Leona O'Neill: Later school starts for teenagers would be disruptive for everyone else

Researchers say teenagers are biologically programmed to go to bed late and lie in for longer, prompting calls for changes to school hours. As the mother of two teens, however, Leona O'Neill suggests it might be wiser let sleeping dogs lie

The working world starts generally at 9am – later starts would provide teenagers with an excuse to stay up even later
Leona O'Neill

THE subject of later school starts for teenagers has been thrust into the public domain once more.

Yesterday MPs debated pushing school starts to later in the morning after more than 176,000 signed an online petition stating that "schools should start at 10am as teenagers are so tired".

The petition read: “Teenagers are so tired due to having to wake up very early to get to school. The government should require secondary schools to start later, which will lead to increased productivity at school."

According to scientists, teens are naturally biologically predisposed to going to bed later and do not fully wake up until mid-morning. They have a late-running biological rhythm which means that they are more productive later in the day.

We all have a ticking biological clock that regulates our natural instinct to go to sleep and wake up at certain times. Scientists say that this is greatly delayed in teenagers. This sleepy phenomenon continues until they are 21 years old, when their body clock changes again.

Yesterday’s debate only really applied to schools in England and the Department of Education over there has responded to the petition by explaining that the hours in the school day are decided by the school themselves.

In England some schools have pushed back the start of sixth-form lessons even beyond a 10am start. Hampton Court school in Surrey, for example, starts its lessons at 1.30pm and ends them at 7pm.

They say the later start time and condensed day "affords students more independence over how they structure their day, and makes the best use of the 168 hours each week".

“So with 20 hours of homework to do, you may well choose to do a couple of hours between breakfast and lunch and a couple of hours after dinner each day, which sounds a very healthy and manageable routine,” their website says.

“You can fit this in going to bed around 10pm or 11pm and getting up at 7am or 8am, or by staying up until 1am and getting up at 10am, whatever feels natural to you and fits in with your life.”

Personally, I feel those are terribly antisocial hours to be at school. When the kids come home from school they will want their ‘me time’ and screen time and they will not be seeing sleep until 3am. We are in danger of turning our teenagers into vampires, mortally afraid of daylight and with completely different sleeping schedules to those in the real world.

Scientists are great and all, but I have two teenagers and that makes me an expert in such matters. You allow your child to go to school later and they will not use their time to get more sleep; they will just adjust their sleeping patterns so that they go to bed even later, get up later and still be tired, still be grumpy and still say they couldn’t be bothered to go to school.

The working world starts generally at 9am. Later school starts will also disrupt family life. It is difficult enough to get a teenager to go to bed at 11pm on school nights so that they are well enough rested for the morning. Later starts would provide an excuse to stay up much later, clanging and banging in their rooms, playing music, downstairs making food or online laughing with their mates until the early hours while the rest of the house is trying to sleep.

I don’t even want to envisage the hellish scenario of having to come back from work in my lunch hour to drag my teens out of bed at 1pm for a 1.30pm school start, because that is what would happen in my house if times changed.

And what happens when they go to university and into the working world? Their body clocks will have been reset by later starts and they will struggle to cope with being productive early in the morning.

I think if you asked most teens what they thought about school start times they would tell you that they would like to see later starts and earlier finishes to the school day.

I say keep it as is.

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