The cost-of-living crisis is impacting on the oral health of children in classrooms across Britain, with most teachers now stepping in to provide pupils with the basics, according to new research. 
A survey of secondary teachers by grassroots hygiene poverty charity Beauty Banks in partnership with the British Dental Association (BDA) revealed:
4 in 5 (83%) 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 toothpaste.
40% said this leads to students being socially excluded by their pe
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
report said it effected their mental health. 1 in 4 are kept awake at night worrying about their students’ wellbeing. 38% report feeling helpless.
News follows warnings made early in the New Year from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, that toothbrushes are becoming a “luxury item” for some families, and that the state of children’s dental health is a “national disgrace”.
Beauty Banks, established in January 2018, supports individuals and families in the UK who can’t afford to stay clean. Jo Jones, co-founder of Beauty Banks says: “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 3.
“So we initiated this research with the British Dental Association to fully understand th
e immediate and long-term impact of a lack of access to fundamental but vital oral hygiene essentials”
Tooth decay remains the most common reason for hospital admissions among young children. According to the BDA, tooth decay in children has reached epidemic levels, with any recent gains set to be undone by ongoing access problems and disruption to public health programmes.
British Dental Association Chair Eddie Crouch said: “Our youngest patients face a perfect storm, with millions unable to access care, or even the basics to maintain good oral health. This shocking survey underlines that deep health inequalities are set to widen.
“Yet while our children face an epidemic of decay, the government seems asleep at the w
The latest NHS dental statistics indicate that just 44.8% of children attended a dentist appointment in the last year, down from 58.7% in 2019/20, a net result of pandemic disruption.
Unsurprisingly, this oral hygiene crisis creates a more challenging working environment for teachers.
Beauty Banks co-founder Sali Hughes said: “Our teaching workforce spend
s a significant amount of time dealing with the impact of poverty on pupils, that they want to spend on educating their classes.
“Hygiene poverty causes not only social exclusion in children but in educa
tional exclusion, too.”
Severe access problems and the cost-of-living-crisis create a perfect storm for teachers and their students. In August, BBC research in partnership with the BDA found that 91% of practices in England could not take on new adult NHS patients. 79% were not accepting new child NHS patients.
45% of teachers participating in the survey said their local dentist wasn’t accepting new NHS patients. 1 in 4 were anxious about visiting the dentist because of treatment bills. Over a fifth (22%) said they struggled to afford hygiene basics like toothpaste, shampoo and deodorant.
While NHS dentistry is free for children and some adults, often based on their benefit status, many on modest incomes have to pay. Dental charges were first introduced to discourage attendance, and nearly 1 in 5 adult patients have delayed treatment for cost reasons, according to the last Adult Dental Health Survey. Dentist leaders are now deeply concerned that current economic conditions and access problems will inevitably see more patients deferring treatment.
“Nearly every patient coming through is telling us they’re feeling the pinch,” warns Pau
l Woodhouse, a dentist in Stockton-on-Tees.
“We’re seeing a spike in last-minute cancellations. Others choose extractions simply because it’s cheaper than treatment that could save a tooth. Appointments are hard to come by, but for many on modest incomes, dentistry is becoming a luxury they simply can’t afford.”
Case study: A secondary school in Central London
The Designated Safeguarding Lead in a secondary school in Lewisham said: “With the co
st-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.”
 TOOTH HURTS: SMILES SHAPED BY POVERTY Polling by Mortar Research of 260 UK state secondary school teachers, fieldwork October 2022. For more information contact 07968 791684