Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms

Summer is expiring, the mornings already feel shorter and now, for families across the country, it's that dark time of year when we reacquaint ourselves with our alarm clocks and – whisper it – go back to school (although children in Scotland went back two weeks ago).

But, as scientists and forward-thinking teachers wake up to the shifting demands of the brain, why do we do it to ourselves?

Next year, a handful of students in Surrey will discover a new way to work. When Hampton Court House opens a sixth form in September 2015, classes will start at 1.35pm and end at 7pm. The change will offer students the chance to sleep later, which is what teenagers do best, but not because they are lazy (even if they do happen also to be lazy).

In America, where almost half of schools have start times before 8am, doctors this week called for an urgent delay to the school day of at least half an hour. The American Academy of Pediatrics said that doing so would boost productivity and reduce the sometimes serious effects of sleep deprivation, including car accidents.

This is old news for Dr Paul Kelley, who works with the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute (SCNI), at Oxford University. He was the headmaster of Monkseaton high school in North Tyneside when it made headlines in 2010 by pushing the start of Period One back to 10am. "It had a positive, measurable effect on academic progress and health," he says. Early improvements included a drop in absenteeism.

"There's a growing case that shows that the time shift of sleep patterns in teenage years is biological, involuntary and happens to everybody – like puberty itself," he adds. "It shifts the sleep cycle two to three hours later by the time you've reached 20, when the scale of sleep loss is the worst you will encounter in your whole life."

By the time the average person reaches 90, he or she will have spent 32 years asleep, yet we are still unravelling the quirks and mysteries of circadian rhythm. In a talk last June, Russell Foster, head of the SCNI in Oxford, began by recounting changing attitudes, from "Sleep is the golden chain that ties health and our bodies together" (Thomas Dekker, Elizabethan dramatist) to "Sleep is a criminal waste of time and a heritage from our cave days" (Thomas Edison, bringer of light) and Thatcher's "sleep is for wimps".

"At worst, perhaps, many of us think of sleep as an illness that needs some sort of a cure," Foster went on. In fact, sleep has a vital role in restoration, energy conservation and, most importantly, the consolidation of memories and boosting of creativity, areas which are busier when we sleep.

Endemic sleep deprivation, therefore, particularly among shift workers (and somnolent teens) is leading to depression and mental problems. It can even make us overweight. "[It] seems to give rise to the release of ghrelin, the hunger hormone," Foster explains. "Ghrelin is released. It gets to the brain. The brain says, 'I need carbohydrates'."

In the simplest of terms, we sleep because we are circadian creatures; we follow the cycle of day and night. "Certain bandwidths of light activate the brain," explains Dr Irshaad Ebrahim, who has established sleep research centres in London and Edinburgh.

"Come night time, [the hormone] melatonin starts being secreted and we go to sleep."

While most of us recover a more regular pattern in adulthood, Kelley says, "it takes until the age of 55 until you get back the sleep/wake times you had when you were 10." Genes are also important. Late risers are more likely to give birth to late risers, and not just because that's how they are raised. This variation has been evolutionarily important, Kelley adds. "As a group of hunters, you have more time to hunt, for example."

But Ebrahim warns against pushing back the school day too far. "1.35pm seems a bit extreme," he says. On its website, Hampton Court House suggests that the free mornings "open up a huge range of work experience and community service opportunities". But scientists familiar with the habits of teenagers (Kelley has raised four children) agree that this is optimistic.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
love + sex
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
News
people
Voices
A propaganda video shows Isis forces near Tikrit
voicesAdam Walker: The Koran has violent passages, but it also has others that explicitly tells us how to interpret them
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Reach Volunteering: External HR Trustee Needed!

Voluntary post, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Would you ...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree have recently been awa...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

WORLDbytes: Two-Day Intensive Camera training and Shoot: Saturday 7th & Sunday 8th March

expenses on shoots: WORLDbytes: Volunteering with a media based charity,for a ...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn