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Secondary School Opening Hours

Volume 654: debated on Monday 11 February 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 229178 relating to secondary school opening hours.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I will start by reading the petition:

“School should start at 10am as teenagers are too tired. 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”.

One of the things I love about the Petitions Committee is that the petitions we receive are often direct and to the point. There is no political beating about the bush—no “on one hand” and “on the other hand”. This one goes straight to the point: teenagers are tired, so schools should start later. It has achieved huge cut-through; there has been huge public interest, which is why it is such a pleasure to open this debate.

Over the next few minutes, I plan to lay out some of the scientific evidence that backs up the petition. I will say a little about the huge number of responses, many from teenagers, parents and schools. I will report a little on the responses in my city of Cambridge, and I will say a little about the practical challenges, the wider implications and some of the possible travel benefits.

When I started writing this speech, I was tempted to conclude, in time-honoured fashion, with a politician’s reply of “yes—maybe”, because, sadly, these things are always more complicated than one might imagine, but the more I read, the more I found myself agreeing with the petitioner. Allow me to praise the initiator of the petition. It was started by Hannah Kidner, a teenager doing her A-levels at Blundell’s School in Devon. She is in the Public Gallery. This petition is a great example of people-powered democracy. It was started just three months ago and has already garnered more than 180,000 signatures, proving that there are issues other than our future relationship with the European Union that stir passions.

I will set out the legal position. I thank the Library staff for their excellent briefing, which has informed much of my speech. Academies and free schools set their own school days and term dates with their board and headteacher. Local authority maintained schools decide the length of the school day, session times and breaks, but school must open for 190 days in a school year, and the school year must start after July. That means there is scope for local decision making, rather than the Government issuing an edict. I am not fond of the academy structure, and I favour so-called free schools even less, but they all receive public money, so my guess is that a future Government could act, because they would hold the purse strings. On the other hand, it is always convenient for Governments to delegate decisions that they consider tricky. More of that later.

The question of starting times has been considered at various points in recent years. There are strong feelings on both sides of the debate. I am not an education or neurological development expert, but I am told that many studies across the world over the years, particularly in the US, have suggested that a later start time may have a positive impact on pupils. However, some reviews have found more mixed results, and some have raised concerns about the quality of evidence. In Singapore, a school found that a delayed start time had a positive impact after nine months. A study in Canada found that

“Students from schools that started later slept longer, were more likely to meet sleep recommendations and were less likely to report feeling tired in the morning.”

The authors claimed:

“The study adds weight to the mounting evidence that delaying school start time benefits adolescent sleep.”

Canadian researchers claim that letting teens start school just 10 minutes later might help them to get more than 20 minutes extra sleep on a typical night. Although that might not sound like much, for some sleep-deprived adolescents it might be enough of a difference to enable them to get the recommended minimum eight hours of sleep a night. A lead author of a study into this issue, Karen Patte of Brock University in Ontario, said:

“Our body’s circadian clock naturally shifts later at puberty, so teens get tired later at night (due to later melatonin release) and therefore, need to sleep in longer in the morning in order to get sufficient rest. Delayed (school) start times have been recommended for adolescents to align with their delayed sleep schedules.”

Generally, though, it is thought that a further exploration of the evidence is required. One study, “Delayed School Start Times and Adolescent Sleep: A Systematic Review of the Experimental Evidence,” stated that

“School start times were delayed 25 to 60 minutes, and correspondingly, total sleep time increased from 25 to 77 minutes per weeknight. Some studies revealed reduced daytime sleepiness, depression, caffeine use, tardiness to class, and trouble staying awake. Overall, the evidence supports recent non-experimental study findings and calls for policy that advocates for delayed school start time to improve sleep. This presents a potential long-term solution to chronic sleep restriction during adolescence.”

However, the study goes on to state that

“there is a need for rigorous randomized study designs and reporting of consistent outcomes, including objective sleep measures and consistent measures of health and academic performance.”

I am grateful to Harriet Sherwood, who wrote an excellent piece for The Guardian a few weeks ago highlighting some of the issues underlying this debate. She wrote:

“Sleep experts are warning of an epidemic of sleep deprivation among school-aged children, with some urging educational authorities to alter school hours to allow adolescents to stay in bed longer. Adequate sleep is the strongest factor in the wellbeing and mental health of teenagers, and a shortage is linked to poor educational results, anxiety and obesity”.

