The benefit of a public sector sealant programme for children in Australia is yet to be established. This study evaluated sealants placed by therapists of the School Dental Service in Victoria, between 1989 and 1994, on permanent teeth of children in 15 primary schools in Melbourne. Seven hundred and seventy four children aged 6-12 years were examined in school dental clinics by six calibrated examiners. A total of 5363 sealants placed on 2875 permanent teeth (including 2616 first molars, 91 per cent of sample) up to four and a half years previously was examined. Values for complete and partial sealant retention were highest for premolars (86 per cent, 9 per cent respectively, total 95 per cent); similar for occlusal surfaces of maxillary and mandibular first molars (63 per cent, 30 per cent; 62 per cent, 32 per cent respectively) and buccal pits of mandibular molars (66 per cent); and low for pits/fissures of Carabelli's cusps of maxillary molars (44 per cent). Cross-sectional examination up to 24 months for both maxillary and mandibular first molars indicated average values of 67 per cent complete retention, 27 per cent partial retention, 6 per cent missing; thereafter complete retention decreased and partial retention increased. Sealant failures in the six months post-placement were attributed to technique failure. Regardless of sealant retention, caries experience was low under partially retained or missing sealants (4.5 per cent) and completely retained sealants (0.4 per cent). It is concluded that the SDS sealant programme is a sound preventive dental public health approach.