Delaying the bell: the case for later start times in schools

30 Oct 2023
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Delaying the bell: the case for later start times in schools

As the clocks turn back, many of us will be glad for an extra hour in bed. But could an extra 60 minutes beneath the duvet help students perform better at school? Research is increasingly suggesting that the answer might be yes. As our understanding of learning and biology increases, the call for reform in our education system, including school timings, is becoming just as piercing as an early-morning alarm.

Traditionally, the school schedule has been dictated by social and working norms. In agrarian societies, children were usually required to help on the land during summer, which is why the school year starts in September. One rationale for early start times was to ensure students could be home before dark to help with any additional labour. Early start times also evolved alongside industrialisation, and some experts argue that the focus of education was not imparting knowledge, but preparing a workforce to be punctual, obedient, docile and respectful – the ideal workforce if running a factory.

But times have changed.

Today, student welfare is at the heart of the education system and rightly so! Our understanding of learning, as well as the development of students’ neurology and biology, is sparking important conversations about the need for reform in education, including school timings.

To snooze, or not to snooze?

One substantial argument for later school start times centres around the science of sleep and adolescent biology. Our circadian rhythms change as we age. Wake up times are at their latest during adolescence.  Moreover, studies suggest that the sleep patterns of teenagers are driven by hormones, not laziness. Teens are biologically inclined to fall asleep and wake up later; by forcing them to adhere to an early wake-up call, we’re disrupting their natural sleep schedules and potentially limiting their development. Sleep deprivation leads to higher rates of depression in teens and makes it more likely that they’ll make riskier decisions, so starting school later and getting more sleep could carry positive benefits for their mental health and safety.

But the most talked-about impact of a later school start time, is its impact on academic performance, and the evidence is largely encouraging. A study conducted in a UK state-funded school over four years found that shifting the start of the school day as far back as 10 AM (compared to an average start of 8:45 AM) carried substantial benefits. Absence due to illness dropped markedly and the number of students making good academic progress in standard national exams increased by 12%. The case for starting the school day later isn’t just about helping students be healthy and happy; it’s about boosting their performance to set them up for a brighter future.

A wider shift

Shifting the entire schedule of our education system isn’t a simple proposition. It would require the collaboration of educators, policymakers, families and employers. Schools would have to rethink their day-to-day organisation, staff schedules, extracurricular arrangements. Later start times would also mean later drop-off times, and workplaces would need to accommodate working parents accordingly. Yet as we continuously strive for improvement, questioning longstanding practices is crucial, even if those practices are as seemingly fundamental as what time school starts.

The movement for later school start times is not an isolated phenomenon.  It's part of a broader push to rethink how our education system is designed and who it's designed for. Traditionally, the education system has been structured around the needs of adults, but that is changing as the welfare of students takes centre stage.

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