Debate: Will a lie-in help to improve my teenager's grades?

Feb. 17, 2017

It sounds like a dream combination – enjoy an hour’s lie-in, start school at 9.25 rather than 8.25 and then do better at your exams. What’s not to like? But this is not purely the product of a teenager's optimistic daydream, it’s a consultation that the Head at one of Brighton’s largest secondary schools is proposing, with a decision being made over the next few months and a possible start in 2018.

So, to find out whether there’s any real substance behind this suggestion, we’ve had a look at the some of the background facts and research.

At the heart of all these proposed changes is some interesting science about teenagers’ sleeping patterns. There is now plenty of evidence to suggest that teenagers’ internal body clocks shift by a couple of hours once puberty begins. So suddenly going to sleep at something like 10 or 11 pm feels much more natural than 8 or 9pm. In addition, there is a relatively common medical disorder, affecting perhaps as many as 15% of teens, called Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome, where natural sleep rhythms are delayed, teens end up falling asleep well after midnight and then have great difficulty getting up in time for school.

Great news for teenagers then – this means that you now have a valid excuse for being labelled a night owl and missing the start of double-Chemistry. But of course, when a teenager needs 9-10 hours sleep a night, it’s then not a great fit with waking-up bright and early to start school at say 8.30 – so no wonder then that as an early-rising teen you might find yourself struggling to stay alert during those morning lessons.

But is starting the school day later really the answer? In the United States the prestigious American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has recommended that teenagers are best suited to wake at 8:00 am or later. Many US schools have now shifted their start times, and some are beginning to see positive results. The Glens Falls High School in New York for example, says that as well as teenagers having more sleep, it has seen reductions in lateness and absenteeism and also a reduction in the number of students failing classes. And what about larger, more systematic studies? In Canada there was a recent study involving almost 30,000 students. It found that students starting school later in the morning slept longer and were less likely to be tired than those students from schools that started early. Since insufficient sleep has often been associated with poorer school results, school attendance and other risks such as road accidents, it does seem good sense to look at those start times.

However, before we all start setting our alarm clocks an hour later, we do need to be careful at any conclusions we draw from some of this research. Much of the international evidence, including the New York school example above as well as other recent studies in the US and in Hong Kong, features schools which originally had much earlier start times than most UK schools and some of the changes in start times were really quite small - for example, delaying the start by just 15 minutes. So, although many studies have seen positive improvements, it’s not quite as easy to directly compare this research to what's being proposed in the Brighton consultation (although we can relatively safely conclude that it would be a really bad idea to move to an earlier start time!). There is some evidence of improved results from a school in the UK which did try to push back hours from 8:50 until 10:00, so it's not completely untested, but it's relatively early days in looking at this systematically and it's perhaps interesting that this particular school's results have continued to improve even though their hours have since reverted back to an earlier start time.

Also worth considering is what are the other things that teens and parents/carers should be doing to help to reduce this sleep deficit. Schools might want to consider, for instance, whether a programme of sleep education could be just as effective as changing the school start time. At the moment there doesn’t appear to be quite enough research in this area to say what changes would get the best results, although in the UK, ongoing projects such as the Teensleep Study at the University of Oxford are trying to answer some of these questions.

So, should we be trying this in Brighton or elsewhere? Well, taking into account what we know so far, we cannot say for certain what the effects will be, but there may be some merit in piloting a change to see if the benefits really do stack up. It might also be worth considering that a more modest change to start times might still have some benefit, without needing to delay starts by as much as a whole hour, and finally there may be other complementary actions such as a programme of sleep education, which could be considered instead or alongside any timetable changes.

Teenagers in Brighton will be eagerly awaiting the outcomes of this consultation and in many cases relishing the prospect of later school starts and a longer lie-in. And if the results stack-up for this Brighton school then schools elsewhere in the UK will doubtless follow. But meanwhile for those struggling to stay awake during those early lessons, here’s a few useful tips summarised from advice from the Sleep Council for improving your sleep.

  • Restful Environment. Make sure the mattress is comfortable. Declutter those gadgets from the bedroom and, in particular, avoid using 'blue screen' technology including smart phones and laptops near bedtime as they disrupt sleep patterns. Consider light and temperature (cool and dark is the way to go) and remove electronic devices before bed.
  • Routine. Establish a regular sleeping schedule of going to bed/waking up at the same time (and stick to it!) Big meals, Coffee, tea, fizzy drinks or energy drinks should be avoided well before bedtime.
  • Relaxation. Begin to wind-down in the hour before bed. Don’t go to bed until you are actually ready for sleep, and in the hour before bedtime, start relaxing and winding down.

Matthew Harker, February 2017

Matthew is Cofounder at MyPocketSkill