Why every country needs later secondary school start times
The teenager in bed, complaining about having to get up, is almost a universal problem. But it is not their problem- it’s ours. School start times are simply too early. Secondary schools for students from about 12 years old should start be hours later- perhaps as late as 11 a.m.in the late teenage years. The reasons for this are biological changes during puberty that change their wake / sleep patterns.
The 24 hour cycle of light and darkness determine our wake and sleep patterns. This is one aspect of our daily (or ‘circadian’ rhythms). Every 24 hours levels of some hormones, our core body temperature, and even our capacity to learn vary according to this body clock. Professor Russell Foster at Oxford has been a leading figure in the science community in communicating the dangers of ignoring our body clock’s natural patterns. Meeting and talking with Russell transformed my understanding of teenagers- and led to changing our school start time to 10 a.m.
Why should the body clock be a problem for teenagers and young adults?It’s because circadian rhythms change with age. A radical shift occurs with the onset of puberty, pushing wake sleep times later in teenagers and young adults. It is only later in life that we return to the earlier wake times we had at 10.
This sudden change occurs in other mammals- so the reason they prefer getting up later is biological, not cultural.
These changes cause a two hour delay in waking and sleeping, compared to younger children or older adults (like teachers). This is a huge time shift within a 24 hour cycle. If we force teenagers and young adults to get up when we do, it impacts negatively on their learning. Such early starts cause these young people to lose sleep every school day.
Sleep deprivation is the consequence. Humans cannot adjust their body clocks, or train themselves to overcome these natural biological patterns. New technologies in neuroscience have confirmed the educational consequences of sleep deprivation. Here the images show how little learning occurs for sleep deprived subjects.
There have been calls to alter school start times in many countries. In 2009 US Congresswoman Zoe Logfren submitted concurrent resolution 176 “expressing the sense of the Congress that secondary schools should begin the school day no earlier than 9:00 in the morning”. More recently a Hamilton Project report (2011) recommended changing the start of the school day for schools as one of three ways of improving achievement.
The issue goes beyond learning: mental health and physical health are put at risk by early start times for schools and universities. Indeed, the negative impact on young people can lead to consequences listed here. The list reads like a stereotypical description of teenagers. The difference is that it probably is our fault as adults that they suffer these consequences. By changing our early start times that suit us to start times that suit their body clocks we will make their lives better. This could lead to an improvement in their lives- and perhaps improvement the relationships with teenagers and young adults.
Schools can change their school starting times. Having explored the science of the body clock, helped by Russell Foster and other experts, Monkseaton changed the start of the school day to 10 a.m. This took years, with trials, surveys of parents (who were in favour of the new time) and even experiments for BBC Horizon programme The Secret Life of your Body Clock. The positive outcomes at the school after the first year starting at 10 a.m. are not the proof late starts are better (though they were +20% on high stakes testing). The biological science had already demonstrated the need to change – and these results are only a reassuring case study showing late starts are perfectly achievable.
*Many of the slides in this post come from Russell Foster’s presentations on circadian rhythms.