moving on to optometry make among the best practitioners. They also tend to qualify at or near the top of their class and yet there still seems to be an instinctive bias against them among some optometric academics, who presumably view three As at A-level as a better judge of capability and competence.

Some years ago software guru Professor David Thomson presented research as chair of the Careers in Optics Group which demonstrated that there was no correlation at all between A-level results and final degree category in optometry. Yet old habits die hard and there still seems a reluctance to accredit optical experience or qualifications on the part of some optometry departments, while others will accept almost all comers for the appropriate fee.

In a sense you could ask why universities are interested in qualifications at all. If someone wants to do the course, has the money to pay, or the support of their employer, then why not accept them and let them live or die by their performance in assessments and examinations? That might be OK for say a history degree, however, in the course of optical and optometric training practical experience with real patients (even if they might be fellow students to start with), including practice based learning, means people could be put at risk.

For optometry in particular, there is also the matter of the course being oversubscribed, with far more applicants than places, so entry qualifications are a means of choosing who to offer a place to. Yet there has been a shortage of optometrists for decades, so why does the GOC limit the number of students universities can accept? Why not leave the College of Optometrists Scheme for Registration to sort the wheat from the chaff?

We constantly hear about evidence based practice, Standard of Practice 5 insists we keep our knowledge up to date, yet universities don’t apply the same rules to selection procedures. Alongside A-levels, the usual other method of selecting students is through personal interviews, which have been repeatedly shown to have a poor correlation with competence.

Taking a look at how optometrists are viewed by the public on healthcare review sites such as www.iwantgreatcare.org it is clear they value skills such as listening, explaining, patience, attentiveness, caring and understanding. Perhaps patients take accuracy of refraction and ability to check the health of the eye for granted, but it hardly ever figures in their feedback.

If educators are to accurately identify the kind of people who would make the best optometrists and dispensing opticians then clearly A-levels and interviews are probably not the ideal way. Whereas selecting people with previous optical experience, viewed as being made of ‘the right stuff’ by their employers, may well have better results.

Dispensing optics has always given credit for substantial optical experience sometimes even for people with no qualifications whatsoever. It has recognised that when we are teenagers we can very easily go off the rails, or have our prospects blighted by personal tragedy or caring responsibilities, and come out of the school system without the qualifications that might have been expected.

APEL is without doubt more difficult than APCL, however, combined with a real desire to succeed, experience is perhaps the best signal of suitability of an individual for the profession they aspire to. If the GOC’s consultation creates a genuine career ladder, then it is most welcome.