She reported that the French Education Minister recently approved a proposal to push the start of the school day back by an hour—albeit to 9 am—for students aged 15 to 18 in Paris. The article continues:

“Scientists say that humans’ circadian rhythms – the body clock that manages the cycle of sleep and wakefulness – change in adolescence. The cycle shifts two hours in teenagers which means that they are wired to go to sleep and wake up later. ‘It’s like they’re in a different time zone,’ said Dr Michael Farquhar, a consultant in paediatric sleep medicine at the Evelina children’s hospital in London.

‘We’re asking them to get up before their body clock is ready, because that’s the way the adult world works. So most teenagers end up sleep-deprived.’

Sleep is the ‘strongest predictor of wellbeing among teenagers’, said Russell Viner, professor of adolescent health at University College London and president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.”

There are strong scientific reasons for considering change, but beyond the simple correlation between teenage brain development and sleep patterns, and the impact that may have on school results, it is important to recognise that schools are more than just exam factories. I am afraid successive Governments have needed to be reminded about that. I suspect most of us would agree that schools are key parts of communities and play a key role in family life, and that that would have to be considered as part of a proposed change to the school day.

I am happy to take interventions from both hon. Members, but I give way first to the hon. Gentleman.

Well, I am not sure I am going to go for that, but I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) .

My hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech. Does he agree with me and the BMJ that delaying the time children finish school is a very important part of this issue? On his point about our children being safe and part of the local community, ensuring that they stay in school between 3 pm and 6 pm has been shown massively to reduce the potential for knife crime during those hours.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. One of the difficulties with the proposed change is that starting later may well mean finishing later. There are pros and cons to that, which I will come to in a moment, but she makes an important point about safety.

Has not research shown that we need to limit the amount of time people spend using screens, whether on their phones or their iPads, and that doing so can have a big effect on people’s attentiveness during class?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. There has been good research recently suggesting that is the case, particularly with regard to the hours immediately before sleep. There is a range of issues about how we boost young people’s quality of life, and I fully admit that this is only one of them.

I am not an expert, but there are quite a few experts in Cambridge, which I represent, so I know people who are. Sensibly, I would suggest, I sought their advice. I am particularly grateful to the headteachers of Hills Road and Long Road sixth-form colleges, of Coleridge, Netherhall and Parkside secondary schools, of Cambridge Academy for Science and Technology, and more. I was struck by the alacrity and thoughtfulness of the responses that I received from all those institutions; they were really well considered and well thought through, and of course they pointed out both the advantages and the potential pitfalls of this proposal. I suspect that any Member who asked their local colleges and schools about the subject would get similarly well considered responses.

Cambridge headteachers and principals mentioned plenty of positives. The proposed change could provide opportunities for childcare relief for staff, allowing teachers more time with their children in the mornings, which in turn may improve recruitment and retention—a key issue in my area. A lot of people pointed out that starting school later could significantly reduce traffic problems, which are particularly acute in university cities such as Cambridge, and delaying the start of the school day for teenagers could make a substantial change to public transport peaks. Many of us notice the difference getting in and out of Cambridge outside term time.

However, one local headteacher told me that he thought the proposal would work only if it was

“co-ordinated across the system. That is the big issue, as with the current term structure. Because of the need to co-ordinate with primary schools on childcare, working patterns of parents by and large running 9-5, it is hard for individual institutions to step outside the norm.”

His point is well made. I agree with him about co-ordination, although I have to say that I am less convinced that everyone works nine-to-five these days. I note that better employers are introducing more family-friendly flexible working. That should be encouraged, and it could be part of the answer when it comes to staggered school start times.

Let us look at some of the downsides. Although across-the-board change may be positive from an organisational perspective, the context of the school in question is key. Another Cambridge head, who I think has experience from a previous posting, said that although starting later has worked well at Portsmouth College,

“it is very context dependent as a stand-alone solution”.

Clearly, different communities have different requirements and preferences, and any change must take that into account.

