The end of last year and the start of 2020 saw the issue of apprenticeships for prospective optometrists as one of the hot topics. I strongly expect to see this debate rumble on for some time ahead.

I have spent quite a lot of time considering this issue and trying to decide whether I would feel happy having my vision cared for by a person who had not achieved qualification through the traditional degree route. I have to confess my original thoughts were that I would not and this seemed to fit with the original negativity and backlash to the idea that generally seemed to abound in the world of optometry.

However, I then sat down with a group of optometrists and dispensing opticians at the practice to discuss this issue. I thought that there would be universal agreement with the stance I had taken. How wrong could I be? One of the team is a dispensing optician who I have the utmost respect for, partly because I have known her from her early teens when I employed her as a receptionist who then went on to qualify as a dispensing optician through the traditional ‘day release’ route and partly because she is a fantastic dispensing optician who personifies everything that is good in a highly skilled professional and with whom I would trust totally every one of the patients who enters our building. She gave a very powerful and reasoned treatise on why an apprenticeship route was every bit as good as the traditional university degree route to qualification.

Not least in her argument was the fact that she herself had effectively gone through an apprenticeship route to qualify as a DO and it had served her incredibly well and, indeed, I would personally testify to that. She also pointed out that some other professionals such as accountants and solicitors have, for years reached their status through an apprentice style route.

There is a high probability that those of you reading this who are self employed may well use accountants who left school at 16 with just O-levels or GCSEs under their belt and then worked their way through their various stages of qualification while holding down full-time jobs. No university degree there but the end result was a fully qualified accountant. The same may well be said of some solicitors that many of you may have engaged to do the legal work around your businesses. While I do not know for sure, it would not surprise me to learn that the AOP legal team which so many of us rely on for our legal advice when things go sour may well have members who gained their professional qualifications this way. She went on to point out how, over the years it has been said on very many occasions just how unsuited many graduate optometrists are for the real world of optometry at the outset of their pre-registration period but by the end of that period they are much more fit for purpose. If the pre-registration period is not a form of apprenticeship then just what is it?

I have to confess that, so cogent was her argument, I found myself at every turn agreeing with her that indeed maybe an apprenticeship route would be a good route for qualification. So just what are the objections? Many, it would seem, are borne out of our traditional optometric insecurity. I have spoken to a number of colleagues who immediately say this is just a portal for creating cannon fodder for the multiples and that this would dumb down the professionalism of optometry. Interestingly not one of these people charges proper fees for their professional services preferring rather to rely on their retail services as a shopkeeper to bring in their income. What price professionalism there? Others say it is not impossible to reach a suitable level of knowledge via this route. That argument is fatuous and has been disproven by other professions for years, professions we are happy to trust and use ourselves daily.

What I do know is that while there may be objections voiced by the professional bodies about the structure of the apprenticeship route, and rightly so if that route is not currently robust, what I have yet to see is any real argument as to why, if that route is robust, we should not allow qualification by the apprenticeship route. What we need now is to decide whether or not this route, provided the course content is robust, is a correct one.

I have had my views changed completely by a person who qualified in her chosen profession via an apprenticeship route so at this point in time I have to say it is apprentice: one; graduate professional: nil.

I believe we urgently need to make a decision on this, not based on the minutiae of the apprenticeship syllabus, but at the higher level of ‘do we want this in principle?’ Once we have agreed on this, which I believe we should, then we can move forward and get the content sorted out.