It has been intriguing to see ABDO get a bee in its bonnet about the GOC’s Education Strategic Review recently. President Clive Marchant has written to every member and sent a personal email complete with YouTube video too. The Association has also been very active on every form of social media to encourage its members to respond to the consultation which ends February 25th. So, what is all the fuss about?

As the only independent examining body ABDO is concerned that the GOC will increase the number of awarding bodies as universities and colleges may be able to examine their own students in the future in order that students may become registered. Currently there are two registerable qualifications for optometry – the College of Optometrists Scheme for Registration and the integrated Masters’ Programme at the University of Manchester. For opticianry there is OfQual Level 6 FBDO and the Level 5 FDSc programme from Anglia Ruskin University (ARU).

Interestingly ARU still offers FBDO to its degree students, partly I hear because its level 6 qualified FBDO lecturing staff refuse to teach on the level 5. This has left the level 5 students being mainly taught dispensing by PhD optometry students with, it appears, less than satisfactory results. Readers may remember that Boots Opticians, a few years into the ARU Level 5 programme withdrew all its first and second year students part way through their studies and transferred them to other education providers. It also paid for its third-year students to do FBDO once they had completed the ARU Course.

It was apparent at the time that students and employers were often unaware that the ARU training was at a lower level, and also meant that those gaining registration with FDSc could not go on to do the ABDO contact lens qualification either unless they upgraded to level 6 FBDO which is the only recognised entry requirement.

Educators and awarding bodies breathed a collective sigh of relief when former GOC head of education and standards Linda Ford (nee Kennaugh) left the GOC, But that era’s bull in a china shop, act before you think, say one thing then do another legacy lives on in the form of the 2011 Handbook for providers of education to dispensing opticians. This states quite clearly that the minimum level for registerable ophthalmic dispensing qualifications is level 5 despite at that time every single DO being qualified at level 6 and that being the appropriate benchmark.

One wonders how ARU was able to pull the wool over the GOC’s eyes so comprehensively that it did not follow due process by, for example, bypassing the committee for the education of dispensing opticians. This so it could circumvent the then rules on university courses which stipulated that people with a level 6 qualification could not do another one so dispensing opticians could not progress to optometry – a key source of income for ARU. Since universities have become fully marketised in the intervening period this feature has become somewhat redundant, however marketisation is also of concern to ABDO.

National news has reported that the number of unconditional offers made to prospective students across the university sector has increased exponentially over the past few years as universities have become businesses rather than educators. Whilst widening participation in higher education is a good thing, it would also be prudent where registrable qualifications are concerned to have a separate impartial examining body rather than rely on these businesses to police themselves.

Another reason level 5 is inappropriate for dispensing opticians is the Standards of Practice imposed upon the profession in 2016 by the GOC which require all registrants to ‘be aware of current good practice, taking into account relevant developments in clinical research, and apply this to the care you provide’. Evaluating an evidence base is very clearly a level 6 activity in higher education and as such confirms the need for dispensing opticians to be qualified at level 6. It also begs the question, when are optometrists going to be recognised as being clearly qualified at level 7?

As Marchant rightly points out the formal addition of research skills training would be the only required change to the current level 6 FBDO syllabus, but he fails to acknowledge what should be done about the research skills of the 6,000 or so dispensing opticians currently on the register. Perhaps dispensing opticians should follow the nursing profession which became degree-only about 15 years ago and has never looked back. Like the nurses, existing DOs could be compelled to top up their qualification, and retrospectively gain the required skills, or perhaps the skills could be gained through compulsory CET. Whatever happens dumbing down should not be a GOC option.