There are also questions to do with the impact on the wider community and families—many parents who do the school run on their way to work may find a later start disruptive—and at what age such a change would best suit students. Parents who allow their children to walk home alone may feel uncomfortable with the school day starting at 10 am, as it may mean children returning later in the afternoon or early evening. Clearly, some parents might not feel comfortable with their 11-year-old travelling home in the dark in winter.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. We cannot exonerate the parents. For good or bad, I have two grammar schools in my constituency. Children come to Stroud’s grammar schools from the other side of Swindon. That means there are 11-year-olds who have to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning. We can talk about putting the start of the school day back to 10 am, but at the moment, the days of some 11-year-olds start at 5 am and do not end until at least 9 pm, by the time they have finished their homework. That cannot be good for children. We need to look at what makes a school accessible, rather than letting the free market go mad and letting parents make the choice.

Many of us continue to argue for a good local school in every area. Parental choice sometimes leads to difficult journeys for children, as my hon. Friend explained. That may be the choice people make, but the impact on children may not be as positive as one might wish.

The proposed change would affect not just children and parents but teachers, many of whom already work very long hours. They may prefer school to finish earlier, because they have more to do when the school day finishes. Of course, the change may cause complications for families with children at both primary and secondary school. It may also impact after-school extracurricular activities, particularly in winter, when inter-school sports games may be affected by darkness. Of course, other voluntary sessions happen after school, including exam revision, music classes and community outreach. There is a range of potential pitfalls.

As I mentioned, others in the world do things differently. There have been changes to school start times in other countries. In fact, some of our European neighbours start their days even earlier; some schools run from 7 am until 1 pm. Of course, that depends to some extent on the local climate, but that all shows that this is a very complicated range of issues.

That complexity is not always understood by everyone. Some people have characterised this debate as somehow being about lazy teenagers. Today I was on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire’s excellent morning programme with Thordis Fridriksson. I am told that many people who contacted the show had little sympathy for what they described as “sleepy teenagers”, and thought that getting up on time was good practice for the world of work. That is pretty unsympathetic. People of my generation and older should try to remember what it was like for us when we were teenagers. I am afraid that similar grouchiness can be found in some of our national media, which may be dominated by grumpy old men from a certain background—but maybe I am stereotyping, too.

Having said that, some teachers have questioned whether we would risk undermining the work ethic by accommodating difference. One teacher told me she was concerned, and questioned whether, if young people started later at school, we would not be training them to be up and ready for a job, which would often start earlier. I am not that sympathetic to that view; better employers are generally more open to flexible working. However, I recognise that there are jobs that have to be done at particular times, and many of us have been frustrated by colleagues who struggle to get to work on time, Mrs Main—and not always teenagers. There are always extenuating circumstances.

Moving on to the more detailed practicalities, evidence shows that the term “teenagers” does not do justice to the complexity of the issue. What works for older teenagers may not be so beneficial to younger people. A local headteacher pointed out to me that although there is some

“evidence that for 14-18-year-olds a later start to school is beneficial…the same is not true for 11-13-year-olds. This introduces a bit of a dilemma as meeting the needs of all would mean extending school hours and so adding costs. Given that we are currently unable to meet our costs due to inadequate funding”—

a point I think she particularly wanted me to relay to the Minister—

“any move in this direction would be impossible to deliver with our existing resources.”

This is a key point, particularly for state schools. I suspect that the proper funding of education is the main issue for almost every state school, so questions about the timing of the school day come lower on their list of priorities. Although this debate is not party political, I highlight the difference that sufficient funding would make to schools. It would give them the ability to experiment and to find what suits them, which would arguably lead to the best outcome for this debate.

I conclude by saying a little about the public response; as I said, there has been huge interest. The Petitions Committee Clerks have engaged with the public on this matter, and they have done an excellent job. Last week, they surveyed nearly 5,000 people, some 92% of whom identified themselves as secondary school students, and who were much more enthusiastic about change. The key themes that emerged touched on the academic research that I have mentioned, the effects on family life and transport, the potential mental health benefits, the potential challenges for teachers, and the effect on those with illnesses and disabilities. The Clerks of the Committee told me that the story about this petition was the most engaged-with post ever on Parliament’s Instagram account. When the survey closed, it had had over 5,000 responses in under 48 hours. Clearly, this is an idea that has captured both hearts and minds.

I will read one of the contributions from a parent, which puts the point very well:

“I have five teenage children and it is an absolute nightmare getting them all ready for a 9am start every day. In order to start school at 9am they have to leave the house at 8am and therefore get up at 6.30am.”

That echoes the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Dr Drew). She carries on:

“I would defy anyone to try and get 5 teenagers out of bed every day at 6.30am and not feel, as I do, that this is far too early!...Having to wake 5 teens at 6.30am each day is like trying to raise the dead. I can see that it’s not that they don’t want to get up—they enjoy and look forward to school—but they genuinely can’t get up. Being forced to wake up before they are ready has a massive impact on their health and well-being, which suffers hugely, and moreover so does mine! The school morning is without question the most stressful time of the day for children and parents.”

I have some sympathy for that account, and I am sure others will recognise the situation.

As for the quantitative response to the questions in the survey, the figures are pretty stunning. One of the questions was:

“How often do you feel drowsy or sleepy during the day?”

That is not a question for MPs, Mrs Main, but a question for teenagers. More than 85% of teenagers said that they often or always felt drowsy or sleepy during the day. That is a message that we should take seriously. The next question was:

“How often have you been bothered by trouble falling or staying asleep, or sleeping too much?”

Some 60% were often or always troubled by sleepiness. There is something going on out there that we clearly need to pay attention to.

I hope that I have been able to lay out just some of the arguments made for and against teenagers starting the school day later, and to show that although some might swiftly dismiss such a suggestion, when you look into matters more deeply, they are never as simple as they seem. My conclusion would be that schools and colleges must make their own decisions, but within a co-ordinated and organised local framework, and with sufficient funding to make it possible. We are a long way from having either of those, but we are a rich country, and it does not have to be this way; it is a matter of political choice.

The time may soon come when these issues should be addressed by a radical and reforming Government. We are living through a world of dramatic technological change; knowledge is more universally available than ever before, through every smart phone. Within a couple of decades, the context has changed beyond recognition, yet our organisational structures for learning remain very much as they were half a century ago. As we learn more about ourselves—how we learn, and how we are different at different stages of our lives—why not reform our structures to meet our needs? Why always say that is too difficult? When hundreds of thousands of young people are telling us that they want change, perhaps it is time to create a system that works for them, instead of telling them why it cannot be done.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, and it is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner). I will say straightaway that there is a kernel of truth in what he has said, but more research needs to be done on the subject. That is the bottom line of what I am going to say, so I could stop there, but I want to talk about a couple of things. Before he left this place, I remember George Osborne saying what a fine profession we are in when 9.30 is considered to be early. I think that illustrates the point that the issue should be examined in more detail.

When I saw the debate title, I was initially sceptical. I, too, thought it would be about giving teenagers more time to stay in bed for longer and, therefore, to stay up later. However, the scientific evidence, as mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, provides a different perspective. As I said in my intervention, we need to look closely at the amount of screen time used by teenagers during the day, but also, in particular, just before he or she goes to bed at night. Parents have a large part to play in dealing with that important element.

The results of my inquiries suggest that we should take a broader look at the issues. I started by looking at research undertaken in the United States, which is a different country, with different traditions, and where classes have traditionally started much earlier than ours. It is not unusual for them to start before 8 o’clock in the morning—so there is a lot that can be done. One study in the US replaced the self-reported information with information obtained from wrist-worn monitors. The importance of that is that, as the hon. Gentleman has said, many people, when asked how often they feel tired, will say “I feel tired quite a lot,” but I think that wearing wrist monitors, which monitor the amount of sleep they get and when they begin to drop off, is a better approach to the problem.

A school in Seattle delayed its start time from 7.50 to 8.45, which is quite a big change. However, the difficulty is that it resulted in 34 minutes of additional sleep time for the teenagers—that is all. I have to ask: is that significant? One of the other results was that students were late on two fewer school days and had two fewer absences, which is not, I would argue, a large or significant result from the study. Nevertheless, it indicates a possible solution, which is to do more research. Another factor is that the approach in question appears to reduce the number of car accidents and, given that teenagers are at higher risk of having car accidents, that is significant. There are important societal issues at stake, besides just how much time teenagers can sleep.

