An Hour’s More Sleep a Day Keeps Bad Grades Away?

A recent petition to allow later starts to the school day was debated in parliament last week, and was met with mixed responses from MPs. The petition, signed by over 180,000 people, argued that teenagers are simply too tired to be starting school at 9am, which in turn is impacting their productivity and overall results.

Recent projects like Teensleep have been conducted by scientists to provide sleep education programmes in a select number of schools. Meanwhile, other colleges such as Sir George Monoux Sixth Form College in east London have been trialling a 10am start, garnering very positive feedback from staff and students. But is there a scientific case for this, or are teenagers just exercising their angst by trying to pass off their laziness for alleged sleep deprivation?

According to the National Sleep Foundation, adolescents, as well as younger children, need an average of 8 ½ to 9 ¼ hours sleep a night to ensure optimal performance, health and brain development. However, surveys have shown that, by the end of secondary school, most teens are getting on average fewer than seven hours sleep per night, and report feeling tired during the school day as a result. This is due to a biological shift in teenagers’ body clocks called a sleep phase delay, that is caused by melatonin secretions occurring later in the evening for teens as they mature. Hence, adolescents fall asleep later – and therefore wake up later than adults or younger children.

The Teensleep project, provided schools with ten pilot sessions to educate their pupils about sleep education. The results, however, were somewhat mixed. Whilst the study suggested an improvement in sleep-related behaviour – for instance, the students reported napping less – no evidence was found to support that students’ sleep in general was improved. Furthermore, the study showed that 25 per cent of teenagers had clinically poor sleep. Would a universal shift to a 10am start be worth it if only a quarter of students would benefit?

Interestingly though, studies have also shown that circadian rhythms in teens can be reset with light exposure management. In other words, if adolescents refrain from using their phones or electronic devices for at least half an hour before sleeping, as well as wearing eyeshades to block out natural light, melatonin secretions (to trigger sleep) moved significantly towards a desired time. Clearly it would be difficult to encourage all teenagers to do this, but if education about this was given in schools, it would make a big difference. Even in doing research for this article, I came across tips that I did not know which would improve my somewhat questionable current sleeping pattern.

In my personal experience, waking up for school was never an issue – granted I lived a ten-minute walk from my school, but still. To be honest, even when it was difficult for me to wake up at 7:30, particularly during Sixth Form, it was out of pure laziness and bad sleeping habits. I would argue that my body clock and fatigue are far worse now than they ever were in school, and I think it is because I am no longer waking up at a set time and executing a set routine five days a week.  

Perhaps a 10am start would benefit pupils and boost student performance, but I think the key issue is the lack of awareness concerning good sleeping habits for teenagers. Make sleep education part of the curriculum first, and then if students are still struggling, adjust the timetable. A later start on its own will not achieve a great deal.