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iSmile Dental Assisting Training Program

The program was developed specifically for Indigenous people in rural and remote areas of western New South Wales


The iSmile Dental Assisting Training Program is a multi-sector partnership providing a supported pathway for Aboriginal students to a career in oral health or related areas in the health industry. The program is a pathway commencing with Certificate II; building though Certificates III and IV at TAFE Western to guaranteed entry into the Charles Sturt University Bachelor of Oral Health Therapy and then to the Bachelor of Dentistry.


  • Charles Sturt University (CSU)
  • TAFE Western
  • Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations
  • Western NSW Local Health District
  • Bila Muuji Aboriginal Health Services Inc.

Rural and remote Indigenous people suffer from higher rates of oral disease as a result of limited access to dental and oral health practitioners.

The iSmile Dental Assisting Training Program was developed specifically for Indigenous people in rural and remote areas of western NSW to help address the severe shortage of oral health and dental practitioners in the area. The program enables Indigenous students to study within their local area and provides a pathway with strong employment opportunities in oral health. It is envisioned that by tailoring the training to rural and remote students, they will be more likely to remain in the area upon completion of their studies and therefore increase the number of dental assistants, oral health therapists and dental practitioners in these disadvantaged areas.

The iSmile Dental Assisting Training Program was introduced in 2013 for Aboriginal students from the Central West, North Western and Far West regions of NSW. The program commences with a 12 week full-time flexible delivery Certificate II in Skills for Work and Training. This introductory course provides students the opportunity to develop a range of skills in the classroom in addition to gaining work experience in the health/dental industry.

Upon completion of the Certificate II, students enrol in the Certificate III in Dental Assisting at TAFE Western’s ‘Winhanganha’ Aboriginal Learning Centre in Orange and access CSU’s state-of-the-art dental clinic to develop practical skills in addition to their theoretical knowledge. Students can leave at the end of the Certificate III qualified as a dental assistant, or continue on through the Certificate IV and pathway to university.

Encouraging students to transition from TAFE to university in order to further their career can be challenging. All iSmile students undertake regular clinical work in the university dental clinics and therefore become familiar and comfortable with the surrounds. It is envisaged that this familiarity will allow students to see they have a pathway to the Bachelor of Oral Health Therapy or Bachelor of Dentistry. At all stages, iSmile students use shared facilities with TAFE Western and CSU oral health and dental students at all levels of study.

The initial cohort consisted of 11 students from locations such as Broken Hill, Lightning Ridge, Dubbo, Newcastle, Condobolin and Parkes. Of the initial intake, nine students are nearing completion of their Certificate III and seven have indicated they are going to continue into the Certificate IV. The next cohort has commenced the program and with numbers growing with each intake it is proving to be popular.

As the program is still in the early stages it is difficult to provide evidence of success, however anecdotal outcomes have been very encouraging. The students are highly enthusiastic and engaged in their learning, they are building professional networks that they will be able to draw on throughout their careers, and they are looking to the future. A number of the students have indicated they intend on continuing into the Bachelor of Oral Health Therapy or Bachelor of Dentistry upon completion of the program.

As the program is broken into a series of qualifications, the students are able to use their skills in the workplace as they progress through the program. This is of benefit to the community as it is providing skilled oral health professionals in locations that have traditionally experienced shortages.

For partnerships to work and thrive there needs to be a strong common purpose. CSU and TAFE Western are dedicated to improving the educational outcomes and lives for Indigenous, regional, rural and remote Australians. TAFE Western is the single largest provider of vocational education and training for Aboriginal people in Australia. The idea of working together with the state and federal governments and industry in providing pathways for Indigenous people came naturally.

Building on long-established relationships, in 2008 CSU partnered with TAFE NSW, the NSW Police Force and the Department of Education Employment and Workplace Relations to develop the Indigenous Police Recruitment Our Way Delivery (IPROWD) training program. IPROWD, managed by TAFE Western, is a specialist training program to assist Aboriginal people to gain entry into the NSW Police Academy at Goulburn, the first step to becoming an officer in the NSW Police Force. IPROWD is offered at a range of locations including Broken Hill, Casino, Campbelltown, Dubbo, Maitland, Mount Druitt, Nowra, Redfern and Tamworth.

The success of IPROWD led CSU and TAFE Western to investigate opportunities to expand the partnership in line with the NSW Department of Education and Communities Aboriginal Education and Training Policy. Oral health was identified because both institutions had expertise and there was a proven shortage in the footprint of CSU and TAFE Western. Consultation with industry and government was undertaken and iSmile was introduced. Charles Sturt University and TAFE Western are currently exploring other targeted professions to develop pathways specifically for Indigenous students.

As the first intake of iSmile nears completion of the program, we will undertake a review and evaluation of the program. This will include mapping the students’ knowledge and skills to ensure the program is delivering students with the necessary skills to succeed either in practice or in further study. A mentoring program is currently being developed for students who have shown an interest in continuing their studies, and a research project to evaluate the effectiveness of the program through tracking employment outcomes for graduates is in the early stages of planning.

Image depicting four types of partnership. Inter-sectoral and Social/Community are high...

This case study is one of a series of 31 presented in our case study publication, Partnerships in Higher Education.

Posted 30 June 2015 Posted in General, Indigenous, Regional, rural and remote