The hon. Gentleman suggested a potential course of action, particularly for academies and free schools, which are free to do as they wish on the issue. There should be local action, if people think that is the right way to go, but I suspect that that is not what the hon. Gentleman or I want, because there is a difficulty. One school might move its start time to 9.30 and another might keep it the same. There would then be big knock-on effects on such things as childminding, as he explained. More attention needs to be paid to those considerations. The county councils, of course, have responsibility for decisions for maintained schools, and I suspect that they will not be as willing as academies and free schools to study the research.

As an aside, when I was a sixth former, there were completely different regimes for the sixth form and the rest of the school. Sixth formers came in for their particular classes, rather than spending all day at school. That flexibility in the system was a good thing to encourage. If I may say so, given that I am here participating in this debate, it certainly did me no harm. More research along those lines would be useful and I would welcome it.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I suspect the irony of our debating this issue, when we start the working week in Parliament at 2.30 on a Monday, has probably not been lost on anyone, and it may have been emphasised by our slightly later-than-scheduled start time—but I am sure that that will just add humour to the debate.

When I first saw the title of the petition I wondered whether it was serious, and the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) also mentioned such scepticism. I was fascinated when I read the research publications and saw that there are serious, positive ideas on the subject. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), whose opening speech went through much of that research in an even, balanced manner. The remark that he quoted about the possibility of teenagers being in a different time zone will have struck a chord with all of us. When my stepson comes to visit, it often feels like that. Perhaps now I shall have a greater understanding of the body clock mechanisms of the young.

The petition received 431 signatures from my constituency, which makes it the second most popular in my area. It is second only to the petition on fireworks. To recap quickly the position in Scotland, the Schools General (Scotland) Regulations 1975, as amended, require schools under education authority management in Scotland to be open for 190 days a year. However, they do not define the length of the school week for pupils, which is a matter for the discretion of education authorities, within their responsibility for the day-to-day organisation of the schools. There is a widely accepted norm of 25 hours and 27.5 hours for primary and secondary schools respectively, and school holiday dates are also, of course, set by the local authorities.

The primary focus in any discussion of schools must be on the quality of the education provided, which is why the Scottish Government continue to invest so heavily in education. Schools spending has risen under the Scottish National party since 2006. The average spend per pupil has increased by almost 13%. Scottish spending per pupil was £4,968 in primary schools, and £7,046 in secondary schools in 2016-17. That is an increase in cash terms of at least 12.8% for the primary sector and 13.1% for the secondary sector. Education budgets are rising—

Order. I have indulged the hon. Gentleman somewhat in his listing of the amounts of money being spent on Scottish education, but the debate is about secondary school opening hours, so I hope he will get on to that now.

No problem. I make the point that it is part of the wider education package, and the timing issue is obviously important.

Having briefly discussed the budgets, I will move on to ask: what about the proposals in the petition? There is, of course, nothing to stop schools in Scotland adopting the hours they want, although there might be a requirement for staff contracts, school transport contracts and various other things to be changed if those changes to hours were introduced. However, that is not a reason not to introduce them.

There is interesting research behind the petition. Open University research found that teenagers aged 13 to 16 who started their day at 10 am had improved health, with 50% less absence. That is a key factor that might suggest it is worth looking at other contracts and times. On the other hand, research by the University of Surrey and Harvard Medical School suggests that turning down the lights in the evening would be more effective. Using a mathematical model, the research shows that when clocks changed in the autumn most teenagers’ body clocks would drift even later in response to later start times and, in a matter of weeks, they would find it just as hard to get out of bed. Clearly, reputable research exists pointing in different directions. I would probably reach much the same conclusion as the hon. Member for Henley—that we need a bit more research. We certainly need to keep looking at the issue.

That brings me to what is perhaps the crux of the argument—whether the real debate is about more sleep versus better sleep. Some studies suggest that longer sleep is associated with academic performance. Better sleep is connected to overall cognitive processing. Clearly, a balance needs to be achieved, and we would all benefit from seeing more research.

