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Teenagers to sleep late for neuroscience


The ordeal of dragging teenagers out of bed in the morning could be a thing of the past if the first large-scale trial of moving the start of the school day to 10am is successful.

The £696,000 project is one of six announced today by medical research charity the Wellcome Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation. It will explore how neuroscience can help students to learn.

The sleep and attainment study, run by researchers from the University of Oxford, aims to recruit 13,800 15-year-olds from more than 100 schools to test whether having a school start time of 10am will lead to better GCSE results.

Professor Colin Espie of Oxford University said: “Developmental changes during the teenage years lead to teenagers not being as tired as they ought to be at bed time and sleeping in later. We’re exploring the possibility that if you delay the school start time until 10am, that additional hour every day over a year will improve their performance.”

The study will also include a sleep education programme – to teach teenagers about the importance and science of sleep.

Professor Russell Foster, also from Oxford University, added: “Unless we include a proper education about the importance of sleep, the students may well just go to bed later and get up later because they can.”

He added that there was a biological shift in body clocks that begins at around age 10, when children start getting sleepy later, but that iPads and mobile phones have exacerbated this natural effect.

The trial will run over two years. Some schools will trial a later school time, some will only try the sleep lessons and some will do both.

Later school start times have been trialled before. Research from the USA, where some schools start at 7am, has suggested a later day can work.

In the UK, Monkseaton High School in Whitley Bay, Tyneside trialled a 10am start for all 800 students from October 2009. A change of headteacher saw an end to the experiment and the school now begins its day at 8.55am. But interest in the topic remains; Hampton Court House independent school in Surrey has decided to timetable sixth-form lessons from 1.30pm to 7pm from this September.

Dr Hilary Leevers, head of education and learning at the Wellcome Trust, said: “Many teachers are keen to try new approaches based on neuroscience; however we have so far lacked evidence about what will actually be beneficial to their students.”

In total, £4m has been awarded to researchers for projects that will involve more than 76,000 students.

Other trials going ahead include an exploration of whether children learn better if there is an element of uncertainty in getting a reward for the right answer.

In this study, led by Bristol University, 12-year-olds working in teams will try to gain points through their science classwork. They can choose whether to gamble their points using a ‘wheel of fortune’ which will decide how many points they get.

Other trials include introducing intense PE lessons, using a computer game to train pupils not to jump to conclusions, repeating lessons over different periods of time and improving literacy through learning common letter groups such as ‘-ove’.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union, said: “There will be extreme interest from the profession in these trials. A lot of members are interested in neuroscience, particularly those who work in special schools which have been at the leading edge.

"It is quite early days, but I think that neuroscience will become to education what biology is to medicine, the foundation science. It is a long way from transforming education at the moment, but it’s a first step on the journey.”

Dr Kevan Collins, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, said: “We hope to develop a significant body of evidence that can be used by teachers and school leaders to improve attainment, especially for disadvantaged pupils.”


Related stories:

Teachers demand training in neuroscience to improve classroom practice 14 April 2014

‘From brain scan to lesson plan?’ Millions for neuroscience research in UK classrooms 7 January 2014 

Open your mind to the teachings of neuroscience 12 March 2013

Can’t sleep, won’t sleep 27 July 2012

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