Should teenagers be allowed to sleep in?

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Sleeping in

 This week I heard an interesting debate on the radio between Guy Holloway, head teacher at Hampton Court House and Anna May Mangan.


He is planning to let his students start at 1.30 in the afternoon, using research on sleep and learning to improve things for his students. She’s completely against it because it means they will be staying in bed all morning.


I personally have always hated getting up early, but would I be right to let my daughter sleep in?  (Thank goodness she doesn’t read these blogs….)



Teenagers, sleep and learning

 Probably about 15 years ago at several different neuroscience conferences I heard evidence presented that teenagers would do far better at school if they didn’t have to get up early.


This is because their circadian rhythm is different to that of adults (and everyone else it would seem). Making teenagers get up to start school at 8.30 or 9am is actually detrimental to their learning.


So I was very pleased to hear Guy Holloway (GuyHolloway_HCH), head teacher at Hampton Court House, speaking on BBC Radio announce that he was going to change the hours for his sixth form students.


At last, someone who is prepared to be guided by the research and help people to learn more easily as a result.


One hour makes a difference

The research I heard about found that even letting these students start school an hour later had a significant impact on their learning. Guy Holloway is starting school for them at 1.30.


However, as always the BBC likes to have someone with an opposing view, so they broadcast this interesting news as a discussion between Guy and Anna May Mangen, self-confessed ‘pushy mother’ (author of ‘Getting into Medical School – The Pushy Mother’s Guide’ and a seriously understated title if her radio appearance is anything to go by).


“The students must be dullards”

She said the students at Hampton Court “must be dullards” because they are not doing any of the additional things that students would typically do if they were allowed to sleep away the morning and learn into the evening.


I was fascinated but not surprised to note how she did not seem in the least interested in the research, but instead seemed to assume that the working these hours would automatically not be taking part in any other extra curricular activities.


She thought that these students were being robbed of an opportunity to do well by letting them stay in bed.


This was not what Guy Holloway was saying at all. He just believes in teenagers getting 9 hours sleep.


Anna May Mangen seemed to be unaware that even if you have 9 hours in bed that still leaves you with 15 other hours in the day (or night). Perhaps arithmetic isn’t her strong point. Or it may be she has a very fixed idea of how you can use the hours of the day and exactly what you can do when.


She told us that son had served breakfast in a hospice and these students would not be able to do that. And that is true. However, she seemed oblivious to the possibility of other duties in the evenings that they would be perfectly well able to perform.


Sleep and learning research

Sleep is vital for learning

Sleep is vital for learning

Sleep and learning are very closely related. If you don’t get enough sleep your ability to learn drops, because learning, sleep and memory are so closely linked.


I once saw Allan Hobson (researcher and author of ‘Sleep’) lecturing about sleep and learning. He had carried out research where he paid students to play Tetris for 8 hours a day. Some were allowed a full night’s sleep; others were not. The next day those who had got the full night’s sleep had improved their level of skill to above that of the previous day. Those who had not had a good night’s sleep had a reduced level of skill compared to that of the previous day.


Yes, you are actually improving your skills while you are asleep.


To his horror, when Allan Hobson tried his own regimen on himself he found no improvement the next morning. It transpires that as you get older, you need several nights of good sleep to achieve the same results. It took him three days (I think he was in his 30s at that time).


Driving and sleep

Given that you are statistically much more likely to have an accident if you drive between midnight and 5am, when you are really meant to be asleep, it’s hardly surprising that learning when you are supposed to be asleep might also be impaired.


Sleep is very important for learning and memory

If you want to improve your learning and memory, first check if you are getting enough sleep. It makes a huge difference.


Here is a link to some of the research as mentioned by Guy Holloway on Radio 4.

Dr Paul Kelly (researcher)

12 Responses to “Should teenagers be allowed to sleep in?”

  1. May 13, 2014 at 3:17 pm

    Indeed a well rested mind is can absorb more information and may learn more. The problem with most teens and young adults is their choice not to sleep at the time they should be sleeping. There are many things in life that we can choose- the time we want to sleep, the time we want to eat, the things we want to accomplish in the limited time we have among others. The time to go to class can be moved….like college and maybe online classes where one can access info 24/7 within a time frame. So if your student want the learning offer, he takes the responsibility to acquire it within the time frame given….other wise they simply do not want to learn!

    • Nancy Slessenger
      May 15, 2014 at 9:28 am

      Though it’s not always possible to do this, I think it is good to be guided by your body where things like sleeping and eating are concerned. I know I sometimes stay up later than my body is recommending and I certainly often eat when I’m not hungry (even when it’s quite clear to me that I’ve had more than I need).

      Many teenager’s bodies are telling them that it’s still time to sleep at 9am and that it’s not time to go to bed till the early hours of the morning. The research indicates that they would do better and learn more easily if they were guided by their body’s signals.

      However, I suspect there are some who just don’t want to learn.

  2. May 13, 2014 at 3:20 pm

    I felt similarly on hearing the interview, though I think Guy Holloway could have been more prepared to deal with Anna May Mangen’s comments. You seem a bit more personally critical of here than I’ve noticed you being about other people in your other blogs (and your proof reader is on holiday) – is there something about her – or the behaviour of “being sure you are in the right whatever the research” that particular gets to you? (Slightly amused and wicked grin) …

    • Nancy Slessenger
      May 15, 2014 at 9:42 am

      Hi Mike

      Yes, I confess to being more critical of her views and behaviour than usual. Having been to many neuroscience conferences over the years I’ve come across a great deal of research that would benefit many school and university students (including adults). What has been sad is to see so little of it implemented.

      Much of it is stuff that effective teachers have been doing for years (probably hundreds of years). But some of it is not. Some is counter-intuitive. After hearing the debate I was both annoyed and saddened to hear the views of someone who clearly wants the best for her children and appears to be actively making it more difficult for them to achieve that.

      In these situations, I think it’s important to speak out in the hope it will help in some small way.

      There are so many great tools that are not being used, some were used hundreds of years ago and now seem to be forgotten. In an excellent documentary recently (BBC Radio 3 Sunday Feature – Educating Isaac) I learned about a way of learning music that was used in Naples in the 18th Century. It was clearly much more fun than current methods and led to vast numbers of amazing musicians being produced in Naples (Geovani Pergolesi was one). It involved getting the students to start improvising around a simple base theme right from the beginning and progressing to more and more complex themes as time on.

      I don’t know how it was lost or fell into disuse. But I am sure that many who abandoned boring music lessons lost out on a great deal of enjoyment for the rest of their lives as a result of this, which seems a great shame.

      • May 20, 2014 at 8:23 pm

        I met Vera (name changed) a primary teacher from an Eastern European country last year who was hoping to get on a teacher training course so she could teach in the UK. My wife who was a brilliant teacher left the profession 5 years ago as average 60 hour weeks were impossible to sustain, but I didn’t mention this to Vera. I met Vera again this week coming to the end of her course. She now has no intention of teaching in this country – “it is just paperwork and more paperwork and being told exactly what and how to say, and telling the pupils exactly what and how to say to get results”. An ideology shared by all the recent governments has harmed pupils and teachers and education – and with no research to back it up. It brings close to tears that this has happened and shows little sign of stopping.

        • Nancy Slessenger
          May 20, 2014 at 10:34 pm

          Hi Mike
          This is a very sad story, and closer to my heart than you may realise. My own father was a brilliant teacher (of maths) and head teacher (for 22 years).

          He is still in touch with pupils over 20 years later. Sadly he decided to take early retirement from the career he loved and through which he helped many people, for very similar reasons to those you mention.

          I saw a wonderful documentary a few years ago when Michel Thomas, the amazing teacher of languages, spend a few days in a secondary school working with the ‘worst pupils’. After about 4 days with him the students (aged around 13-14) were speaking French and enjoying it. A teacher who was allowed to observe for an hour came out, and through her tears, simply said: “Sometimes we forget children love learning.”

  3. May 13, 2014 at 6:46 pm

    Hi Nancy
    I’m currently reading Tom Rath’s book “Eat, Move, Sleep” which concurs with your blog post, as part of my Positive Psychology studies. Whilst it’s based on research the information is presented in a very easy to read (sometimes simplistic) manner

    • Nancy Slessenger
      May 15, 2014 at 9:42 am

      Hi Kate

      Great to hear from you! And many thanks for sharing this.

  4. May 14, 2014 at 9:18 am

    There is a lot going on with teenagers that has not been considered. Emotionally and physically they are undergoing change and all at the same time as educational and social constraints are kicking in. Any metamorphosis requires a period of rest. It makes sense to me.

    • Nancy Slessenger
      May 15, 2014 at 9:49 am

      Hi Pete
      When I first started out as a lowly self-employed consultant there were weeks when I didn’t have much work. One year, in an effort to save money, I decided to paint a picture for each of my family members as a Christmas present.

      Because I didn’t have much to do I was able to sleep exactly when I felt like it for a few weeks. During this time I quite often had a siesta (or ‘after lunch nap’ as it is called in the UK). I invariably discovered that I produced my best work immediately after those naps. It was the first time I personally experienced the impact of really being guided by my body on when to sleep.

      Previously I had been at school, university (it’s a full schedule when you study physics, no days in bed) and working in a factory, including shift work (which I really detested).

      I still see one of those paintings when I visit my parents and am always surprised at the level of skill I managed to attain at that time. I fully plan to do that again when I retire (if my husband reads this there will be the sound of explosive uncontrollable laughter at this point).

  5. May 16, 2014 at 9:10 am


    What a fascinating discussion! I slept through my education from 2nd year secondary school right through to post graduate vocational courses. Even got tested for narcolepsy (negative). I joke that subliminal learning worked for me.

    Subsequently I found that predominantly office-based work environments were hard going, which I suspect was boredom and lack of autonomy.

    Finally found a cure in my late thirties – vitamin supplements and better work!

    • Nancy Slessenger
      May 20, 2014 at 10:29 pm

      Glad you finally found a cure. I suspect there are many others who have had similar issues. Thanks for sharing that.