Teenagers to get lie-in in trial bid to boost GCSE grades
Teenagers across the UK are to be allowed a lie-in before school to see if more sleep can help them get better GCSE grades.
A hundred schools are being invited to take part in the research, designed to test the theory that restoring natural sleep patterns to 14 to 16-year-olds will improve their academic performance.
Dr Paul Kelley, one of the study leaders from Oxford University's Sleep and Circadian Institute, expects that it will. He passionately believes that ignoring the body's internal clock mechanism has led to physical and mental illness and poor quality of life in modern societies around the world.
The 24-hour sleep-wake cycle of circadian rhythms is driven by exposure to light entering the eyes and, via a non-visual pathway to the brain, regulates a host of biological mechanisms and genes.
To what extent this affects health is not fully understood but according to Dr Kelley the impact of disrupting natural sleep patterns is enormous.
What is more, the patterns change at different ages - meaning that teenagers should start and end the day later than either young children or middle aged adults.
Speaking at the British Science Festival, taking place at the University of Bradford, Dr Kelley said: "We can't change our 24 hour rhythms. You can't learn to get up at a particular time.
" By the time you are 20, 19 or 18 you're getting up and going to sleep up to three hours later. It's natural and uncontrollable in the sense that you cannot change it."
Ignoring this change in sleep pattern was associated with "hugely damaging impacts on all the body's systems" that could affect performance, long-term memory, weight gain, mood, blood pressure, and might even increase the risk of diabetes and schizophrenia.
Dr Kelley believes it is no accident that 70% of mental illnesses start between the ages of around 11 and 24.
He added: "Sleep deprivation is a torture. Thirty days without sleep and you die. It has about the same effect as not eating."
One research group had shown that getting less than six hours sleep a night altered the activity of more than 700 genes.
The teenage sleep study, funded by the Wellcome Trust, will compare a group of children starting school at the normal time - on average around 8.30 to 9am - with another beginning lessons at 10am.
"The science of it says they will perform better," said Dr Kelley. "They will sleep more, they'll have less stress and anxiety, and a lower rate of drug up-take both legal and illegal. I can't predict how much it will improve their GCSE results but I would put money on it being a statistically significant positive change."
Later class times were also expected to lead to improvements in family life and would help parents making the school run, allowing them to drive on less congested roads.
Raising public awareness of the importance of circadian rhythms had the potential to benefit people all over the world including "whole generations of children", Dr Kelley maintained.
He added: "The opportunities are fantastic .. we have the opportunity to do something that will benefit millions, billions of people on Earth."