Their body rhythms just don't kick in until 11am, suggest academics, who believe their research will lead to a change in school hours. Illustration: Otto
TEENAGERS WHO turn up late for school could soon have science on their side. They are not being lazy but simply in tune with their natural body rhythms, academic research has found.
Younger children and adults thrive on going to bed and getting up early, but teenagers follow a different pattern. This means that they do not work and learn at their best first thing in the morning.
Russell Foster, a professor at Oxford University, said making older pupils follow an early-morning timetable could have a detrimental impact on their education.
Discovering how alert pupils are at different times of day is one area of neuroscience that has caught the attention of Monkseaton community high school in Whitley Bay on Tyneside, which is set to become a trust school.
Monkseaton wants to become known for its cutting-edge work into brain research and its implications for the future of education.
"It is a very new field, but the impact on educational and physiological development could be huge," said David Reynolds, professor of education at Plymouth university and proposed chairman of the Monkseaton trust.
"We don't want to do it because it's trendy or exciting. We won't do anything until we've studied the field. But in America people are already taking seriously the implications of research on practice," he said.
With long-term commitment from trust partners, including Microsoft and the Open university, Monkseaton intends to be the first UK school to use research into cognitive neuroscience.
The school already has a database with detailed information about each pupil - including height, weight and health - taken from thorough fitness tests last year. This kind of technological back-up will quickly alert the school if new approaches are having a negative effect.
Over the past two years, the school has carried out a series of short and long-term memory tests, trialling the best ways to make lessons stick.
Paul Kelley, Monkseaton's charismatic head, is confident the school's tests will back up academic research into memory.
"You can teach kids their French verbs day in and day out and they won't remember them," he said. "But if you teach them something three times in short bursts, with a 10-minute break between each go, it transfers the short term to the long term.
"We have done a trial and it appears to have worked. We are still compiling the final data but it looks as if this method makes a difference in standard GCSE style and multiple-choice questions."
The school was assisted by Dr Terry Whatson, an Open university expert in neurobiology, who devised the tests and helped plan appropriate lessons.
Mr Kelley said that rigorous scientific methods were necessary if the results were to be properly validated and accepted.
A similar approach is being brought to the school's plans to test its pupils' body rhythms to see if they would benefit from starting school later in the day.
Professors Reynolds, Foster and Daniel Muijs, from Manchester university, will meet later this month to discuss the latest research on circadian rhythms (the 24-hour cycle) and how they can test the theories at Monkseaton.
The tests, although not finalised, are expected to include measurements of alertness throughout the day, which may include pupils wearing a device to assess levels of concentration.
"An increasing body of evidence from sleep researchers suggests that relatively minor changes in the way we time educational activities could have major benefits," Professor Foster recently wrote.
Mr Kelley said if the research showed that starting school at 10am or 11am brought benefits to learning, there would be a case for changing the school day.
"Teachers might be concerned about a longer day, but we could hold meetings before school so that they would leave at the same time as pupils," he said.
The amount of natural daylight pupils are exposed to is another area the school wants to look at. It is due to have a new building in September 2008, with increased levels of natural light. If that is shown to have an impact on pupils' ability to concentrate, it could have significant implications for the Building Schools for the Future programme, which is renewing all secondary school buildings over the next 15 years.
Monkseaton, which is one of 50 pathfinder schools, is expected to open as a trust by the summer, under the fitting title of the Innovation Trust.
Mr Kelley said: "We already have a history of innovation in providing language courses to primary schools and offering Open university modules to sixth form pupils. Neuroscience is another way we can continue to innovate.
We want other schools to be able to learn from us."