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Dentists say new oral health policy has ignored the key role schools can play in oral health education

(04 Apr 2019)

The HSE’s new oral health policy has failed to include any meaningful role for pre-schools, primary schools or secondary schools in promoting good oral health practices according to the Irish Dental Association.

The IDA says there has been no unified state policy on oral health promotion in schools up to now but it had expected to see such programmes play a critical role in the HSE’s new Smile agus Slainte policy. It says the omission of such a role must be viewed as a missed opportunity.

Although the new policy runs to over 150 pages and mentions oral health promotion and protection programmes many times, no specific role has been allocated to schools in promoting oral health. The IDA believes the good habits which pre and primary schools in particular could engender would set children up for life while also saving the state money.

According to a recent WHO study poor oral health can negatively affect a child’s confidence and social skills while it leads to more than 50 million schools’ hours being lost each year.

That survey found the UK ranked last out of 13 countries in promoting good oral health. When asked if their child’s school provided lessons on the importance of good oral health, only 29% of UK parents said this was the case. The corresponding figure for Mexico was 93%.

The new President of the IDA, Professor Leo Stassen told delegates at the Association’s annual conference in Galway that the poor performance of our nearest neighbour should act as a wake-up call for Ireland.

“I fear to think what the answer of Irish parents to that question would be because at the moment there is no standard policy on oral health education here. Rather it is left up to individual schools on whether they want to include it in the school curriculum or not. That situation has not been addressed in the new oral health policy and indeed the key role of pre-school and primary school teachers in particular, is conspicuous by its absence.”

“The experience of most dentists is that the information given to young people here about oral health is, in most cases, minimal. Indeed, many schools still reward good behaviour with sweet treats, while end of term parties, cake sales and visits to fast food restaurants by teams after matches are unfortunately, regular features of school life. They shouldn’t be, and the same applies to home life and club activities also”

“As a country we need to break the treat/reward association at all levels including teacher training where the introduction of non-food rewards such as more play time, stickers, homework passes, sports equipment and board games should all be encouraged. Dental decay is the most common chronic disease children experience in Ireland and getting dental care into pre-schools and primary schools is a vital part of the solution.”

The IDA pointed out that Scotland and Wales have pioneered programmes in nurseries and primary schools that have been adopted worldwide. Scotland’s Childsmile and the Welsh Designed to Smile operate in both nursery and primary schools and have been found to be very effective while they have also shaved millions off NHS treatment costs.

The IDA says straightforward programmes like supervised brushing for pre-schoolers would achieve so much and would pay for themselves in the long run.

“Cash strapped pre-schools and primary schools can’t do this alone. That’s why these schemes must have state backing. One would hope that the new oral health policy will be flexible enough to revisit this area and be proactive in involving schools in oral health education. We have a template with Scotland’s Childsmile programme. We just need the will to introduce it here. If we can create a situation where childcare workers, teachers, dentists and other health professionals are all pulling together, we will be able to make great strides in reducing decay” Professor Stassen concluded.