24/10/2014 11:47 BST | Updated 20/05/2015 10:12 BST

Schools Should Be Looking After Kids' Teeth, Say Experts


Schools should be teaching pupils how to brush their teeth to prevent tooth decay and poor oral hygiene, according to new guidelines issued by health advisory body NICE.

The guidelines recommend that in nurseries and primary schools in areas deemed to be especially at risk of poor oral health in children, tooth brushing should take place on school premises, with staff members trained to supervise.

Astonishingly, one in 10 toddlers in the UK has rotten teeth before they reach the age of three. Parental neglect or, more commonly, ignorance is setting these children up for a lifetime of dental problems, experts warn.

One of the most common misconceptions is that 'milk' teeth don't require the same level attention as adult teeth because they will eventually fall out.

"Many people believe that the health of a child's first teeth does not matter as 'they will fall out anyway'," health consultant Mandy Murdoch told the BBC.

"However, severe tooth decay at a young age can have negative consequences in later life."

Some areas of the country were disproportionately affected by juvenile tooth decay - 34 per cent of children surveyed in Leicester were suffering from some form of tooth decay, compared to two per cent in some other areas.

Much of that disparity can be explained by socioeconomic, cultural and environmental factors. But NICE warns that despite advances in dental care, too many children continue to fall through the gaps.

"Around 25,000 young children every year are admitted to hospital to have teeth taken out," said Elizabeth Kay, Foundation Dean for the Peninsula Dental School. "Given that we know how to prevent dental disease this really should not be happening."

It's hard to disagree with those conclusions, but many parents will be asking: after rows over clothing, food, and term-time holidays, is this one more case of schools encroaching on personal aspects of childcare which have traditionally been the sole responsibility of parents?

And, from the other side of the fence, with teachers now expected to perform a myriad of services besides teaching to safeguard their pupils' social and emotional development, is this another case of parental responsibility being offloaded onto an already overburdened school system?

Ultimately, it's troubling that this debate even exists. Living in an advanced nation with access to some of the best healthcare in the world, there is simply no excuse for toddlers condemned to years of discomfort due to poor oral hygiene in their early years.

The health of the nation's children is, of course, the topmost priority, and so if teaching young children about the importance of brushing their teeth regularly and correctly in schools proves to be effective, any such program should be welcomed.

But if large numbers of parents are neglecting their children's teeth through ignorance or disregard of basic oral health, then it appears that we have a bigger problem to deal with - one which must ultimately be tackled at its root rather than shifted onto schools.

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