The point I was making earlier in discussing budgets and other aspects of education was that the quality of the education provided is fundamental, and must be the key to the issue. It is a question of what satisfies that criterion. If school hours have an effect, we should be willing to look at them. I am keen to see more research. If I had seen only the title of the petition I might have laughed it off, but actually there is a lot of substantive work behind it, and we all need to look at that and see what we can learn from it.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) on moving the petition so eloquently on behalf of the Petitions Committee, and Hannah Kidner on coming up with the idea for a petition that has attracted so much support in such a short space of time. She can be very proud indeed that she has made Parliament act on her idea; I will go into why I think it was so popular.

On first reading the title of the petition, that school should start at 10 am as teenagers are too tired, many people will have dismissed the idea—hon. Members have made that case—but there is a growing body of opinion that starting the school day later would be better for teenagers, both in terms of their physical and mental health, which I will come on to, and in relation to their academic performance.

When I researched this debate, I found a 2017 study by Dr Paul Kelley of the Open University. It was conducted at an English secondary school that showed that delaying school start times for teenagers can have major benefits, including better academic performance and improved mental and physical health. The study found that rates of illness decreased by more than half over a two-year period and students in their mid-teens got significantly better grades when they started school at 10 am instead of the usual 8.30 am.

As has been pointed out by several hon. Members, however, children across the world are sleeping less. Here in the UK, the national health service is seeing more serious problems than before, with hospital attendances for children under 14 with sleep disorders tripling in the past 10 years. British schoolchildren are the sixth most sleep-deprived in the world, with American children topping the rankings. There are likely to be a number of sources for that problem, as the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) pointed out, with mobile phone and tablet use featuring high on the list. More than 80% of children in the UK now have their own phone by the age of 12, while 58% have their own tablet by the age of 10, and two thirds of teenagers say they use those devices in the hour before they go to bed. As it happens, it is one of my personal rules not to do that.

Let us face it: we have all become slaves to these devices, and parents must be role models and set an example in that area. Indeed, the Minister has made the issue the focus of his attention in recent weeks, suggesting that our schools should ban mobile phones altogether. I think that suggestion got rather more attention than he ever thought it might when he made it.

I think the reason why so many young people signed this petition is that they see mental health going up their agenda. The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) mentioned that we in Parliament start our day at 2.30 pm on a Monday, but my day started at 9 o’clock with a visit to a company in my constituency called Endress+Hauser, a major manufacturer of pressurised equipment across the continent. Its representatives told me about their workplace practices, changing times to improve people’s mental health and having full staff sessions on anxiety and their mental health and wellbeing. It is a rising agenda.

We know that the number of young people attending accident and emergency departments for a psychiatric condition more than doubled between 2010 and 2015; I think that is particularly what young people are worried about. Just 8% of the mental health budget is spent on children, despite their representing 20% of the population. Any MP with a constituency case load will have more and more parents coming to see them about special educational needs and trying to get that provision through local authorities, their multi-academy trusts and child and adolescent mental health services provision. Referrals to CAMHS increased by 64% between 2012-13 and 2014-15, but more than one quarter of children and young people referred were not allocated a service.

What is hampering schools in making a change? Today in Tes, the Government were criticised for school budget cuts that lead to less innovation in our schools, particularly relating to education technology. The Minister and I are no strangers to that. In the current climate, it is difficult for schools to make such changes, even innovative changes to the school day, when £1.7 billion in real terms has been taken out of the school system since 2015. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge said, every state school is facing a crisis.

Our schools need the Government to take an honest approach to the issue. We must act now and give our children and teenagers the knowledge and confidence to take charge of their own mental health and wellbeing. The current system gives schools the autonomy to organise the school day in a way that best suits their pupils, in conjunction with the wider community. If schools want to change their times, and do so effectively, they must work through a framework and a form of subsidiarity in their local authority area or more widely. If certain countries that make up the United Kingdom—or conurbations such as Greater Manchester or Merseyside, which have their own mayoral systems—consider doing so, I do not think that any of us would be averse to that. They should come back with ideas.

The subject of the petition merits proper consideration by the Department for Education, particularly the underlying challenges faced by teenagers and the ability of our schools and teachers to support them while facing sustained budget cuts and increasing workloads. I congratulate my hon. Friend again on his considered introduction of the petition, and Hannah Kidner on bringing it to Parliament and gaining so many signatures in such a short space of time.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) on the way he introduced the debate. We can all agree that every child’s experience at school should be a happy one. The Government want them to do well at school and be alert and receptive to what is taught. Clearly, ensuring that teenagers are refreshed and ready to work when they arrive at school is hugely important.

