Filling the Science Cavity in Oral Health Education: What can Schools Realistically Achieve?

Filling the Science Cavity in Oral Health Education: What can Schools Realistically Achieve?
Teeth? Not something that springs to mind when we consider quality education and teachers’ work. Yet oral health care affords an intriguing insight into the challenges facing schools and teachers as they navigate the competing demands of student health and academic performance.

Recently in a remote Queensland town, local primary school teachers outlined their new strategy for combating the poor oral health.

Having failed in their efforts to enlist the interest and engagement of parents, these teachers had devised a sibling tooth brushing program to motivate older students’ support of their little brothers’ and sisters’ daily brushing and flossing.

This story captures the tensions teachers face as they are called upon to provide the social welfare nets and “inoculate” young people against the ills of society.

However, they must do so within the context of an education landscape dominated by NAPLAN testing, performance pay, technological advances and ongoing curriculum change.

Intuitively schools as sites for health promotion, appears logical.

Current statistics on the state of Australia’s oral health provide a convincing case in point, with more than 26,000 children under 15 years hospitalised each year for dental treatment under general anaesthesia.

A growing body of research shows that poor oral health at an early age can significantly affect school performance, social skills and self-esteem.

Oral health education could play a fundamental role in addressing these challenges and Australia’s new Health and Physical Education (HPE) curriculum seeks to provide an educative contribution to this endeavour.

But, health education advocates have repeatedly demonstrated the marginalisation of HPE within a crowded curriculum that emphasises literacy, numeracy and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Researchers from The University of Queensland, who have been investigating the health work of Australian teachers, have also found that the proportion of teachers who felt they had the required expertise and confidence to deliver health education was low.

Not surprisingly then, schools often rely on external providers to deliver programs that typically focus on behavioural rather than learning outcomes, and rarely engage the classroom teachers who can respond to the specific needs of students.

We need therefore, to devise innovative strategies that provide realistic, learning oriented programs that meet the needs of teachers and inspire student engagement.

In Australia, the national sense of urgency and interest in addressing children’s STEM skills, provides one possible strategy for the delivery of health by stealth.

Oral health care poses a unique ‘vehicle’ through which to enhance Australian students’ health and science knowledge, skills and attitudes.

Learning about dietary sugar, remineralisation, fluoride and calcium-rich saliva, all provide teachers with an opportunity to investigate and understand the scientific content of the Australian Science curriculum.

So Australian schools and teachers CAN play a critical role in achieving both health and science education outcomes, but we all have our part to play in realising these ambitions.

In placing responsibility for youth health on individual teachers and schools, government and society are implicitly absolved of obligations to collectively address health concerns.

Instead, we need our politicians to allocate funding to resource the critical teacher professional development, such as the ACHPER Queensland HPE teachers’ conference happening this month.

Private enterprise can also be harnessed to fund health education initiatives, but public policy informing corporate funding of Australian schooling is lagging well behind a competitive edu-business marketplace.

Parents can also play a role in advocating for core HPE curriculum time.

So the future of school health education could be a vibrant one, but it takes a collaborative approach to drive sustainable action.

Schools need the resources to devise innovative win/win learning strategies that harness children’s sophisticated engagement with technology or current science education imperatives to allow the ‘brush twice a day’ message to penetrate the complex landscape of Australian schooling.

As seen on EducationHQ