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Cost of living crisis leaves children's oral health on the line

Four in five teachers are now providing pupils with toothpaste and toothbrushes as the cost of living crisis bites.

We worked with hygiene poverty charity Beauty Banks on new research on secondary school teachers across the UK. It outlines the shocking state of their pupil's oral health, and why government has a responsibility to act.

Our survey reveals:

  • 83% of secondary teachers say they or their school have given students toothbrushes and toothpaste. 81% said there are children in their school who don't have regular access to supplies
  • 40% said this leads to students being socially excluded by their peers because of oral hygiene issues. Half report children isolating themselves. One third have witnessed bullying directly
  • 25% say children miss school because of poor oral hygiene. Three quarters (74%) said children who don't have regular access to oral health products have discoloured teeth. Half said children had noticeable tooth decay. 30% noted children in dental pain or suffering from halitosis
  • Nearly a third (31%) of teachers who witness poverty in the classroom said it affected their mental health. 1 in 4 are kept awake at night worrying about their students' wellbeing. 38% report feeling helpless.

Ongoing access problems and cost of living pressures represent a perfect storm for teachers and their students, with millions unable to access routine preventive care, and many now unable to afford the basics to maintain good oral health.

"This shocking survey underlines that deep health inequalities are set to widen" says BDA Chair Eddie Crouch. "Yet while our children face an epidemic of decay, the government seems asleep at the wheel."

Jo Jones, co-founder of Beauty Banks said: "We work with charities including food banks, family centres, domestic abuse centres, homeless shelters and universally - across the board - toothpaste is now our most requested item. Before the cost of living crisis, it wasn't even in the top three."

In August, BBC research in partnership with the BDA found that 91% of practices in England could not take on new adult NHS patients, with 79% not accepting new child NHS patients.

The testimony from teachers is heart-breaking. The Designated Safeguarding Lead in a secondary school in Lewisham said: "With the cost of living crisis, we are getting more calls than ever from parents who cannot afford to buy basic hygiene products. The cases of bullying amongst young people because of symptoms associated with poor oral hygiene is at a record high."

The Pastoral Leader for Key Stage 3 said: "The pastoral team within school are dealing with many students who are not brushing their teeth every day, are showering infrequently and cannot afford to wash and dry their clothes effectively."

The assistant head teacher noted "some students are still wearing Covid masks to hide their mouths."

We hope this research drives needed donations to our friends at Beauty Banks. But our youngest patients shouldn't be in this situation.

We will continue to press government and key stakeholders to act. Grim economic conditions and access problems will inevitably see more patients deferring treatment, leading to longer-term and more costly treatment in the future.

We need urgent action to restore access, and to remove barriers to care. We continue to push for a reformed NHS dental contract that puts prevention first.