The e-petition states, bluntly, as the hon. Gentleman said:

“School should start at 10am as teenagers are too tired”.

I share the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) and the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) that there is insufficient evidence at present to suggest that allowing teenagers to start school at 10 am across the board would necessarily be beneficial. A timely start to the school day in secondary school helps prepare pupils to enter the world of work after they leave school. Workplaces expect their employees to start and finish work at a set time and to demonstrate the value of hard work and application.

As the hon. Member for Cambridge acknowledged, delaying the start of the school day for teenagers might also cause difficulties for working parents, for example those with younger children at primary school, if start times were different from those for siblings at secondary school and finishing times were correspondingly different. That would present problems for working families, particularly those where both spouses are working.

The Government have high ambitions for all pupils, and we want to encourage and support greater social mobility. We want to ensure that pupils have excellent opportunities to thrive and to excel. There is broad, though not universal, agreement that teenagers generally need more sleep than they currently get, and while some results have shown a benefit from a later start to school, particularly in the United States, where schools typically start significantly earlier than in the United Kingdom, the effects of delaying school start times are as yet unproven here.

The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk cited research conducted by the University of Surrey and Harvard Medical School in 2017, which found that delaying school start times is unlikely to reduce sleep deprivation in teenagers. The research predicts that turning down the lights in the evening would be much more effective at tackling sleep deprivation. The research went on to say:

“The mathematical model showed that delaying school start times in the UK would not help reduce sleep deprivation. Just as when clocks go back in the autumn, most teenagers’ body clocks would drift even later in response to the later start time, and in a matter of weeks they would find it just as hard to get out of bed. The results did, however, lend some support to delaying school start in the US, where many schools start as early as 7am.”

It continued:

“The mathematical model shows that the problem for adolescents is that their light consumption behaviour interferes with the natural interaction with the environmental clock—getting up late in the morning results in adolescents keeping the lights on until later at night. Having the lights on late delays the biological clock, making it even harder to get up in the morning. The mathematics also suggests that the biological clocks of adolescents are particularly sensitive to the effects of light consumption.”

Finally, it said:

“The model suggests that an alternative remedy to moving school start times in the UK is exposure to bright light during the day, turning the lights down in the evening and off at night.”

A further study, the Teensleep Project, looks at adolescent sleeping patterns and the impact of sleep education on teenage students. Professor Foster from the project says:

“Our pilot study showed that about 25% of teenagers had clinically poor sleep—can we justify late starts when it might only benefit 25% of students? Instead, we must introduce sleep education with parents, teachers and students. We are not ruling out a later school start, but we need a good set of data to show this is having a huge impact on adolescents. Unless later starts are combined with sleep education, it may actually worsen the issue”.

That conclusion tallies very much with what my hon. Friend the Member for Henley and the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk said.

The Government welcome the chief medical officer’s report into screen time, which was published on 7 February and includes advice on managing screen time and social media use in a sensible and effective way. The report is clear that scientific research is currently insufficiently conclusive to support the chief medical officer’s evidence-based guidelines on optimal amounts of screen use or online activities, such as social media use. However, the report provides advice for parents and carers based on child development research. It includes leaving phones outside the bedroom at night time or taking screen-free meal times, which I am sure that the shadow Minister also does.

We recently consulted on the draft regulations and guidance for relationships education, relationships and sex education and health education. The guidance sets out the content for the subjects, including health and prevention. It says that pupils should know the importance of sufficient, good-quality sleep in promoting good health, and that a lack of sleep can affect their weight, mood and ability to learn. It also sets out that teachers should make sure that pupils are aware of the benefits of physical activity and time spent outdoors, which should be linked to information on the benefits of sufficient sleep and good nutrition.

Good mental health is a priority for the Department and for the Government. It can have a profound impact on the whole of a child’s life, not just their attainment. Schools and colleges have an important role to play in supporting the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people by putting in place whole-school approaches tailored to the particular needs of their pupils and students.

