Late starts work a dream as students rise and shine

19th May 2017 at 00:00
College leaders experimenting with 10am starts say the shift suits teenage brains

As well as delivering the skills and knowledge that are needed in the workplace, one of the core purposes of colleges is to prepare learners for employment and equip them with the soft skills that are needed in the workplace – not least punctuality.

But from September, students at one London sixth-form college will not have their first timetabled class of the day until 10am. This is an hour later than the current start time at Sir George Monoux College – and significantly later than the majority of students will eventually go on to begin work on a daily basis.

This change is part of a new approach to the structure of the college day which, according to principal David Vasse, should suit the way the teenage brain functions – although, to date, academic research on the impact of late starts has been inconclusive.

While a number of schools have dabbled with late starts, colleges – with a greater focus on preparing students for the world of work – have displayed less interest. But with a small but growing number of institutions now starting to experiment with how they organise their timetables, the Association of Colleges has called for more research on how colleges can develop new ways of organising their timetables.

“It is important for colleges to support and engage adults and young people in developing the skills they require for their careers,” says David Corke, the AoC’s director of education and skills policy. “Some colleges are investigating changing the college day and timetable to support learning across their student base. It would be interesting to see further studies to see how this might work across other institutions.”

At Sir George Monoux, the new structure is also designed to accommodate learners’ commitments outside college. Instead of running classes lasting for one or two hours, students will be taught in two blocks: one three-hour session in the morning, and another after lunch.

Within each of the sessions, lecturers are given the discretion to build in a total of 30 minutes of breaks as they see fit. This will allow students to have time to reflect on their learning, says Vasse. It also means that students are required to be at college for at least half a day – eradicating instances of learners being required to attend college for just a single class.

'We should have done this years ago'

“It is about changing the shape of our day,” Vasse explains. “One major factor in this is teenage sleep patterns and the benefits for teenagers of a later start. Early is just not where they produce their best work.” The later start, Vasse adds, will allow students to start the day “with a sense of being match-fit for the lesson and working at the top of their game”.

But will the fact students are not used to early starts make them less employable? Vasse doesn’t think so: “If you are an employer, what you want is your staff to come in and be able to give their best.”

Teachers at the college have been supportive, he insists: “Staff were delighted with the strategic changes we are making, and the predominant voice I have heard is, ‘We should have done this years ago.’”

Another post-16 provider that has introduced an unorthodox timetabling structure is Portsmouth College. While the college opens to students at 7.30am, the first class doesn’t start until 10am. This lasts for three hours, followed by a two-hour session in the afternoon.

According to principal Steve Frampton, the move has been an unmitigated success. “We have grown from 900 to 1,600 [students over the last four years] against a demographic decline,” says Mr Frampton. “Attendance has gone up and the results have improved.”

Starter for 10

The move came about after a survey of students found many thought the timetable was “not respectful”, as they did not function at their best until later in the morning.

And while Sir George Monoux and Portsmouth colleges say their staff have endorsed the changes, the University and College Union insists that employees do need to be consulted on plans to change their working day.

Andrew Harden, UCU’s head of further education, says: “While staff may not oppose changes to colleges working days per se, staff and students should be properly consulted before decisions are made and any changes must have the interests of students at heart.”

Meanwhile, Harlow College has also switched to a later 9.30am start as part of its “unitised day” approach – but principal Karen Spencer says that this is down to rush-hour traffic rather than neuroscience. “When students come in, they study for the whole day,” she says. “That allows them to do deep learning. They seem to work best and most successfully when they can really get into it.”


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