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Does Starting School Later Lead to Better Grades

Does starting school later lead to better grades?

3 min read
  • The science of learning

Is there a simple and easy way to increase student grades and health that doesn’t require any extra contact time, workload or cost? Researchers have just published results from their study that may kick-start a change in how we teach students here in England forever. The answer? Starting school later.

In this study, researchers from The Open University, Harvard Medical School and The University of Nevada tracked the performance of teenagers at a school for four years. In the first year, school starting time was at 0850. In the second and third year, school started at 1000 before switching back to 0850 for the last year. This design allowed the researchers to fully test the varying impacts of start time.

They found that starting at 10am improved student health (as measured by number of sick days) by over 50%. Once the start day was moved back to earlier in the day, this benefit started to decline.  In terms of grades, starting later in the day led to a 12% increase in the value-added number of students making good academic progress and getting better grades.

Why might starting school later help?

Teenagers need more sleep than adults. The National Sleep Foundation recommend they get up to ten hours a night, however many report getting less than seven. As well as this, research shows that teenagers actually start feeling sleepy later than adults, with the sleep hormone melatonin being released up to an hour later. In short, they need more and probably get less of it than they should.

As well as being biologically different, teenagers may be at risk of not getting enough sleep due to an increased likelihood of being on their phone late at night. Research has found that the backlight on phones can often mean that melatonin is suppressed, as the brain thinks the backlight is in fact daylight and so tries to stay awake and alert. 

A word of caution: More research still needed

It is worth noting that, though comprehensive in its design, this is just one study. More evidence is needed. Research is currently underway at a number of schools on this, so it will be interesting to see what the results from other schools are like.

Potential reasons for not starting the school day later include the inconvenience to parents who have children at different schools, fitting in to teacher timetables (i.e. if you are starting later, are those in charge expecting teachers to work later as well?) and possible extensions of bad sleeping patterns leading to a reversal of these positive effects. As we said, more research is definitely needed.

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What to do in the meantime

While we wait for future research, there is still plenty of work that can be done in this area. Sleep can be a significant performance gain, with its benefits known to include enhanced concentration, decision making and mood. Educating students about the importance of sleep and discussing common sleep mistakes are good starting points. These include having irregular bedtimes, waiting to fall asleep before going to bed and drinking caffeinated drinks late at night. The free graphic from this blog about sleep mistakes might be a good conversation starter.

Final thoughts

In our experience, you can go in to any Year 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13 classroom up and down the country and you will find that the vast majority of students are not getting enough sleep. Many report getting only a handful of hours each night. Starting the school day over an hour later may not be feasible for all. It may not even be advisable until we get more data. However, with sleep being so crucial to how people think, feel and behave, we absolutely must educate our students about how to do it better.

For even more information on how to work to your full potential at school, we have a page all about The Best Ways to Revise. Here you can find loads more tips, links and research to help you succeed.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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