The decision on when to start the school day lies with individual schools, as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Cambridge. All schools have the flexibility to decide when their school day should start and finish. Most schools start their days at 9 am or earlier. That is not to say that a later start time can never work, and some schools have decided to begin their school day later. Monkseaton High School in North Tyneside trialled a 10 am start, but has since reverted to 8.55 am.

In 2011, we revoked the regulations prescribing the procedure for changing school opening times. Since then, maintained schools and academies have had the autonomy to change their own school opening times. The Education (School Day and School Year) (England) Regulations 1999 require all maintained schools to be open to educate their pupils for at least 380 sessions—190 days—in each school year, with every school day consisting of two sessions separated by a break in the middle of the day. Academies and free schools are not bound by these regulations, but their funding agreements state that the duration of the school day is the responsibility of the trust.

There are no specific legal requirements for how long the school day should be. Governing bodies of maintained schools are responsible for deciding when sessions should begin and end on each school day, the length of each lesson and the timings for the morning sessions, the midday break and afternoon sessions. The governing body has the power to revise the length of the school day as it sees fit. Schools are also responsible for setting the timetable for their school day, and so could, for example, schedule more intellectually challenging subjects later in the day if they decide that that is when their students are more receptive to being taught.

Schools also have the autonomy to extend the length of the school day or offer provision after the end of the school day if they believe that it would be beneficial to their students. Extending the school day, or offering extra education activities around the school day, can help children—particularly from the most disadvantaged backgrounds—to improve attainment and social skills, raise aspiration and help parents with childcare.

We expect schools changing the length of their school day to act reasonably when making those decisions, including by consulting parents, giving parents notice and considering the impact on pupils and teachers, and on parents’ work commitments and childcare options. They should also consider the impact of reducing students’ time in school. Our evidence shows that every extra day of school missed can affect a pupil’s chances of achieving good GCSEs, which has a lasting effect.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cambridge for highlighting this issue. The Government cannot, and should not, insist that schools delay the start time of the day. Schools already have the power to do so themselves, if they feel that it would be in the best interests of their pupils. That is a key point: schools know what is in the best interests of their pupils. They are best placed to make a decision on whether to change the content, structure and duration of their school day to get the best outcomes for their pupils, and they know the individual circumstances of their pupils and of the local area.

We would not want to take away the freedom of any school by requiring them to start the school day at a set time, especially when evidence on delaying school start times in the United Kingdom is, at best, inconclusive.

I have listened intently to the Minister’s speech, and he is absolutely right about the lack of evidence on delaying start and finish times. However, I mentioned the BMJ research on young people and their likelihood of being stabbed or facing violence, and the lack of evidence around that. Will the Minister commit to getting more research on delaying start and finishing times, to make sure that our kids are kept safe?

I am interested in the staggered end times of schools, as mentioned in the BMJ research that the hon. Lady cited. That feeds into schools’ autonomy to decide when to start and finish. We trust headteachers to make those decisions, which will be based very much on local circumstances, including when other schools in the area finish for the day and so on. We are always open to more research being conducted on these issues. We certainly want to make sure that children are safe when they leave school and walk home in the evenings.

The focus should be on ensuring that children and young people understand the importance of sleep and how best to get sufficient sleep at night, to enable them to achieve their best.

I am grateful to all Members for their contributions, a consistent feature of which was the call for more evidence. I sometimes think that people call for more evidence when they do not necessarily like what they hear from the evidence already there. It seems to me that the strength of feeling of young people in this country, demonstrated through the petition that was so admirably put forward, bears some thinking about. I actually think that there is plenty of evidence—particularly the Open University study—that shows a real potential educational gain here, and some schools and colleges might want to seize that opportunity.

I am always mindful of the level at which these decisions are taken. I remember in the early days of the Labour Government after the 1997 general election, when there were discussions on banning smoking in public places. Tony Blair came to a Labour event and said that it might be left to local councils to decide, because he was a bit nervous about taking that decision. We said, “This needs leadership,” and in the end he did it and no one thinks it controversial now. I would say that the evidence shows that it is very hard for local schools and colleges to take the decision that we debating today on their own. It needs some leadership, and I am hopeful that at some future point we will have a Government who have the courage to listen to our teenagers, act on what they are telling us and find the evidence to back it up.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered e-petition 229178 relating to secondary school opening hours.

Sitting adjourned.