Training DSAs in London’s East End

The Abbey Road training scheme for dental surgery assistants (DSA), which celebrated eight years of hard work this summer, is something of a one-off achievement.

First set up as an urban regeneration project funded through Stratford Development Partnership, and adopted by an established local dental practice, it is now funded as an NHS training provider. The scheme runs as an offshoot of the practice within the dental surgery at Abbey Road, Stratford, in a purpose-built health centre, which was opened by Frank Dobson in 1999.

Applicants must have a good grasp of spoken and written English and have to convince the teaching staff that they will tackle the course and see it through. Formal entry qualifications are not required, but they are noted and welcomed.

Most applicants are aged between 18-24, female and local. Although we have had a sixteen-year old, a fifty-year-old, two men and, more recently, a group from Eastern Europe successfully complete the course.

One of the scheme’s key features is the 40-plus local dental practices that work in co-operation with it. These practices participate in the National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) assessment process and choose one of the trainees to become their employee for four days a week. Trainees come to Abbey Road on the fifth day for 12-18 months. No tuition fees are charged and some practices pay their trainees for the day they spend at Abbey Road.

Over 60% of Newham’s population belongs to ethnic minority groups. Many of the trainees are the first women of their families to have gone out to work.

DSA employment has proved for some to be more acceptable, culturally, than some other forms of health and social care, and it helps that both the training and the work are quite local.

Dental need was particularly high amongst people from ethnic minorities in the area, while the take-up of dental services was low. This has improved in recent years and anecdotal evidence suggests that the Abbey Road scheme has played a part in this.

The trainees are helping to get across the dental health message and have recruited their families and friends as dental patients.

David Stout, chief executive of Newham Primary Care Trust (PCT) and a member of the North London NHS Workforce Training Consortium which funds the Scheme, said: ‘Of course, we value the scheme for training dental nurses, but more broadly it has helped spread the word for dental health across Newham and it has provided another avenue for local people to begin work in health care.’

Training has now switched to the NVQ Level Three course. Abbey Road has also now become an NVQ Assessment Centre for DSAs.

The new General Dental Council (GDC) registration requirements for DSAs have caused an upsurge in demand for course places. However, the numbers of staff in training has to be kept up anyway because the average DSA staff career is nationally so short.

‘The key measure of [the scheme’s] success is the pass rate,’ says director Tam Bekele. ‘Seventeen trainees have recently sat the NVQ tests, fifteen passed outright and just two have been referred for another go.’

Amanda Henson, a senior tutor at Abbey Road, says the scheme’s success is down to three things. ‘This is a tribute to the hard work of the trainees, the dedicated patience of their GDP employers and the staff team at Abbey Road.’

Looking to the future, the scheme’s dental advisor Dr Man Patel concluded: ‘The White Paper on Further Education expects to extend education funding for training from 21 to 24 and the new dental contract is wreaking change on the profession.

‘The local economy in Newham is changing and Abbey Road will soon have its own local railway station and the huge Stratford International Station opens soon too. The Olympics will come and go and all of this will affect our dental practices and the DSA training scheme. What these effects will be, it is hard to predict, but it’s going to be interesting!’

Peter Waugh acted as project consultant for the development of Abbey Road Health Centre and the establishment of the training scheme. He has worked in urban development, health service management and in higher education.

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