BLATCHINGTON Mill School in Hove is holding a consultation on later start times for its teenage students.

They say that delaying the start of the school day by one hour will result in better outcomes for the students.

Of course, the initial reaction to such a move usually launches talk of the “lazy” teenager, the stereotypical “Kevin” portrayed by Harry Enfield.

Yet there is a lot of research that backs up Blatchington Mill’s proposal.

Any new parent will be acutely aware of the erratic sleep patterns of new-born babies. The goal of getting the baby to sleep through the night can sometimes lead to intense rivalry, even angst, between new parents. Yet with teenagers we struggle to do the opposite – waking them up from what seems like an eternal slumber. New parents will adjust their day to fit in with the baby rather than trying to get the baby to fit in with their working day.

The sleep pattern of an adolescent, compared to an adult, is quite different. In the extreme, waking a teenager at 7am is the same as waking a 50-year-old at 4am. Biologically, forcing teenagers to get up early for a school day is the wrong thing to do.

The average teenager needs (ideally) 8½ – 9½ hours of sleep each night. Adjusting the school day to allow for that to naturally happen can bring major benefits for their health and wellbeing.

In a study, published in 2014, that examined the impact of later start times on 9,000 US teenagers, researchers found that “…grades earned in core subject areas of maths, English, science and social studies, plus performance on state and national achievement tests, attendance rates and reduced tardiness show significantly positive improvement with the later start times”. They also found that with less sleep than recommended, the students reported that they had “… significantly higher depression symptoms, greater use of caffeine, and (are at) greater risk of making poor choices for substance use”.

Our sleep patterns are not fixed; they change as we grow. The biology that governs our sleep-wake cycles, known as the circadian rhythm, is like a hard-wired “clock” in the brain. The clock controls the production of the hormone melatonin. This, in turn, controls sleep. Melatonin, naturally produced in the brain, starts the process of sleepiness, it effectively tells your body that it is night and it triggers a number of processes that lead to sleep.

We normally go through five sleep stages. The REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage makes up about a quarter of our sleep during a normal night. We get to REM sleep about 70 to 90 minutes after falling asleep. If we don’t achieve REM sleep, we can wake up feeling tired and studies show it hampers learning. It’s during REM sleep we dream.

Throughout adolescence, major changes in the body’s circadian rhythm take place. Periods of REM sleep increase, daytime sleepiness also increases. This leads to a pattern of late bedtimes and late wake-up times. Simply telling teenagers to “go to bed earlier” doesn’t work.

The research on teenage sleep patterns and adjusting the school day is quite extensive. In all cases, the link between later start times and improved academic achievement was found to be statistically significant and positive.

So is Blatchington Mill doing the right thing? From the research it seems so. Delaying the start (and finish) of the school day does, it appears, bring benefits. But what about potential drawbacks?

A delayed school start is not about giving teenagers carte blanche to stay out late, or to play video games and watch TV until the early hours. Constant “screen time” is counterproductive. The blue/white light given off by TVs, mobiles and laptops suppresses the release of melatonin and delays when we sleep. A late start is about ensuring teenagers get their eight-plus hours of sleep and react properly to their body’s natural rhythms.

There may also be benefits for teachers and parents with a later start time. Teachers could have more time in the morning for pre-school preparation or to spend time with their families. A later finish may well help parents who are working and worried about what their teenager is up to, having left school at 3pm.

Our school day is, in my opinion, often far too compressed with too little time for breaks (that’s for staff as well as children). We would do well to look again at the working school week and see if, by changing schedules, we can make it better for everyone.

One final thought on how teenagers deal with these changing circadian rhythms: apart from “fashion” and good marketing, there may also be another reason why the high energy drinks, banned in some schools, are so favoured by teenagers – they actively help them combat their natural daytime sleepiness.

  • James D Williams is a Lecturer in Science Education at the University of Sussex