'Why it makes perfect sense to allow teenagers a lie-in and a later start to the school day'

If the evidence suggests that later starts make teenagers happier and more productive, and the implementation cost is practically zero, then why no do it, asks one headteacher

Jonathan Taylor

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Giving dyslexic students extra time in exams? Reading quickly is something they have to learn – deal with it.

Twenty years ago this sentence – a variant of Bernard Trafford’s recent Tes headline on teenage sleep – would feasibly have been heard in staffrooms around the country. Thankfully, times have changed and now it seems absurd to suggest that schools shouldn’t try to accommodate the needs of dyslexic students.

I predict that in time, the suggestion that teens should simply "deal with" early starts totally at odds with their circadian rhythms will be viewed in a similar manner.

At my school, North Bridge House, we introduced a later start for our sixth-formers at the start of this academic year. It’s proved very popular; there would be very little support among parents, students or teachers for a return to the 8.40am starts of previous years.

Of course, delaying start times by an hour or so is not a panacea for academic under-achievement or teenage stress. But it has led to improved punctuality. It has led to improved student receptiveness in the first lesson of the day, and it has led to teachers reporting a more positive teaching experience in that lesson.

I’m sure it is no coincidence that the percentage of current Year 13 "lates" has more than halved to 3.1 per cent from last year’s 6.4 per cent. And the few heads I know who have introduced a delayed start report similar experiences.

No one can deny that a lack of sleep amongst teens is a serious problem. In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics called the problem of tired teens "a public health epidemic".

Thus I was obviously interested in the recent publication from Surrey University and Harvard Medical School, which, according to media headlines, seemed to suggest that later school start times were in no way a solution.

My initial scepticism stemmed from the fact that the survey was based on mathematical modelling: much of the benefit that our later start time has brought is not immediately quantifiable. However, closer scrutiny of the research suggested substantial correlation with the extensive body of evidence upon which our later start time was based.

Co-author Dr Andrew Phillips acknowledges: "It is critical to keep evening light levels low to derive any of the potential benefits of a delay in morning alarm times, otherwise their bed time is very prone to shifting later. Understanding these individual differences, and how they are influenced by light consumption, is necessary to maximize the effects of any policy change."

I concur with Dr Phillips – later start times must be accompanied by complementary education in regard to the importance of good sleep habits.

Don't ignore the established facts

Yet aspects of the report seem to contradict or ignore what appear firmly established facts on teenage circadian rhythms.

For example, the Nuffield Department at the University of Oxford states: "In adolescence, biological rhythms change in such a way that makes it difficult for teenagers to go to sleep and get up early. Therefore, asking an adolescent to get up at 7am to start school at 9am is akin to asking a 55-year-old to get up at 5am."

I have read similar statements across countless publications and they chime with my experience of working with teenagers for nearly 20 years.  

While I recognise the upheaval required to change an entire school day and subsequently staff working patterns, interestingly, the main opposition to later start times seems to derive not from a scheduling perspective, but rather from a misguided notion of traditional self-discipline.

And it is often heads who have never experienced later start times who are most wedded to the traditional school day. Yet is it really more worthy to learn maths at 8.30am than 5pm? Are students not getting the full value of A levels if they are not learning French verbs by 9am?

Furthermore, society is no longer run on the 9am-5pm lines in the way it once was.

My wife is an academic publisher and two days a week looks after our young daughter in the day and does much of her work when I return home at night. This flexibility, more than rigid 9-5 shifts, is the work pattern of the future.

I’m old enough to remember the furore when supermarkets first proposed opening on Sundays. I imagine there would be a much bigger furore now should they choose to close on Sundays. Society expectations of "working hours" evolve over time and there is a Canute like futility in trying to maintain school times as they are simply because "we’ve always done it that way".

Mr Trafford suggests that: "Adolescents, fighting hormones and who knows what else, are unlike other beings: but they are not so different from the rest of us that we should feel obliged to create a discrete timetable for them."  I believe this is the wrong approach.

The question, to my mind, is not why should we cater to their needs, but rather why shouldn’t we?

If there is evidence to suggest that later starts makes teenagers happier and more productive, and the implementation cost is practically zero, then why wouldn’t we wish to confer that benefit to our students?

Jonathan Taylor is headteacher of North Bridge House Senior School and Sixth Form Canonbury, London, part of the Cognita group

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Jonathan Taylor

Jonathan Taylor started this decade as Director of Sixth Form at a state school in Surrey. He ends it as Principal of the International School Zurich North in Switzerland, having arrived there via a stint in China. He tweets @JTaylor_swiss

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