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Out like a light?

Can a 10am start to the school day improve GCSE scores? Dr Paul Kelley, research associate at Oxford University’s Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute, certainly thinks so. Dr Kelley and his fellow researchers, including respected Oxford sleep researcher Professor Russell Foster, are leading a study into the impact of later school start times and a sleep education programme on pupil attainment.

‘Teensleep’, a randomised study funded by The Wellcome Trust and the Education Endowment Fund, will be launched in 2016.[1] The study will randomly assign 100 schools into four groups:

  • Group one will change the school day for 14- to 16-year-olds to a 10am start.
  • Group two will offer “sleep education” (which will recommend avoiding screen-based activities in the evening) to its pupils as part of PSHE.
  • Group three will introduce a later start and sleep education as part of PSHE.
  • Group four will make no changes to school start times and will not provide sleep education.

Colin Espie, Professor of Sleep Medicine at Oxford University, explained the rationale behind the study: “What we’re doing in the study is exploring the possibility that if we actually delay the school start time until 10am, instead of 9am or earlier, that [the] additional hour taken on a daily dose over the course of a year will actually improve learning, performance, attainment and, in the end, school leaving qualifications.”[2]

According to neuroscientists, teenagers’ circadian rhythms (sleep-wake cycles) begin, on average, two hours after those of adults, so traditional school start times mean that teenagers wake up too early and are trying to process new information with too little sleep. (Guardian, 2014) Ignoring this change in sleep patterns could have “hugely damaging impacts on all the body’s systems”, according to Paul Kelley; who cites damage to long-term memory, mood, weight, and blood pressure along with increased risk of diabetes and schizophrenia.[3]

The way forward?

Dr Kelley, a former headteacher at Monkseaton High School in North Tyneside, is particularly passionate about the potential to improve pupil attainment through the study. After a decade of researching all the available evidence, he decided to move the school day to 10am over a two-year period. The experiment was followed by the BBC for a documentary in its Horizon series and the impact of the decision proved to be a career-defining moment: “Academic results went up, illness down and the atmosphere in school changed. The students were not only much nicer to each other, they were much nicer to teachers. It was bliss.” (Guardian, 2014)

At the end of the two year period, GCSE results at Monkseaton increased from 34 percent of pupils scoring five A*-C grades, including English and maths, to 53 percent. The results of disadvantaged pupils in this cohort were particularly interesting – the number of A*-C grades rose sharply from 12 percent to 42 percent. (Guardian, 2014)

Dr Kelley later declared: “I should have done it sooner. Nothing I had ever done in all my teaching made such a difference.”

In an era of unprecedented pressure on school leaders, from the ‘coasting’ measures to finding ingenious ways to working within reduced budgets, could this be a way to raise pupil attainment, improve teacher/pupil relations and make energy savings?

Dr Hilary Leevers, Head of Education and Learning at the Wellcome Trust, said: “We know that many teachers are keen to try new approaches based on neuroscience; however, we have so far lacked evidence about what will actually be beneficial to their students.”

Missing the point?

Derk-Jan Dijk, Professor of Sleep and Physiology at the University of Surrey, however, has cautioned that moving the start time of the school day may be a futile exercise if negative habits which affect sleep, (particularly night-time blue light exposure) remain unchanged: “Why do adolescents like to sleep in later and go to bed later? What is causing this?

“There is undoubtedly a biological component, but that interacts with our artificial light environment.

“And if we can’t change that, then is delaying school times the best solution? Because that way you might not solve the problem – you might shift them even later.” (BBC, 2015)

Dr Heather Cleland Woods of the University of Glasgow conducted a study of 460 11- to 17- year-olds at a secondary school in Scotland who were questioned about their general social media habits, and, in particular, their night-time use of sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Her study found that children as young as 11 spent considerable amounts of time on social media sites and that some of the pupils used multiple devices (such as a phone and a tablet) to view multiple sites simultaneously – staying online “into the early hours of the morning”.[4]

Dr Cleland Woods commented: “Adolescence can be a period of increased vulnerability for the onset of depression and anxiety, and poor sleep quality may contribute to this.”

Poor quality of sleep and the risk of mental illness

Initial analysis of Dr Cleland Woods’ research has suggested that overall social media use, and particularly night-time use, correlates with poorer sleep quality, lower self-esteem and higher levels of anxiety and depression. It is unclear whether social media is harming sleep quality or whether teenagers turn to social media because they can’t sleep.

A survey, carried out by the National Citizen’s Service youth programme, found that girls seek solace in social media when they are anxious or worried. 1,000 12- to 18-year-olds were surveyed and results revealed that 9 out of 10 teenage girls have experienced stress in the past year, with 7 out of 10 cases leading to symptoms of stress-related illnesses. (Guardian, 2015)

Paradoxically, anxiety about exam results topped the list of teenage girls’ anxieties, with 57 percent of them citing it as a concern. 37 percent of girls felt under pressure to make decisions about the future and 36 percent were distressed by arguments with friends.

Dr Kelley believes that there is a correlation between sleep deprivation and mental illness, declaring that 70 percent of mental illnesses begin between the ages of 11 and 24: “Sleep deprivation is torture. Thirty days without sleep and you die. It has about the same effect as not eating.” (TES, 2015)

While Dr Kelley’s statements may be overstating the case, there is proof that poor quality sleep can lead to genetic changes, and the risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and poor brain function have all been linked to substandard sleep.[5]

What can you do to make a positive impact?

In her study, Dr Cleland Woods posed the idea of a ‘digital sunset’ – in the same way that the sun sets a few hours before bedtime, she suggested that children should avoid using digital devices a few hours before going to bed, to reduce the effects of blue light on circadian rhythms, thus improving the quality of sleep. Promoting the idea of a digital sunset to parents and providing information on good sleeping habits during PSHE sessions could be one way of making a positive impact.

The Teensleep project is still recruiting schools nationwide for its study. If you are interested in finding out more about this, you could contact Oxford University for more information using the email address below. The deadline for signing up to the research project is 30 September 2015.

Christopher-James Harvey – Education and Outreach Officer

Adam Jowett – Research Project Coordinator

[1] Jonathan Webb (2015) ‘Sleep scientists’ wake-up call for later school starts’, para. 6  <> [Accessed: 11 September 2015]

[2] Sally Weale (2014) ‘Major study of teenage sleep patterns aims to assess impact on learning’, para. 5 <>[Accessed: 11 September 2015]

[3] TES (2015) ‘Will having a lie-in boost teenagers’ GCSE scores?’ para. 9 <>[Accessed: 11 September 2015]

[4] Sally Weale (2015) ‘Teens’ night-time use of social media ‘risks harming mental health’’, para. 4 <> [Accessed: 11 September 2015]

[5] James Gallagher (2013) ‘Bad sleep ‘dramatically’ alters body’, para. 4, 7. <>[Accessed:  11 September 2015]


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