9:00 AM May 16, 2022
A school has been forced to arrange free teeth checks for its pupils, in a sign of the crisis in dental care in the region.
West Earlham Infant School has linked up with a local dentists after staff became concerned about the number of pupils suffering from problems with their teeth.
When parents were contacted, they said they were finding it difficult to make appointments for their children because of a shortage of NHS dentists.
Norfolk and Waveney was recently named as one of the five worst ‘dental deserts’ in the country, with more than 2,000 patients for every dentist working in the region.
The partnership between West Earlham Infant School and John G Plummer Associates dentists this week saw all 180 pupils given a free screening and oral health checks in the assembly hall.
Following the start of the project, other Norfolk schools have since expressed an interest in launching similar schemes.
The initiative was the brainchild of West Earlham’s deputy head teacher Jade Hunter. “It started as a bit of a dream for me. We were becoming increasingly aware of more and more children coming into school with aches and pains in their mouths and tooth decay,” she said.
“We spoke to our parents about it and they were almost all saying they found it impossible to either get appointments on the NHS and they just can not afford to go private.”
Ms Hunter contacted Plummers, a Norfolk-based dentist, which already runs a service called the Happy Smile Club, which involves giving talks in school about good oral hygiene. Until now, it has not involved actually examining teeth.
Ms Hunter added: “I knew about the Happy Smiles Club that Plummers runs and it just got me thinking – could it go a step further?
“So I did my Dragon’s Den pitch of having dental appointments in school to them not really thinking it could come off – but if you don’t ask, you don’t get.
“If children come into school uncomfortable or in pain, they can not concentrate and they do not learn, so it was so important to try and find a way of addressing this.”
The arrangement saw two dentists brought into the school for a day to carry out routine screenings – with youngsters then referred to the surgery to rectify any conditions identified.
Marijka Barber, a dental nurse at Plummers, said: “Education is so important when it comes to oral health, as prevention is better than having to find a cure.
“Some of the children have never been to a dentist in their lives, so it might be a bit scary for them but we want to make sure it is a positive experience for them so if they do then come afterwards they know exactly what to expect.
“We have already had other schools get in touch interested in doing something like this too, so it has been very well received.”
Ms Hunter added: “We have had 100pc uptake from parents of this and all the feedback we’ve had has been fantastic.”
The partnership has been welcomed by Healthwatch Norfolk, which this week highlighted troubles people have had sourcing dental appointments across the county.
Alex Stewart, its chief executive, said: “Any project which can help give children access to a dentist is a good thing, and we would both support and highlight other practices and organisations who come up with similar schemes.
“It is also vitally important to ensure that children’s dental care is a priority otherwise we could be creating a greater increase in dental issues and oral health for future generations.
“We also remain very concerned about access to NHS dentistry in Norfolk as a whole. The contracts which are partially contributing to this problem need to be looked at again at a senior level and we would also like to see how the shortfall in dentists locally is also going to be addressed.”
Dentistry is no different to any other sector of the health care system in that it faces an uphill battle against backlogs caused by the pandemic.
In the early stages of lockdown, surgeries were forced to close to all but emergency procedures. Surgeries have been playing catch-up with routine work ever since.
But what makes dentistry different is its relationship with the rest of the NHS – with practices providing services on contract basis.
This difference in funding means that they must perform private work to cover the costs of the less financially-rewarding NHS work.
Having lost out on so much revenue over the pandemic, some surgeries have stopped taking on NHS work altogether.
While emergency slots are kept free, the fact a school has taken this measure to get involves shows the extent of the difficulties families face.