EEF Blog: Can teenage lie-ins boost attainment? Here’s what the evidence says…

Everyone loves a lie-in, especially teenagers. But this commonplace observation can spark fierce debate. Are teenagers just lazy so-and-so’s who need to learn to get up at a decent time? Or should we let them snooze and wake up refreshed, ready to learn? 

183,692 people who signed a public petition calling for secondary school start-times to be delayed to 10am favour the latter. Indeed, their support for teen lie-ins triggered a debate this week in Parliament, with Daniel Zeichner MP commenting, "I think there is plenty of evidence … that there is a real educational gain here."

This isn’t the first time this idea has been proposed. In 2009, for example, Monkseaton High School in North Tyneside made headlines for moving its start time to 10am, attributing a boost in GCSE results to the initiative (though it subsequently reverted to the more usual 8.55am).

Is this interest justified by the evidence?

There is some compelling science behind the idea. Sleep scientists have found that changes in biological rhythms in adolescence do genuinely make it difficult for teenagers to go to sleep and get up early. Their cycles of sleep and wakefulness are delayed by two hours compared to adults’.

Asking a teenager to rise and shine at 7 am to start learning at 9 am, therefore, is equivalent to asking a 55-year-old to look lively at 5 am. Such sleep deprivation does not, unsurprisingly, always make for enthusiastic learners.

This impact is likely compounded by a more relaxed societal attitude to bedtimes, as well as easy access to smartphones and tablets emitting low-level blue light which may interfere with the process of going to sleep.

So the scientific evidence does indeed suggest later start times might make a positive difference to teenagers’ learning. But before we roll out a new practice, it’s important to test whether the theory can be translated into reality and successfully applied in schools.

In 2014, the EEF and Wellcome partnered in funding a number of projects testing whether the latest insights from neuroscience could improve teaching. One of these, Teensleep, led by a team from the University of Oxford, aimed to design and implement a trial which would rigorously test the impact of later start times on GCSE outcomes.

Unfortunately, these plans came unstuck at the initial stage of recruiting schools to get involved in the study; at least 100 were needed to ensure it was statistically well-powered. These schools had to be prepared to delay their regular start times. However, very few schools were willing to do this. They expressed concerns that it was not a feasible intervention, and was too risky to undertake in Year 11, at the same time as high-stakes testing takes place.

The bottom line was not enough schools volunteered so the trial was unable to proceed. Instead, we re-focused the Teensleep project, piloting a sleep education programme training teachers to promote good ‘sleep hygiene’ as part of students’ Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) lessons. Today we are publishing the independent evaluation of this study.

While the underlying science means later school start times for teenagers is an attractive idea, our unsuccessful attempts to put this to the test in a real-world trial suggests it’s not a quick and simple fix. Those dreams of weekday lie-ins aren’t yet ready to become reality.