The average teenager may be sleep deprived and research suggests we should stop treating lie-ins as sloth and start working with young people’s body clocks

Last year Bedales announced it was giving its teenage pupils an extra hour in bed, if they chose, by starting school an hour later. If you didn’t spot the story, which made the national press, you missed what could be part of a pretty radical rethink on adolescent sleepers. For, let’s face it, teenagers snoring under the duvet have long been the butt of sit-com jokes and adult exasperation. While some parents are sympathetic (perhaps remembering their own dreamy lie-ins), others have tended to the view that ‘slugabeds’ are a prime example of adolescent laziness and lamentable timekeeping.

This criticism is misjudged and Bedales made its decision to test a new school-day approach because it was following the science. There are some interesting findings to suggest what is going on when young people struggle to wake with the larks. Principal among these is that teenage Circadian rhythms – our biological schedule of sleepiness and wakefulness – really are different. What Bedales found is that the rhythms shift progressively later during adolescent years. That means teens have a biological impulse to go to sleep later at night, and also sleep later in the morning. Not only that, but it’s the last phase of sleep that may be most important for memory consolidation. Young people forced out of bed too early will not have had an opportunity to transfer memories across to long-term storage – in other words, yesterday’s school lessons may not sink in.

“When pupils come to us to talk about mental health concerns, among our first questions is: how are they sleeping?” 

Bedales is far from alone in questioning teenagers’ need for more and better sleep. Magdalen College School (MCS) in Oxford focused on this for its World Mental Health Day activities earlier this year, enlisting the help of Natalie Pennicotte-Collier, a sleep therapist who coaches clients ranging from Team GB athletes to business executives. “Increasingly, when pupils come to us to talk about mental health concerns, among our first questions is: how are they sleeping?  It’s so easy to overlook. So rather than spending another day off timetable discussing study skills, we decided to get to the root of the problem and use World Mental Health Day as an opportunity to look at sleep and rest,” says MCS Master Helen Pike.

Meanwhile, Canford School has introduced a Sleep Education Programme. Joint Head of Wellbeing at the Dorset School Melissa Clinton commented in June that, “Sleep is a vital area of health that is often neglected. The Japanese government have said sleep problems/insomnia is the most serious social refractory disease of the 21st century. Research shows increased evidence for a non-pharmacological approach, with a focus on addressing the behavioural and cognitive approach through education”.

Teen Sleep Ck
Teenagers aged 14+ need eight to ten hours of sleep each night – so good sleep habits are essential

Canford’s programme is being delivered to day pupils and boarders by designated staff members and the school matron. It has received assistance from The Sleep Charity – including useful tools to assist with staff training. Canford sees education in the science (and practice) of sleep as an important way to help young people regulate their sleep and waking times, and thus improve their wellbeing, ability to concentrate and mood. They say it also helps young people to deal with emotional control and to maintain a better diet.

Of course, a better mood and healthy diet will also impact physical fitness. In 2017, a long-term study carried out at a UK state school and by researchers from Open University found that beginning the school day at 10am rather than 8.30am reduced illness rates for teenagers by over half. Students also got significantly better grades.

“The Japanese government have said sleep problems/insomnia is the most serious social refractory disease of the 21st century”

All this information is fine, but not if teenagers themselves don’t buy into it. Helen Pike says that MCS had a mixed response at first. “There was an initial scepticism that something as simple as getting more sleep could have a tangible impact on their wellbeing, and on their performance. Most recognised that they are not routinely getting enough sleep though, with distraction from smartphones a common culprit.” But by the end of the day, students had absorbed the science and MCS plan to repeat a dedicated day off focusing on this area – also expanding it to run parallel sessions for parents.

Meanwhile, at Bedales the great sleep experiment of starting the day later has been continued. The new school day gives some autonomy to students – recognising that some are naturally early risers – with compulsory activities starting a full hour later so that children can either join optional school activities or have that extra hour of rest.

Even after three months’ trial student responses were positive, with 69% of Upper Sixth students reporting getting eight hours plus sleep, as opposed to just 17% prior to the change. What’s more, over 90% of students gave feedback saying that they had benefited from the change. One student – clearly a later riser – noted with enthusiasm unusual in one of that age: ‘Love it. I don’t have to feel tired all day anymore. Best change ever made throughout my time at the school’.

Sleep facts

* The NHS recommends 8-10 hours’ sleep for the 14 to 17 age range

* Regular sleep routines promote good sleep

* Avoid napping in the day

* Bedrooms should be dark, quiet, cool – ideally, tech free.

* For guidance on sleep, visit

Further reading: Breathing easy – air quality in schools