Teenagers' struggle with early mornings is well documented, yet it has been ignored by the majority of schools, which have put the adolescent aversion to sunrise down to laziness and have resisted calls for later school start times. A growing weight of research, however, is making this lack of empathy increasingly problematic. Forcing teenagers to attend school at an hour before their minds and bodies are ready, academics say, may be damaging their health and grades.
The counter-arguments to the "teenagers are just lazy" theory began in the 1990s. From 1993 onwards, Dr Mary Carskadon led a team of researchers from Brown University on Rhode Island, US. They discovered a "phase shift" in the sleep patterns of teenagers, a finding that was confirmed in 2000.
This shift occurs during puberty and consists of a delay in the circadian clock, which controls the body's natural 24-hour cycle. In short, Carskadon found that teenagers were biologically predisposed to stay up later and sleep for longer in the mornings. It is a finding that has been built upon by other researchers, such as Professor Steven Lockley of Harvard Medical School in the US, who explains that asking a teenager to rise before 7am "might be like asking me to wake at 4am. Obviously, I would be tired, irritable and not in a good state to learn."
It is not just learning that is endangered when students are forced from their beds. According to Lockley, this issue extends beyond academic achievement. He refers to a "systematic reduction in sleep" caused by the lack of coordination between teenage body clocks and school start times. This could lead ultimately, he says, to a public health crisis. "Sleep disruption is associated with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, psychiatric disorders and some cancers," he explains.
Research into the issue is continuing throughout Europe, Canada and Australia. But it is in the US that work in this area is most advanced. With some US high schools starting as early as 7am, school buses can arrive at children's homes at 5.45am. It is unsurprising, then, that it is there that the debate is most vociferous. Indeed, some schools in the US switched to later start times as soon as Carskadon's team published its first findings.
Those schools added important data to the argument in favour of later start times. From 1996, Dr Kyla Wahlstrom, of the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota, observed students from two Minnesota school districts for a three-year period. After the switch to later start times, better attendance, lower drop-out rates and improved performance were recorded.
Data collected in 1998, meanwhile, when a school district in Fayette County, Kentucky, delayed its start time by an hour, showed a decrease in the vehicle collision rate among 16- to 18-year-old drivers.
These positive results led to other US schools making the switch, and similar changes were made in Australia and the UK.
A 10am start was introduced for 800 students at Monkseaton High School in North Tyneside, in 2009. It was instigated and observed by Russell Foster, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Oxford. Foster says that the outcomes were clear. "The Monkseaton experiment shows, frankly, that if you start at 10am, grades go up."
Dr Paul Kelley, principal of Monkseaton, went on to advise the new UCL Academy in northwest London, which is sponsored by University College London, to follow suit. It took the advice and introduced a 10am start for all its adolescent students.
Arguments persist, however, against postponing the start of the school day. One argument is a perceived negative impact on after-school activities, particularly competitive sports. However, Debbie DeFranco, a supervisor on the Arlington school board in Virginia, US, which was one of the earliest districts to adopt a school time change, says that this fear is unfounded. "It's a myth," she says. "We made it work quite well."
In the UK and Australia in particular, fears linger about union objections to longer working hours for teachers and support staff. This is part of the reason why there is a wider reluctance by government, advocates of the switch say, to engage in debate on the issue.
Professor Timothy Olds of the University of South Australia is part of a leading group of researchers pushing the issue at government level. He estimates that about 5 per cent of schools in Australia have now changed to a later start time of 10am. But, he says, it is difficult to implement more widespread change without government backing. "It's too much trouble. Governments tend to shy away from it. In Australia, politicians are very reluctant to take up anything that is too much trouble," he says.
The main problem with later starts, though, is a logistical one, according to Ian Bauckham, principal of Bennett Memorial Diocesan School in Kent and vice-president of the Association of School and College Leaders union.
"It would be highly impractical as you would have a staggered day, with children coming and going at different times, and that could play absolute havoc with every element of the school," he says.
Bauckham adds that the role of schools is to prepare children for an adult working life, so training them to be reliable and to conform to set times is essential.
Lockley insists, though, that the evidence proves the benefits unequivocally and should assuage any doubts about the detrimental effects of a switch. He stresses that there is "real biology" underpinning the movement and that teachers and governments have only to read the evidence to realise that the issue of adolescent slow starts in the morning is more than "lazy teenagers and staying up late".
- The majority of schools make no allowance for teenagers in terms of school start times.
- However, research suggests that delaying school start times for teenage students can improve their grades and health.
- Some schools have already done this with good results, in particular in the US.
- That said, concerns remain about how later start times would impact on after-school activities and how practical it would be for schools to have students arriving at different times.
- Doubts linger about the science, yet those in the field stress that research is based on "real biology".