The Degree Apprenticeship in Optometry

Following feedback from members we have finalised our response to the consultation on an optometrist apprenticeship standard, and our open letter to the Trailblazer Group.

We have challenged many aspects of the proposal, and are calling for a pause to any further development until these challenges can be fully reviewed and addressed.  

Read our consultation response and letter: 

Q&A on a degree apprenticeship in optometry

We have published a Q&A to address the most commonly asked questions from members on a degree apprenticeship in optometry.


1. With the current development of an optometrist degree apprenticeship in England, the College is concerned to ensure that the initiative upholds the quality of optometry education and professional practice, and therefore ensures patient safety.

2. Optometry workforce development and capacity-building is key to responding to increasing demands on eye health services across the UK. Apprenticeships can help to meet these workforce development needs and strengthen career development opportunities, providing they offer high-quality learning experiences and outcomes and uphold patient safety.

3. While a UK-wide agenda, apprenticeship policy, processes and requirements are different in each of the four countries. This statement focuses on developments in England, given these are the most live in relation to optometry (as in most of healthcare care and within higher-level apprenticeships as a whole). The explanatory notes appended to this statement provide brief background information.

4. The College will keep its position and the need to update this statement under review, including from a four-country perspective.

Optometrist degree apprenticeship

5. An optometrist degree apprenticeship in England could enable employers to invest in developing the profession, providing that its development and implementation uphold the quality of optometry education and professional practice and therefore ensure patient safety. Through direct involvement, including via the optometrist degree apprenticeship trailblazer group, the College can seek to address these imperatives.

6. An optometrist degree apprenticeship must do the following:

  • Uphold high standards of learning and development for entry to the optometry profession, including in ways that protect patient safety and public interest
  • Provide the depth, breadth, level and quality of professional learning required to become an optometrist
  • Prepare apprentices/future optometrists for safe, effective optometry practice across the sectors and settings in which the profession practises
  • Contribute to optometry’s responsiveness to changing population, patient, service delivery, workforce and professional development needs
  • Align with strategic developments in optometry workforce development, including by helping to realise the profession’s potential for meeting increasing population and patient demand for safe, timely, accessible high-quality eye health services
  • Align with plans for regulatory changes relating to optometry education, including new threshold requirements for full registration as an optometrist with the General Optical Council
  • Contribute to widening participation, social mobility and entry to the profession from all parts of society.

The College’s role

7. The College’s engagement in the apprenticeship’s development is essential. It fits with our role as a professional body in doing the following:

  • Upholding educational and professional standards
  • Encouraging and informing development and innovation in optometry education and workforce development
  • Taking the optometry profession forward and optimising its position in rapidly changing contexts
  • Ensuring the profession’s responsiveness to changing population, patient, service delivery and employer needs.

8. The College therefore needs to assert our expectations of professional learning and development and to seek to ensure that the degree apprenticeship provides a high-quality learning opportunity for future optometrists. Conversely, we actively need to guard against apprenticeship developments compromising patient safety, risking the reputation and credibility of optometry education and the profession, or destabilising established optometry education provision and future workforce supply.

9. Through direct engagement, the College is seeking to ensure that the optometrist degree apprenticeship does the following:

  • Reflects the most appropriate model for its design and delivery at the most appropriate academic level or levels (with the logic being that the apprenticeship could be delivered at either level 6 or 7, in line with other degree apprenticeships that provide entry routes into regulated healthcare professions)
  • Achieves parity with other entry routes into the profession
  • Achieves sufficient tariff funding to sustain its delivery
  • Upholds safe and effective patient care, provides high-quality learning experience and outcomes, and complies with all legal requirements relating to the delivery of eye care services
  • Optimises the benefits of the degree apprenticeship model for skills development and widening participation into the optometry profession.

Apprenticeships to support broader workforce development

10. We see apprenticeships at all levels as having a potential role to play in increasing opportunities for job role/career development in line with changing patient needs, models of care, and workforce needs. Apprenticeships could increase learning and development opportunities and progression routes across the UK. This includes for the wider optical workforce and for the post-registration development of optometrists.

11. We see a particular value of the advanced clinical practitioner (ACP) apprenticeship in England (underpinned by a Master’s degree) enabling employer investment in optometrists’ professional development to meet service needs. There are opportunities for developing routes through the apprenticeship that meet eye health needs. This can valuably be done by integrating the College’s higher qualifications into the apprenticeship’s delivery, while continuing to enable optometrists to access the higher qualifications as free-standing modules.

12. We also see the potential value of a non-medical consultant apprenticeship (currently at an early stage of development) for enabling employers to invest in the profession’s development at the highest levels of clinical practice.

