Is a later start to the school day really the answer?

Tom Acaster isn’t convinced that a later start to the school day is the best way to improve educational outcomes. The science, he argues, might be sound – but is society ready?

Evidence supporting an earlier start to the school day is based on research conducted into the circadian rhythm,625427-tired-teen a biological rhythm that lasts about 24 hours, and is associated with things such as the sleep-wake cycle. This cycle works when external factors (known as exogenous zeitgeibers) affect the SCN (or supercharismatic nucleus) in the brain, which then sends information to the pineal gland, which releases the hormone melatonin, the hormone that, when released into the bloodstream, makes us feel tired. Because this feeling of tiredness is associated with these external factors, we then know when to feel tired based on these triggers. Whilst an adult’s circadian rhythm is more accustomed to earlier starts, teenagers often work better with a later start.

Paul Kelley (formally headteacher at Monksheaton High School) has  argued that by starting the day later, the body’s cognitive functions are improved, and the students at the school can function better. The fact is, there is both evidence for and against the effectiveness of starting the school day later on. Kelley himself found that, after applying the research of Russell Foster of Oxford University to his own school, found that students improved they’re performance after this research was put in place. This obviously shows great benefit for the future of education, as this research can lead to a brighter, enthusiastic future for the next generation. This argument can be justified through a variety of reasons. Insufficient sleep causes lowered ability to think, learn, and remember. We know this because in a multitude of studies, adults have voluntarily deprived themselves of sleep and had their cognitive functioning tested. Moreover, sleep deprivation results in irregular emotional control. Also, although experimental studies of extreme sleep deprivation are not ethically possible, in a few studies, children whose sleep was restricted by an hour or so showed some degree of dysfunction similar to those seen in adults. It’s also worth noting that a much larger number of studies have established a correlational association between reduced sleep quantity and quality and poorer performance on a wide variety of tasks including attention, learning, and academic performance.

However, if this theory works so well, why is not compulsory for all schools across the country. One large problem resulted in some negative problems with the teachers; they declined in performance as they were accustomed to the early starts, and their circadian rhythm was accustomed to the typical daily ritual. Whilst this proves that it would be more beneficial to teach the students later in the day, it would also cause problems for the staff as well. Also, if the school hours start later and end later, this will cause problems with the rest of society, as they would also have to change the way they work around the kids. As most of modern society is dominated by adults, this would cause problems for they’re circadian rhythms as well. After school activities would also take a fall, as there would be no time to engage in extra curricular activities, which could train the brain in ways the school cannot, for example sports outside of school.

And what about the children? This may sound cliché, but high school students aren’t exactly clamouring for change. Teens, much like the adults in their lives, will be resistant to change and will worry about the impact on their after-school activities. Therefore, it is equally important to educate the students themselves about the benefits and disadvantages of a later start time. A change will also affect the younger kids. If a change is made, chances are it will affect both primary and secondary education. Whilst this may be advantageous to the high school students, the younger kids will not have the same mindset as teenagers. Consequently, the younger children may not perform as well whilst the older kids thrive.

The main issue I have is that society will change to adapt around the needs of education if the school times are changed. People assume that because of the better grades, unemployment would decrease. However, this is assuming the companies do not change their hiring policies, or university’s not changing their entry requirements. Everything in society will have to adapt or perish should the school times change, but the adaptations may not be for the better.

It may seem like the change of school start times may be something wonderful, but there are a lot of factors that go unanswered. Truthfully, there is no definitive evidence backing either side of the argument, making it hard to justify one way or the other. Also, any evidence that is recorded cannot be taken at face value. There are always issues with validity and reliability of studies, so nothing can really be taken as true. It may appear as though this is the breakthrough the country has been looking for in terms of education, but when you scratch the surface, not all is as it appears.

(Postscript: A later start to the school day was only one of the ‘experiments’ conducted by headteacher Dr Paul Kelley, leading some to claim that he was using his school as some kind of laboratory. In early 2012 Dr Kelley resigned from his position following a highly critical report by the local council. It appears that despite the many revolutionary interventions, he was unable to ensure high exam results. MS)


2 thoughts on “Is a later start to the school day really the answer?

  1. Isn’t “later” a relative term? Even you think Dr. Kelley’s specific proposals are too extreme to mesh well with current social norms despite the compelling science underlying them, surely there must be some limit on how early schools should begin. In the United States, for example, many high schools begin in the 7 a.m. hour (some at 7 a.m. itself), with bus runs beginning as early as 5 or 6 a.m. Teenagers must rise even earlier (4:45 a.m. in some cases) to prepare for school, which leaves a huge number of students running on under 6 hours of sleep a night unless they are somehow able to forego homework, jobs, family life, and culture in general – and overcome circadian rhythms – by falling asleep at 8:30 or 9 p.m. Surely running schools from 7 a.m. until 2 p.m. is not the only, or the best, way for the health and learning of anyone, is it? Surely there is some reasonable set of parameters we can set for acceptable school hours less budget and adult convenience trump health and learning. At, we are starting by simply establishing that no school, should require students of any age to be in class before 8 a.m. That hardly seems radical, but, alas, even establishing that principle is an uphill battle here. –Terra Ziporyn Snider, PhD, Executive Director, Start School Later

  2. Even within teenagers there are vastly different circadian patterns. Some teens may actually be at their best earlier in the morning, so any change will impact negatively on them (and therefore disadvantage them). Sleep deprivation is widespread in Western teens for many reasons – not all biological – and while some schools in the UK are looking at starting at 10am, it’s obvious that schools in other countries start much earlier than in the UK (which typically start after 8am). Following Kelley’s lead, therefore, may only benefit some. The point is not necessarily earlier per se, but rather matching the circadian pattern (which ‘tends’ to be different between teens and adults) to the age of the individual. This is not necessarily the same as preventing sleep deprivation – for which there are other methods available.

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