The Government's new National Oral Health Policy has ignored the key role that schools could play in educating young people about their oral health, the Irish Dental Association (IDA) has said.
It also warned that many schools still have a ‘sweet treat' culture and more emphasis needs to be placed on non-food rewards.
Earlier this week, the Government launched its new policy, Smile Agus Slainte, which among other things, promises free dental care to all children up to the age of 16.
However, according to the IDA, the policy has ignored the key role that pre-schools, primary schools and secondary schools could play in oral health education. It noted that while the new policy is over 150 pages long, no specific role is allocated to schools and this represents a missed opportunity.
Currently, there is no standard policy on oral health education in Ireland and it is up to individual schools to decide whether they want to include it in the curriculum.
"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," commented new IDA president, Prof Leo Stassen.
He insisted that as a country, Ireland needs to ‘break the treat/reward associaton at all levels'. This should include at teacher training level, where the introduction of non-food rewards such as stickers, homework passes and more play time, should 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," Mr Stassen said.
The IDA pointed out that Scotland and Wales have pioneered programmes in pre-schools and primary schools that have been adopted worldwide. These have been found to be very effective, while also saving the NHS millions in treatment costs.
The IDA insisted that straightforward programmes, such as supervised brushing for pre-schoolers, would achieve so much and would pay for themselves in the long term.
"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," Prof Stassen said.
He made his comments at the IDA annual conference in Galway.
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