Making Time for Sleep: Afternoon School Starts

10/11/2015 10:55 | Updated 09 November 2016

Very few of us make enough time to sleep in our lives- even if we can. Almost all of us are sleep deprived. Of course some of us don't have any choice: people in health and emergency services, long-haul airline pilots, and families with young babies (especially if they sleep as little my son Toby did!).

And teenagers are the most sleep deprived group in society. For years teenagers have told parents they need to stay in bed and sleep more in the mornings. Unfortunately there are a lot of myths about teenage sleep, such as teenagers are lazy. However, they are not any lazier than the rest of us, and they really do need more sleep.

It turns out teenagers have been right all along when they tell us they need to sleep more in the morning. Even though teenagers' body clocks make them wake- and go to sleep- two hours later than the rest of us, we force teenagers to go to school too early. This creates a real problem - having too little sleep day after day. This means that by the end of the week they have lost 10 to 15 hours of sleep. This level of sleep deprivation is clearly dangerous to their health (just as it would be for any adult).

So what's the solution? It's simple: change the time of the school day to give teenagers time to sleep. In the UK, Oxford's Teensleep project is recruiting over 100 secondary schools to research a later start of 10 a.m. alongside sleep education. In the US doctors and the Department of Health are urging Middle and High Schools to move to later starting times.

Now a 'dream school' for teenagers starts their day at 1:30 p.m. in the afternoon for its Sixth Formers (aged 16 to 18). This is the latest school starting time for students aged 16-18 in the UK; probably in the world.

The school is Hampton Court House in London, a fee-paying school (£15,000 a year in case you're interested). The students themselves have now spoken for the first time to Sian Griffiths (Sunday Times), and their response to the 1:30 p.m. starting time (and end times of no later than 7:00 p.m.) are very revealing.

All the students report they sleep more, and no longer have the disadvantage of being woken from deep sleep. Haydn falls asleep around 1.30am and sleeps in to nine. Previously, with early starts, he recalls "I would be like a zombie in the morning".

Cassie's description of early waking will sound familiar to many of us, "I was doing everything really slowly. Sometimes I would not even hear my alarm". She links this state of mind to her achievement "I think the fact I was so tired affected my GCSE grades, too". She also noticed a change in her eating habits, "I haven't skipped breakfast once. Before [with early starts], I was tired and also really hungry. This [later start] feels so much better". Indeed, Cassie was specific about her choice of school, "I came here because of the starting times".

Gabriel noticed his mood had improved and explained his brother had a very stressful time at this age with early starts. He reports his parents were really angry when the school's afternoon starts were mocked.

Later starts do have a positive impact as research findings of the last 20 years show. With later starts, students sleep more and sleep deprivation falls. Student grades, health and mood improve. These students' experience is not proof that an afternoon start is right, just further confirmation that later starts work.

It has to be in the interest of all of us to make time to sleep. Better sleep leads to better performance, physical and mental health. Better sleep will save the National Health Service billions of pounds a year. It makes sense for individuals, industries, and the quality of life in our society.

Sleep on it.

Read more:

Steven Lockley and Russell Foster, Sleep: A very short introduction (Oxford University Press)

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