A new beginning

Aberdeen dental school has not had its troubles to seek in recent times but, according to its new head Richard Ibbetson, the potential is there for it to be a quality centre of education in the north east

01 February, 2016 / indepth
 David Cameron    Kate Sutherland

The first thing that strikes you about Richard Ibbetson is his air of calm, assured professionalism and command. When it’s mixed with an almost youthful enthusiasm, it leaves the impression that this is not only a man with the knowledge, skill and experience to get a job done, but of someone who retains the energy and enthusiasm to drive any project put in front of him through to a successful outcome.

For the task he has ahead of him, he’s going to need both, in spades. Professor Ibbetson is the new head of the Aberdeen Dental School and the man who has chosen to accept the chalice – it has yet to be seen how poisoned it is – that contains a school which, over the past few years, has been mired in controversy as the General Dental Council (GDC) ripped it to shreds over, among other things, its teaching standards, injuries to patients, and a virtual revolt by students.

As the country, never mind the profession, saw the school’s dirty washing hung out in public through last year’s GDC report into its performance, it made for torrid reading. And that was to say nothing of the underlying simmering political debate as dental professionals and politicians slugged it out over what many claimed was nothing more than a vanity legacy the former First Minister Alex Salmond wished to leave behind to his beloved north east. Why, the critics cried, is it there at all when the centres of excellence that are Glasgow and Dundee already exist?

Do I worry about what anyone might say about this place in Glasgow or Dundee? No, frankly, I don’t

Richard Ibbetson, head of Aberdeen Dental School

Richard Ibbetson’s answer is as concise as it is sharp: “Do I worry about what anyone might say about this place in Glasgow or Dundee? No, frankly, I don’t.
If I were there, I might be saying the same thing. But Aberdeen’s here; it might be small, but it’s going to stay. It mighttake five years, but it’s going to be very, very good!”

It appears that an excellent start has already been made. The most recent GDC inspection report is a night and day improvement on the previous year and has ticked virtually all the boxes within the educational and clinical training arenas.

Only the examination processes themselves have been left with work to do and that is something that Ibbetson argues will, as he would expect, take time and effort to sort, neither of which the staff at Aberdeen have shirked away from in turning things around over the past 18 months or so.

Indeed, when he arrived in post earlier this year, the professor was pleasantly surprised and pleased by what he found among the people who, by the very nature of what had gone before, must have been at a fairly low ebb in terms of morale.

“I wouldn’t have come here if I thought I couldn’t see the positive way ahead. In the past year, there has been an enormous amount of work that has gone into first of all managing the requirements of the GDC, which I fully recognise is necessary, important and can’t be escaped.

“However, what I found was a group of staff who, despite everything that had gone before, were actually very keen and very dedicated to what they were trying to do. This was very impressive.

“What I also found were cohorts of students whose qualities have shone through. They are good, mature individuals who have achieved degrees before, work very hard here and have a great attitude. That has been a great help to the school.”

However, what of the elephant in the room? Ibbetson himself has a formidable – and admirable – reputation. Colleagues around the country speak in glowing terms of his abilities as a clinician, academic and leader. However, he simply can’t turn Aberdeen around on his own and, so far, the senior academic posts at the school remain mainly unfilled. Surely lack of such senior guidance will hold him back?

“There is no doubt that what the school perceives it needs is more senior academics. This creates an interesting challenge, of course. Because if you were a senior academic, you have to ask if you would consider moving to Aberdeen and there are multiple reasons for that. Location, cost – Aberdeen is an expensive city – and, of course, you also have to say that if I was an aspiring young academic or someone who was pretty senior looking for a promotion, if I’m any good, my own dental school would want to keep me because there is a shortage of clinical academics just now.

“I was asked the question, how will you attract high-level academics? There are three answers to that: First, I’m confident that we will attract one or two: I have ongoing discussions with a number of senior academics as we try to work out a way of bringing them here.

“The second element in this is to bring in experienced, upskilled GDPs – which we have done – who have the necessary additional qualifications that make them ideal teachers.

“And third, because of the issues that have been here, the existing staff really have had to stand up and upskill themselves and, to some extent, they have been proofed in fire and gained an enormous amount of knowledge and skill that they don’t actually realise they have. There is a very good team of people here right now who can deliver.

“I will recruit, but the other 50 per cent of the direction of the school will come from developing its own. It’s about career paths for people who are already here.
They are very talented and need the opportunity to grow and develop – I have to give them the space to do that and that’s what I intend to do.”

The major issue then in moving forward is not so much in the teaching resource, but in the question of achieving the holy grail of sufficiency.

The GDC report in 2015 made it clear that the inspectors will be back again in 2016, but this time their focus will almost certainly be on exam process rather than teaching and the clinical capabilities of the students.

If, or rather when, Ibbetson makes sure that particular box is ticked, then he and the team can kick on into a different gear. Yes, there are hurdles that will have to be overcome, and they will not be without their challenges, but on the other side of that, a vision is already being formulated.

Ibbetson is committed to making Aberdeen Dental School much more than simply a teaching centre for dental undergraduates. It has to deliver in terms of patient care, education and professional development of practitioners in the north east.

Key to this has been the work that has already been done in forging a much closer and more effective working relationship between the school and NHS Grampian. The improved sharing of resources in terms of knowledge, both clinical and administrative, and in the way patients are managed is already proving beneficial to both parties.

The upskilling of GDPs to be able to tackle clinical challenges that they would otherwise not have been able to do is central to building the skills networks
that are becoming increasingly more prevalent around the country and that benefit not just the practitioners, but also the wider community.

“I want to start two post-graduate programmes. One will be in restorative dentistry and the other will be in special care dentistry,” says Ibbetson.

“These are important because of changes in the way that dental health care is delivered, in practice or outside, because patient expectations continue to increase, demands on hospital services and specialists continues to increase and at present we can’t really meet them.

“England is moving more and more towards the idea that you have to have upskilled intermediate practitioners who can deal with the work that might be too difficult for the GDP, but not too difficult for the GDP who has had additional training. Managed clinical networks are coming and we want to be a part of that. We are already exploring how we might bring forward an endodontic network.

“Through the school and with the co-operation of our secondary care NHS colleagues in restorative care and the like, we are going to train people. So we can then help NHS provision in the north on a much wider basis.”

The school, he argues, must also have a role to play in research. Ibbetson believes there are several members of staff whose potential contributions to research have been thwarted to a degree by being deflected by issues highlighted, and contributed to, by the GDC.

And, he says, the school has a central role to play in the wider community of Aberdeen and the north east. Already, the closer working relationship with NHS Grampian is paying dividends and the flow of patients to the school, which had been a significant problem in recent years, has improved. This has meant that students have more patients to train on – under proper supervision – and that there is an improved service to the community.

There has even been an open day held at the school in which local people could come and see for themselves the superb facilities that are available to them.

The journey that Ibbetson and his team have ahead of them is not going to be without its turbulent twists and turns and there will undoubtedly be many difficult challenges to be faced and overcome. But with Professor Ibbetson at the helm, it would appear that the school is very much set on a healthy new course.


Professor Richard Ibbetson graduated from Guy’s Hospital Dental School, University of London, in 1974 and completed an MSc in Conservative Dentistry at the Eastman Dental Institute in 1979.

He then spent 20 years on the staff of the Institute and later was head of the Department of Conservative Dentistry before developing a new Department of Continuing Education. In 1999, he was appointed chair of Primary Dental Care at the University of Edinburgh and director of the new Edinburgh Postgraduate Dental Institute with a particular remit to develop postgraduate dental education and education for the dental team.

He was then appointed as professor of Restorative Dentistry at Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry. He is a past dean of the Faculty of Dental Surgery of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and holds an Honorary Professorship at the University of Edinburgh.

In March 2014, he was appointed director of the graduate entry dentistry programme (BDS) at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan).

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