Historical Role in Optical Education
For much of the Company’s history, it controlled the standards of production of spectacles. Training of the next generation of craftsmen was important.
Members of the Company encouraged new entrants to the profession through apprenticeships and ensured that training was provided to an appropriate standard, by “Masters” of the craft. After seven years and having produced a suitable “Master’s Piece” (masterpiece), successful students were released from their apprenticeship and allowed to trade on their own, as “Freemen”. Even today, anyone who passes a recognised optical qualification can apply to join the Company as a Freeman, by right.
In the 19th Century, the Company developed its own qualifying examinations, evolving over time to encompass sight testing and dispensing. The Worshipful Company was one of three organisations who qualified “high street” opticians. The post nominal letters “FSMC” and “SMC(Disp)” are still occasionally seen in optical practices today.
In the 1980s, the Company played a prominent role in the establishment of specialist qualifying bodies which would set their own professional standards and qualify regulated eye health professionals through their own examinations. The College of Optometrists and the Association of British Dispensing Opticians are the primary qualifiers for optometrists and dispensing opticians in the United Kingdom and have expanded their remit internationally too. The Company maintains excellent relationships with both of them.
From the mid 1980’s the Spectacle Makers’ Company focused on promoting qualifications to increase skills and knowledge for people working in optical laboratories and practices. Specialist training led to nationally accredited qualifications and the Level 4 Diploma for Optical Technicians was recognised as the gold standard for technicians in optical manufacturing. The Diploma is fondly known as the SMC(Tech), those being the post-nominal letters which successful candidates can use with pride after they qualify.
The growth of in-house training reduced the numbers of people wanting to register for formal examination courses. WCSM contracted with ABDO College to provide training courses from 2015-2019. In March 2019 Company announced that it would gradually withdraw from offering examinations. ABDO now offer an equivalent Level 4 Diploma for Optical Assistants and Optical Technicians, which give certain exemptions from elements of Year 1 of the FBDO course.
The Spectacle Makers’ Company provided the first nationally recognised qualifications for professional support staff, that is those working in support of those whose work is regulated by the Opticians Act. The qualifications were designed to help those already working in practices. This, in turn, encouraged employers to develop their own programmes and provide a formal structure for training and development of their staff. Today, more and more employers see the benefits of investing in people and providing them with a firm foundation from which to develop their careers and go on to further and higher levels of optical education.
Government reforms have changed the landscape for optical education significantly in recent years. Assessment organisations cannot themselves deliver training, funding is much more limited and accredited qualifications are now governed by four different regulators in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Within the optical sector, technological advances are changing the way in which all optical workers train and develop experience and we expect further significant changes in the coming years.
Recognising the changes in demand, the Company announced in March 2019 that it would gradually withdraw from offering accredited qualifications. All current students are being strongly encouraged to complete their qualifications. WCSM will continue to support the drive to increase skills in optical care, but through different means in future.
In 2016 a bursary programme was started to encourage talented young people to study for diplomas and degrees in dispensing, optometry and orthoptics in UK institutions. The programme was expanded in 2017 to include travel grants for ophthalmologists in training invited to present papers and posters at national and international conferences. The schemes are operated now through The Spectacle Makers’ Charity.
The joy of the optical world is that this is a sector in which there is a strong, accessible pathway for career progression. There are many examples of people who have started as a part time assistant, perhaps with very few formal qualifications to their name. With drive and enthusiasm, an interest in vision and a real commitment to helping others, they have developed their knowledge at work, progressed in their training at their own speed and in their own way and moved up through further and higher education to achieve their career goals.