By Mark Richards

Should the school day start later to fit in with teenagers’ sleeping patterns? There is plenty of evidence to suggest that it would make sense – and increasing numbers of schools are adopting the idea. But is it really practical? And what impact would it have on family life?

Sleep In! School Will Wait…

If you are a parent of teenagers, you will know there are several questions for which science has so far failed to provide an answer:

  • Why does my son need to carpet his floor with underpants?
  • How can they possibly eat so much?
  • And – inevitably – is she really going out with him?

But for the purposes of this article, there’s an even more fundamental question: why can’t they get out of bed in the morning? The answer is simple…

Teenagers need to sleep in

Sadly for parents, this is a proven fact. The biology of when we need to sleep – just like in other mammals – changes as we age. At puberty, bedtime and waking time get later. According to research, this continues until around 19-20 in women and slightly later in men. It then reverses, and as we go through adult life we are able to wake up earlier and earlier.

I remember my own days at university – totally unable to get out of bed for a 9 am lecture. And yet I am now quite happy to roll out of bed at five in the morning and my ideal working day would be 6 am until 2 pm. I accept I may be an exception to the rule, but a recent poll for YouGov found that most people in the UK would prefer to work from 8 am to 4 pm, rather than the traditional 9-to-5.

But that is not the case for teenagers

No, it isn’t. So if teenagers are scientifically proven to need to stay in bed later, then surely it makes sense for schools to start later? After all, who can learn if they have had an early morning alarm call at 7 am – which for a teenager is apparently the equivalent of 5 am? And besides, the only real reason the school days starts when it does is that, well… that is when it has always started.

Should the school day start later to fit in with teenagers’ sleeping patterns?

As far back as 2007, the Daily Mail was reporting that ‘Making teens start school in the morning is cruel’ following a speech given by Oxford University neuroscientist Russell Fuller.

Professor Fuller – head of Oxford University’s circadian neuroscience (the study of how daily patterns affect the brain) said that German and American schools which had switched to later start times had experienced improved success in exams and lower rates of truancy and depression. He added that forcing teenagers to get out bed and turn up early in the morning resulted in more errors, reduced motivation and more mental health problems – whereas allowing them a later start would lead to improved performance in key areas such as English and Maths.

As you might expect, Professor Fuller’s suggestions did not receive a wholly enthusiastic response. Reaction from Mail readers could politely be described as ‘mixed’ whilst an official from one of the teaching unions said,

“Schools have been trying to tackle this problem for years but have found that pupils are more receptive in the mornings.”

The evidence suggests otherwise

Whatever the views of Mail readers and teaching unions, the evidence supports Professor Fuller. The experiment of starting the school day later has been much more widely trialled in the US than in the UK, but the research suggests that it does improve attendance and grades. A study released in the US last year, looking at 30,000 students in 29 schools across seven states found that attendance and graduation rates increased by several percentage points. Two years after moving to a later school starting time, the average graduation rate at the schools had risen from 79% to 88%.

As the author of the report pointed out:

“This doesn’t just impact schools, it impacts all of society. As graduation rates improve, young people experience a higher chance of success after school and a higher chance of career success.”

The same has been found in Germany – and if you want to think completely outside the box, one German school has abandoned a set timetable and all grades until pupils reach 15. Results? The school is delivering the best exam results among all Berlin’s secondary schools.

So could it happen here?

As Theresa May announces a review of the way further education is funded, should she also announce a review of the school day in the light of evidence? Sadly, even considering the subject seems unlikely. There seem to be at least five good reasons why our education system will continue to do what it has always done:

There is a practical point: parents do not only have teenagers: it is not entirely unknown for parents to have children at more than one school. One school day running from 8:30 to 4:00 and another running from say, 11:30 to 7:00? Cue chaos all around and a further deterioration in family life.

And what about the teachers? They have a family life too, and their own children to feed, bathe and read a bedtime story to. You can imagine wide discontent in the teaching ranks if large numbers of schools suddenly announced they would not be finishing until the early evening.

There are safety issues. If the school day runs until 7 pm then there are going to be long periods of the year when your teenagers will be coming home in the dark. And it may be all too tempting for your offspring to mutter, “Oh, I’ll be back late. I’m going straight out after school.” “Where?” “Nowhere special.” (If you do not yet have teenagers you will hear a lot about ‘Nowhere Special.’ Vast numbers of teenagers spend vast amounts of time there.)

Besides aren’t we just pandering to another generation of snowflakes? After all, surely their boss is going to understand when they start work? ‘So the school day was moved so you could have a lie-in? No, no problem at all. I’ll just tell the factory to start work three hours later. And no – I don’t think anyone else will have a problem with working until 8:00 every night…’

Finally, there is school sport – and (embarrassingly) the impact it might have on the parents. I used to enjoy cheering my daughter on from the touchlines. I was – how can I put this – one of the more vociferous parents. Supposing I had come home, had a glass or two of wine and then watched her play football at 9 pm? “My dad? Yeah, he’s famous. The first spectator to be shown a red card…”