Won’t Somebody Think of the Children?

Now more than half way into the school term, pubescent children will be showing signs of wear and tear. A significant factor is the grim discrepancy between school hours and the natural sleep rhythms of most teenagers. Studies from many nations show that normal school hours have a baleful impact. – Oliver James – Family under the microscope – Guardian Family, Sat 11th June 2011

A “grim discrepancy” with “baleful impact” – sounds like something which needs challenging; but Mr James’ conclusion is that “there is not much you can do to solve this problem”. Admittedly, some of that pessimism comes from the larger issue of personal difference in circadian rhythms – some people do thrive on early mornings, after all – but it is typical of the rigid thinking that leads to “Daylight Savings Time” not to countenance reviewing the timetable to reach a better compromise.

Teenage kicks right through the night

Although I haven’t read the full text of the study cited (not available without payment, sadly), the Oliver James’ write-up states that it looked at 15-18-year-olds; this is significant firstly because a larger proportion of people in this age group are “night owls”, and because it means that when talking about “school hours” we are largely talking, in UK terms, about “6th-form” / “Further Education” students. Now, although there have been efforts in recent years to expand the breadth of education at this level, it is by nature not time-tabled across the full day – students have selected certain subjects, and are expected (somewhat optimistically) to make use of gaps in their time table for independent study. What’s more, students in this age group are relatively independent: likely to make their own way to and from school or college, and organise their own time with their friends.

So of all the groups of people who could be offered a modern, compassionate, thought-through and researched time table, this is surely one of the easier ones. Many F.E. institutions go out of their way to distinguish themselves from schools; even 6th-forms within schools will often make clear distinctions, for example in uniform or lack thereof. So what possible reason is there for an F.E. college not to examine its demographics and decide that the most appropriate time table would be one that started at, say, 10AM, rather than 9?

Latch-key kids

But what about younger children? Surely we can’t mess about with their hours, can we? Er… why not?

One of the things that comes up when discussing summer-time and SDST is that schoolchildren in Scotland would be walking home in the dark; and one of the solutions often posited is that Scottish schools could open “earlier” (according to the shifted clock) to compensate. This has always struck me as a remarkably convoluted idea – why, if changing school hours is such a good idea, should it not be up to southern schools to “maximise daylight” by opening earlier? In fact, does anyone really know why school hours are what they are anyway?

I commute to work by train, requiring me to be at the station by about 8AM; local schools start their day somewhere between 8:30 and 9AM; consequently, if I had children, I would not be able to take them in to school. What’s more, the schools generally finish between 3 and 3:30PM, long before I could ever hope to get home. I mention this to make clear that there is no connection between school hours and working hours – except in as much as a traditional fixed full-time work schedule is incompatible with pretty much any school time table. So if we were to re-examine the school time table, we needn’t worry too much about the parents. In fact, school time tables could probably be made much more amenable to households with only one parent, or where both parents work full-time – households which perhaps weren’t as common, or as visible, back when our current conventions were being laid down.

The tyranny of time tables

Once again, I should stress that I do not know what the best policy for school hours should be. But I’m pretty confident that forcing one set of hours onto every school child between the ages of 5 and 18, throughout the whole of the UK, through all 4 seasons of the year, is a long way from ideal. And every time we change the clocks as a lazy way of “maximising daylight”, we ignore the far more interesting and positive changes we could be making to our lives, and those of our children.

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