The cost of living crisis is impacting the oral health of children in classrooms across Britain, with teachers now stepping in to provide pupils with the basics, according to new research.

A survey of secondary teachers by hygiene poverty charity Beauty Banks in partnership with the British Dental Association (BDA) revealed:

  • Four in five (83 per cent) say they or their school have given students toothbrushes and toothpaste. Eighty-one per cent said there are children in their school who don’t have regular access to toothpaste.
  • Forty per cent said this leads to students being socially excluded by their peers because of oral hygiene issues. Half report children are isolating themselves. One-third have witnessed bullying directly.
  • Twenty-five per cent say children miss school because of poor oral hygiene. Three-quarters (74 per cent) said children who don’t have regular access to oral health products have discoloured teeth. Half said children had noticeable tooth decay. Thirty per cent noted children in dental pain or suffering from halitosis.
  • Nearly a third (31 per cent) of teachers who witness poverty in the classroom report said it affects their mental health. One in four are kept awake at night worrying about their student’s well-being. Thirty-eight per cent report feeling helpless.
  • The news follows warnings 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”.

Jo Jones, the 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 three.

“So we initiated this research with the British Dental Association to fully understand the 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.

Eddie Crouch, British Dental Association chair, 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 wheel."

The latest NHS dental statistics indicate that just 44.8 per cent of children attended a dentist appointment in the last year, down from 58.7 per cent in 2019/20, a net result of the pandemic’s disruption.

Unsurprisingly, this oral hygiene crisis creates a more challenging working environment for teachers.

Sali Hughes, Beauty Banks co-founder, said, “Our teaching workforce spends 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 educational 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 per cent of practices in England could not take on new adult NHS patients. Seventy-nine per cent were not accepting new child NHS patients.

Forty-five per cent of teachers participating in the survey said their local dentist wasn’t accepting new NHS patients. One in four was anxious about visiting the dentist because of treatment bills. Over a fifth (22 per cent) 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 one in five 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.

Paul Woodhouse, a dentist in Stockton-on-Tees, warns, “Nearly every patient coming through is telling us they’re feeling the pinch.

"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 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 are at a record high."

The pastoral leader for Key Stage 3 said, "The pastoral team within the 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."