Sleep later, do better

  • Studies show teenagers' brains wake up later than adults
  • Pupils at schools that start later in the morning seem to show significant academic improvements
  • But before making changes, headteachers need to address their new risk exposure

Teenagers who lie in later in the morning may get better GCSE grades, according to scientists from the University of Oxford.

The researchers believe that teenagers’ brains start working properly two hours later than adults, and have announced [in Oct 2014] a huge study of 32,000 pupils at 106 schools, to explore the extent to which having more sleep can influence academic achievement.

The University of Oxford’s Professor of Sleep Medicine, Colin Espie, said: “In the study we’re exploring the possibility that if we actually delay the school start time until 10am, instead of 9am or earlier, that additional hour taken on a daily dose over the course of a year will actually improve learning, performance, attainment and, in the end, school leaving qualifications.”

The study is part of a growing awareness among educationalists that altering school hours can have positive results.

Increased results

In 2009, a 10am start was introduced for 800 students at Monkseaton High School in North Tyneside.

“The Monkseaton experiment shows, frankly, that if you start at 10am, grades go up,” said Russell Foster, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Oxford.

Overall GCSE results at Monkseaton went up from 34% of pupils scoring five A*-C grades including English and Maths, to 53%. The benefits for disadvantaged students were even more pronounced: up from 12% achieving five A*-C with English and Maths, to 42%.

It is unknown exactly how many schools in the UK are already experimenting with later start times, but the changes are not without controversy.

For example, there are concerns about union objections to any widespread shift to longer working hours for teachers and support staff.

The Monkseaton experiment shows, frankly, that if you start at 10am, grades go up

Russell Foster, professor of neuroscience at the University of Oxford

There are also logistical concerns: “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,” says Ian Bauckham, Principal of Bennett Memorial Diocesan School in Kent, UK, and Vice-President of the Association of School and College Leaders union.

Calculating risk exposure

Later start times mean later finish times, and in winter when it’s dark or if there’s bad weather, there is an obvious change in a school’s risk exposure. With this in mind, education leaders need to address their risk management accordingly, before they make any changes.

The advice from Zurich Municipal is: talk to your insurer to make sure that they are aware of any changes you are making, and ask them for advice on risk management.

You may well need to amend staffing policies to make sure the school remains safe after dark in winter. Maintenance and lighting programmes may also need to be adapted to accommodate increased evening traffic.

The chance to dramatically improve pupil performance through simple changes is not one to be passed over, but it needs to be done safely, thoroughly and with the involvement of your insurer.

Later opening will have a knock-on effect on many aspects of operations, and all of these need to be properly considered. Once this is done, everyone can sleep easily.