School leaders say teachers should not be required to step in and look after pupils’ dental health.
Reports released this week reveal that almost a third of five-year-olds in England have some tooth decay, a situation that dentists have referred to as “frightening” and a “crisis”. Almost 26,000 general anaesthetics are given to children between the ages of 5 and 9, so that they can have teeth removed.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers’ union, is concerned that teachers often end up having to take responsibility for pupils’ dental hygiene.
"It’s the parents’ job to teach children to brush their teeth,” he said. “But not every child has parents who are willing to do that.
“We should be asking ourselves whether it’s schools’ job to do that, or whether society should be intervening to help these children.”
In October last year, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence published guidelines urging schools to supervise nursery and primary pupils brushing their teeth for two minutes twice a day.
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, questioned whether this was schools’ responsibility.
“There’s quite clearly a very pressing need for a public health campaign targeted to parents about this,” he said. “It’s the responsibility of parents to ensure that children clean their teeth and are taken to the dentist.”
Colin Harris, headteacher of Warren Park Primary School in Hampshire, has introduced toothbrushing for pupils after lunch.
“My students are not deprived of the love of their parents, but many are deprived of money,” Mr Harris said. “And the majority are deprived of a dentist – there are simply not enough dentist surgeries in this area.”
Mr Hobby argued that schools were expected to monitor pupils' dental health because it is easier to check up on them than on parents.
“It seems that they want schools to do everything, really,” he said. “It’s really quite hard to hold parents to account for the way they raise their children. But it’s quite easy to hold schools to account.
“The question is whether you’re picking the right target, or the easy target.”