Drawbacks of a 6am start dawn on boarding school

15th April 2016 at 00:00
State boarders join Oxford study to examine the possible benefits of a later start to the school day

First knock at Durand Boarding School is usually greeted with groans, sighs and heads buried under duvets.

The initial 6am wake-up call to pupils at the state boarding school in Midhurst, West Sussex, rarely produces the desired result. A second knock, half an hour later, is necessary to ensure that pupils make breakfast at 7.30am.

But, for these students who struggle to drag themselves out of bed in the morning, everything is about to change.

In September, the University of Oxford will launch a study to assess the impact of a later school start time on pupils’ behaviour and academic performance. The study will examine whether starting the school day at 10am, rather than 9am – allowing pupils an extra hour’s lie-in – has any effect on their health and schoolwork.

Durand, set up by the high-profile South London primary of the same name, is the only boarding school signed up to take part in the project. “The interesting thing about boarding schools is that they have more control over their students’ schedules,” says Chris Harvey, one of the psychologists running the Oxford study.

“With schools that don’t board, there are huge practical issues around parents’ schedules. Parents are geared up for a 9-5 lifestyle. But boarding schools are optimally placed to make that change.”

‘Up and ready to go’

Durand’s interest in the importance of sleep resulted from sports teacher Todd Duncan spending too much time on Twitter.

“Essentially, I’m a little bit sad,” he says. “I spend a lot of my time thinking about how we can make the school better. So, it was a mixture of common sense and something that I read on Twitter one day: a teacher who was writing about his students being half-awake in his class.”

Mr Duncan carried out some research and discovered that biological rhythms change between childhood and adolescence. According to the Oxford academics, this means that asking an adolescent to wake up at 7am is the equivalent of asking a 55-year-old to start the day at 5am.

“We, as adults, tend to be grumpy and annoyed when we’re tired,” Mr Duncan says. “So why are we getting teenagers up at 6am, 6.30am, and then wondering why they aren’t performing in lessons?” Mr Duncan presented the case for the late start to Durand headteacher Hakim Taylor.

The head says that much of what he was told made sense. “The first knock – we observed it was a struggle for them to get up. It wasn’t a natural wake-up time,” Mr Taylor says.

So, for one week, he moved the Durand school day forward by an hour. Pupils went to bed at the same time as usual. But first knock was pushed back from 6am to 7am.

The results, all teachers acknowledge, were instantaneous. “There was no lethargy first thing in the morning – they were up and ready to go,” says Mr Taylor.

“They seemed more awake when we went to get them up,” Mr Duncan adds. “We didn’t have to keep going in again and again.”

And the results extended beyond the dormitories. “We had less behaviour work to do,” Mr Duncan says. “They seemed to be on-task more, and the quality of their work seemed to have gone up a little bit.

“It seemed they were more engaged in their lessons. So it’s all positive.”

Experiments in the US, where the school day typically starts at 7am, have shown the benefits of a late start. And, in England, Monkseaton High School in Tyneside introduced a 10am start for its pupils in October 2009, although the experiment ended when a new headteacher was appointed.

The idea has not been confined to the state sector: in September 2014, Hampton Court House independent school in Surrey began timetabling sixth-form lessons from 1.30pm to 7pm. The school prospectus states: “Older teenagers are…at their most alert and receptive in the afternoon.”

Despite the positive results at Durand, the initial experiment only lasted a week. Mr Taylor was keen that any longer-term change should happen as part of a formal study, which is now possible through the school’s involvement with the Oxford research.

Academics from the university will work with 15-year-olds from 12 schools, observing whether the extra hour’s sleep leads to better GCSE results. They will also offer a detailed sleep-education programme for teenagers, teachers and parents, outlining the importance of a good night’s rest.

Dr Harvey stresses the importance of this part of the programme. “Sleep underpins every aspect of health and optimal functioning,” he says. “We want to get sleep on the national agenda, the way that exercise and diet are.”


The benefits of a lie-in

In February this year, academics from St Lawrence University in New York published research showing that a 45-minute delay to the school day improved pupils’ time-keeping.

In 2013, an academic at the University of South Australia led a push for the government to delay school start times. He estimates that 5 per cent of Australian schools now start at 10am.

In 2000, researchers from Brown University, in Rhode Island in the US, confirmed a shift in sleep patterns between childhood and the teenage years.

In 1996, academics at the University of Minnesota discovered that a later start to the school day improved students’ attendance and performance, and reduced drop-out rates.

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