Published: November 2019

Explanatory notes

a) Degree-level apprenticeships are a significant part of the reformed apprenticeship agenda, progressed in line with the Enterprise Act (2016). Since April 2017, all employers across the UK with a pay bill of more than £3m per year pay 0.5% of this bill into the apprenticeship levy. All employers, regardless of whether they are levy payers, can draw down on the levy to invest in their workforce development through engaging in apprenticeship delivery.

b) While a UK-wide agenda, apprenticeship policy and processes are implemented differently in each of the four countries. This information has an England focus. This is because apprenticeship developments at higher levels and in healthcare are currently live in England.

c) Apprenticeship standards define the knowledge, skills and behaviours (KSBs) required for distinct occupational roles. They provide the national framework for the delivery of apprenticeships for particular occupations or professions. For regulated professions, the apprenticeship standard must reflect regulatory and professional requirements, as well as fulfilling the requirements of academic awards at the defined academic level.

d) Apprentices’ fulfilment of the KSBs defined by an apprenticeship standard are tested through a nationally-set, independently-implemented end-point assessment (EPA). Apprenticeship proposals, standards and EPAs have to be approved by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE).

e) Degree apprenticeships, with university involvement, enable employer investment in high-skills workforce development. This includes both entry to the professions and development within the professions. A list of healthcare-related apprenticeships in England and their status is provided via the following: Status of Standards being facilitated by Skills for Health .

f) A proposal for an optometrist degree apprenticeship has received sign-off from the IfATE. This enables the standard and end-point assessment (EPA) for the degree apprenticeship to be developed. The standard is now out to consultation. The EPA is under development. The tariff attached to the apprenticeship (the amount of levy funding made available for its delivery) will also need to be determined, informed by detailed costings for delivery supplied by at least three universities.

g) The College submitted a response to the IfATE consultation on the proposal for the optometrist degree apprenticeship. We will also respond to the consultation on the draft standard and have been invited to be involved in the trailblazer group for the further development of the apprenticeship.

h) The College believes that it is essential to be actively involved in the apprenticeship’s development to seek to assure patient safety, the quality of optometry education and the relevance of optometry workforce development across all sectors and settings.

Optometrist degree apprenticeship FAQs

This material provides information on degree apprenticeships, with a particular focus on current developments in England. Specific information is given about the optometrist degree apprenticeship where available.

An updated approach to apprenticeships is a UK-wide government initiative. It was formalised by the Enterprise Act (2016), and enables apprenticeships to be developed that are underpinned by degrees. All employers with a salary bill over £3m a year have paid the apprenticeship levy since April 2017. This enables them to invest in developing their workforce through apprenticeships. Smaller employers don’t pay the levy, but can also use it to invest in apprenticeships. The agenda is strongly linked policy-wise to the government’s Industrial Strategy and enhancing skills at all levels across all parts of the UK economy. Degree apprenticeships can be developed up to doctorate level, including to provide entry to professions subject to statutory regulation. 

While UK-wide, the apprenticeship agenda is implemented differently in each of the four countries. (The focus of the current consultation is for an optometrist degree apprenticeship in England only.) 

The College was not part of the initial trailblazer group (the term used under apprenticeship policy) which made the recommendation for the degree apprenticeship, but we have now joined the group to protect patient safety and to ensure that existing high qualification standards and competencies, learning experience, and outcomes are upheld.

We will strongly oppose any route to qualification which diminishes standards, quality of education or patient safety.

The proposal for an optometrist degree apprenticeship in England was developed by employers that formed the initial trailblazer group. The group comprises representatives from a range of employers, with involvement from a number of universities that deliver optometry education and other stakeholders. 

The full list of organisations involved is listed here.

In England, a proposal for a new apprenticeship needs to gain initial approval from the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE), based on evidence of its demand and assurance that it relates to a distinct occupational role. Once a proposal has been approved for development, the trailblazer group that put it forward is responsible for drafting a full apprenticeship standard. This has to define the knowledge, skills and behaviours required for the role and the level at which these need to be performed. The standard is then subject to public consultation and refined in light of the feedback received.

With an optometrist degree apprenticeship, the IfATE has approved the initial proposal and the trailblazer group has drafted the standard. This is the stage we are at now, and you can respond to the public consultation. 

An end-point assessment plan also has to be developed, while the cost of delivering the educational component of the apprenticeship is determined to calculate its tariff. This is the amount of funding an education provider would receive to deliver the apprenticeship and that an employer would pay to access it. All elements have to be approved by the IfATE before an apprenticeship is ready for delivery.

