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In our 24-hour society, sleep is increasingly seen as an optional extra. For instance, those ‘hardworking people’ we keep hearing about surely don’t have the time to snooze away their lives. When they’re not working, they ought to be out drinking beer or playing bingo, which is not easily done in bed – even with the assistance of two fat ladies.

As for those too young to work, tender age is no excuse to laze around! Significantly, the Government is considering plans to extend the school day, which could mean introducing the early morning starts practiced by many secondary schools in America.

British teenagers won’t like the sound of that – but it wouldn’t do them any harm, would it?

Actually, it might. As Jan Hoffman explains in the New York Times, sleep serves an important educational purpose:

“Many researchers say that quality sleep directly affects learning because people store new facts during deep-sleep cycles. During the rapid-eye-movement phases, the brain is wildly active, sorting and categorizing the day’s data. The more sleep a teenager gets, the better the information is absorbed.

“‘Without enough sleep,’ said Jessica Payne, a sleep researcher and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame, ‘teenagers are losing the ability not only to solidify information but to transform and restructure it, extracting inferences and insights into problems.’”

Getting enough sleep is associated with other positive outcomes for young people:

“…teenagers who regularly sleep eight to nine hours a night learn better and are less likely to be tardy, get in fights or sustain athletic injuries. Sleeping well can also help moderate their tendency toward impulsive or risky decision-making.”

Well, OK, if sleep is so important, then the acne-ridden horrors shouldn’t stay up so late, should they? Maybe not, but there is a physiological explanation for the night owl tendencies of the average adolescent:

“During puberty, teenagers have a later release of the ‘sleep’ hormone melatonin, which means they tend not to feel drowsy until around 11 p.m. That inclination can be further delayed by the stimulating blue light from electronic devices, which tricks the brain into sensing wakeful daylight, slowing the release of melatonin and the onset of sleep.”

For all these reasons, there’s a respectable argument to be made for a later start to the school day. According to Hoffman, American schools that have experimented with later starts saw improvements to educational and mental health outcomes among pupils.

In a British context, where early starts are the exception not the rule, the lesson should be not to repeat America’s mistake. If there is a case for extended school hours, then there’s plenty of room at the other end of the day.

There’s a wider lesson to be learned too – which is about educational reform. Conservatives should be proud of the progress that Michael Gove and his colleagues have made in restoring standards to our schools. Arguably, more has been achieved in the last four years than in the eighteen years under Margaret Thatcher and John Major. And yet while traditional values are of huge importance to education, we shouldn’t overlook the insights that can come from the latest research.

As always, conservatives must look to the future for inspiration as well as the past.

9 comments for: Heresy of the week: If we want teenagers to do better at school, then let them have a lie-in

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