Call for later start for senior high school students

Researchers are seeking the views of teenagers, whānau and schools as they put forward an argument that senior secondary students should start school later.

An editorial article published in the New Zealand Medical Journal today, titled Sleep-in to stay well: addressing school start times for the health and wellbeing of teens in Aotearoa, argues a start time of 9.45am is a "public health imperative".

"Teen sleep is really problematic… they have really poor sleep, very sleep-deprived because their sleep biology changes around puberty so they need to actually go to bed later than we do as adults," said University of Otago sleep researcher Professor Barbara Galland.

"Consequently they need to sleep-in in the morning but school start times put a break on that and they become chronically sleep deprived."

The opinion piece states investigating a change to when classes start in high school has not been prioritised despite being an "attractive, not-stigmatising approach" to addressing the issue.

"We’re advocating it for years 12 and 13… although younger students would benefit from it, we can’t expect them to be staying home in the morning if the family have gone off to work and they’re home alone," said Galland.

She said the United States has dominated research in this area, with schools across the country often starting lessons much earlier than in other countries.

In 2019, California introduced a law which mandated the school day start no earlier than 8am for middle school students and 8.30am for high schoolers.

Classroom (file picture).

'It can make a huge difference'

But Galland argues New Zealand should go further with a 9.45am start so students could have an extra half an hour of sleep a night.

"When you add that up over the week it is quite a considerable amount… it can make a huge difference day to day but also long term."

She says going to sleep around 11-11.30pm and waking at 8.30- 9am was a good amount of sleep for teenagers.

"That’s something we’re asking in our surveys, what the ideal time would be… but eight to 10 hours is recommended."

While data isn’t held, Galland says anecdotally, researchers are aware that most New Zealand schools start between 8.30 and 8.45am.

For 17 years, Wellington High School had a study period in the first block of the day to allow senior students to start later if they wanted to.

The later start is being stopped this year because the external education programmes students are taking part in aren’t aligned to the later time, principal Dominic Killalea told 1News.

Killalea said the move had become problematic, with varying needs for students developing over the years.

Students who want to study six subjects also had no time for a later start, as a full schedule and extending the day clashed with after school practices and sports competitions, he said.

It’s challenges like this researchers want to hear about in their public surveys on the issue.

"We really need to find out about how later start times could work within the context of New Zealand, particularly for Māori and Pasifika children," said Galland.


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