A new study conducted by Oxford University will see tens of thousands of secondary school students start school later in order to investigate whether it will have a positive impact on exam results.
In recent years neuroscience studies have proved that the typical teenager’s body clock differs from that of an adult’s, as teens are pre-disposed to fall asleep around midnight, and are not fully engaged with their studies until around 9 to 10am; around two hours after most adults.
The study, involving over 30,000 pupil participants across a hundred schools, and running over a four-year period, hopes to find whether timetabling school around the typical teenager’s circadian rhythms — the pattern of sleep— will improve their GCSE grades. Some pupils will have the opportunity to start at 10am, and will also be given education on the importance of getting sufficient sleep in personal, social and health education lessons.
Neuroscientists say that the ‘out of sync’ teenage body clock can affect some individuals up to the age of 19 in females and 21 in males, meaning that it may also affect many University students.
Speaking to Cherwell, Angela Stephen, a biochemistry student at Oxford University said, “if there was the option to start an hour later, it would enable me to work later into the night. I think that my brain is more active as the day goes on – I work better then, and so a later start would actually be more productive for me.”
Biological factors are not the only ones to blame for the ‘out of sync’ clock. Professor Russell Foster, Director of the Oxford University Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute, said “this biology, along with the impact of social media and other sociocultural influences, delays bed and wake times and greatly shorten sleep.”
The study is led by Oxford’s Professor Colin Espie, who commented, “our grandparents always told us that sleep is very important, but it’s only recently that we have started looking at the neuroscience of sleep. We know that something funny happens when you’re a teenager, in that you seem to be out of sync with the world. Your parents think it’s because you’re lazy and opinionated and everything would be okay if you could get to sleep earlier. But science is telling us that teenagers need to sleep more in the mornings.”
He added, “society’s provision for learning is school, but the brain’s is sleep. So we’re explorong the possibility that if you delay the schools start time until 10am, that will improve learning performance.”
The effect of beginning students’ studies later in the day has been previously investigated. In 2009, Monkseaton School in North Tyneside took part in a pilot study that found that starting school just one hour later improved grades by up to 19% in core subjects.
However, the school returned to starting at 8.50am after head teacher Paul Kelley’s departure, suggesting that it may take time before the results are widely accepted. Paul Kelley is now an associate at Oxford University’s Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute.
The study is part of several that are looking at ways of improving student’s academic performance. Another study being conducted by both Oxford and Oxford Brookes Universities is investigating the impact of physical education on Year Eight pupils’ classroom work, as in many cases students are not active during 50% of their Physical Education lessons.
The results of the sleep study will be published in 2018.