Once approved, a degree apprenticeship has to be delivered by an organisation with degree-awarding powers and that is registered with the Register of Apprenticeship and Training Providers. The educational component is a degree that needs to meet the academic requirements for a degree at the relevant academic level. It also has to enable apprentices to meet the knowledge, skills and behaviours (KSBs) set out in the approved apprenticeship standard. In turn, the KSBs have to fulfil the regulatory requirements that apply to the profession for which an apprenticeship provides an entry route.

A university planning to deliver an approved degree apprenticeship has to take the planned degree programme through its standard validation process and secure accreditation from the relevant statutory regulator. Standard university and regulator quality assurance and monitoring processes then apply to implementation. The IfATE also sets specific quality assurance requirements. 

We recognise that there are risks attached to the degree apprenticeship and share anxieties about what a new optometry education route could mean. We believe that our role is to guard against a degree apprenticeship risking the reputation and credibility of optometry education and the profession, destabilising established optometry education provision and future workforce supply, or compromising patient safety.

We believe that the best way to address these risks is direct engagement. Our approach and priorities are more fully explained in our position statement above. 

If you want to take action, you can personally respond to the apprenticeship consultation by 12pm on Monday 9 December. If you have comments, suggestions or questions you would like to share with us, please get in touch.

The entry requirements to individual apprenticeship programmes would be set by individual universities that choose to deliver the degree apprenticeship, against the requirements set out in the apprenticeship standard (once approved).

This would be up to individual universities offering the degree apprenticeship, if it’s approved for delivery, and how they design their programme to meet the apprenticeship standard. The proposal is that an optometrist degree apprenticeship is offered at Master’s degree level. Universities would need to ensure that their programmes met the academic requirements for awards at this level. This includes science and research-based learning and assessment, and the more specific knowledge, skills and behaviours relating to critical thinking, professionalism and clinical-reasoning and decision-making.

Delivery of the degree apprenticeship would need to meet government-set requirements relating to the balance of ‘on-the-job’ and ‘off-the-job’ learning. While universities would take primary responsibility for the latter, employers would be responsible for ensuring apprentices’ safe, high-quality learning progression in the workplace.

Formal requirements for apprenticeship delivery include implementing learning contracts between an employer, university and individual apprentices. Those involved in supervising and mentoring apprentices in the workplace would need the skills, time and support to facilitate safe and effective learning up to the level of the degree apprenticeship in question. This is a significant undertaking and requires investment in workforce development by employers.

This is difficult to predict. There are multiple approval stages through which the proposal would need to progress. If fully approved, universities choosing to deliver a degree apprenticeship would then need to develop their programmes, take these through validation and secure GOC accreditation. Employers would also need to contract with universities to secure access to the apprenticeship and recruit apprentices. The apprenticeship would therefore be unlikely to be available before 2021. 

A further complicating factor is that it is planned that a degree apprenticeship would map to the new outcomes generated by the GOC’s education strategic review. These have not yet been developed.

Degree apprenticeships have been developed in a range of other clinical and scientific professions that are subject to statutory regulation. These include physiotherapy, speech and language therapy, clinical and biomedical science, nursing and for physician associates. These are all at an early stage of implementation. Degree apprenticeships are more established in professions such as law, chartered surveying and engineering. 

A list of healthcare-related apprenticeships in England and their current status is provided via the following: Status of Standards being facilitated by Skills for Health.

The implementation of degree apprenticeships in other professions is at an early stage. The numbers of providers and apprentices in healthcare professions is relatively small, with apprenticeships providing an additional route to qualification and registration that sits alongside conventional ones, rather than becoming the exclusive route. 

There is useful learning to be gained from other professions’ degree apprenticeships, relating to development and delivery. The College is linking with other organisations to gain insight, while some individual universities are developing increasing experience and insight of delivery across a wide range of disciplines.

It is not yet known which universities may choose to provide the degree apprenticeship if fully approved for delivery. To become a provider, each institution would need to secure registration with the Register of Apprenticeship Training Providers, as well as develop and take their degree apprenticeship proposals through their own validation processes and secure GOC accreditation. 

There is already an advanced clinical practitioner apprenticeship, underpinned by a Master’s degree. One university has developed an ophthalmology route through it, which integrates the College’s higher qualifications. There is the scope for other universities to do the same to meet workforce development needs in the profession. Master’s level apprenticeships are also available in management and leadership, while there is an academic professional Master’s level apprenticeship with learning/teaching and research routes.

A clinical academic professional and a consultant practitioner apprenticeship, both at doctoral level, are at very early stages of development. 

We’re asking members to engage with the public consultation on the optometrist degree apprenticeship draft standard by 9 December. All feedback will need to be considered fully by the trailblazer group in reviewing how the standard is progressed. 

If you have comments, suggestions or questions you would like to share with us, please get in touch