'Letting teenagers start late? Routine is something they have to learn – deal with it'

2nd April 2017 at 16:02
Sleeping patterns and mental health
New research finally debunks the myth that a later school start time would benefit teenagers' learning, writes one headteacher

Well, that’s a relief. The Center for American Progress, a US thinktank, was the latest body (in 2016) to propound the theory that teenagers would learn better if they started school later.

I confess that I was worried as the evidence appeared to mount up: my gut feeling was that it was spurious science, and that we would do our pupils a disservice if we decided to fit the school day around kids who can’t get out of bed.

So I welcome the publication of new research, far more authoritative, which finally debunks that myth.

According to a Tes article earlier this week, “academics from Surrey University and Harvard Medical School … argue that delaying school times would simply cause most teenagers’ internal clocks to drift later, and in a matter of weeks they would find it just as hard to get out of bed”.

I’m sympathetic to those who aren’t natural early risers. I’m not one who catches the worm, and find the winter grind of arriving at work before it’s light pretty depressing, particularly when it’s dark again by 4pm (which just goes to show how gritty and resilient we Northerners are).

I’ve never been one of those macho school leaders who’s first into school and last out. I reckon I put the hours in: but not by being at my desk at sparrow’s fart.

Conversely, at my advanced age, I don’t actually sleep well: at this late stage of term (schools are still working up in the North East), my brain’s so overloaded that I feel I spend half the night awake: when the alarm goes off, I’m asleep again, trying to catch up.

They'd just go to bed even later...

I’m sharing my middle-aged angst only to show that I can empathise with those who hate getting up. Nonetheless, my instinct chimes with this new research: starting late would mean finishing late, so teenagers would simply go to bed even later.

Adolescents, fighting hormones and who knows what else, are unlike other beings: but they are not so different from the rest of us that we should feel obliged to create a discrete timetable for them.

Currently anticipating the joy of retirement, I’ll enjoy liberation from the tyranny of the alarm-clock and work schedule: after 39 years at the chalk face, I think I’ve earned that luxury. But the routine of work (and, come to that, school) is something we just have to live with. Deal with it.

I’m susceptible to light. I was starting to wake up early, with the dawn, until the clocks went forward last Sunday: Monday morning suddenly felt dark and cheerless again.

As it happens, the Surrey/Harvard researchers had something interesting to say about light. The later teenagers stay up, the more they use lights, and stare at screens. They would do better, say the researchers, to have brighter illumination during the day and turn the lights down (and screens off) at night.

As Tes reported: “The analysis took into account factors such as whether someone is naturally a morning or evening person, the effects of natural and artificial light on body clocks and the typical time of an alarm clock."

Even accounting for variables, they found that too much light and screen time in the evening adversely affects sleep. That matches precisely the growing body of research into sleep and mental health: poor sleep is linked to poor mental health.

“An hour before midnight is worth two after,” my old Mum used to say. Have scientists carried out all that research just to prove the bleedin’ obvious?

Maybe: but it’s true and, if nothing else, they’ve nailed a silly lie based on dodgy science.

If they get enough sleep at the right time, teenagers indeed can get up and into school – and learn better, too. So that’s the next challenge for schools and parents!

QED. I’m a whole lot happier.

Still, come the weekend, it’ll be good to have a lie-in…

Dr Bernard Trafford is headteacher of the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne, and a former chair of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at @bernardtrafford

To read more columns, view his back catalogue

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