Starting school at 10am could improve health and learning outcomes for teenagers, according to Dr Paul Kelley from the University of Oxford.

In news that might not surprise parents, research on circadian rhythms shows that teenagers are not naturally early risers. Students are likely to be sleep deprived because waking early to get to school by 8.30am conflicts with their natural body clocks.

“Teenagers are missing out on up to three hours sleep every school night, and this has a cumulative effect”, Paul explained at the British Science Festival in Bradford today. And going to bed earlier won’t help. “It is uncontrollable, in the sense that you can’t change your natural sleep patterns”.

Circadian rhythms are set by light receptor cells in the retina. They respond to a particular wavelength of light and cannot be controlled by changing behaviour.

Sleep patterns naturally change over the course of a lifetime. Studies indicate that most people between the ages of 10-55 are missing out on 2-3 hours sleep each day because natural sleep patterns are misaligned with the standard 9am start.

The relationship between the quantity and quality of sleep and academic outcomes is well established. The Oxford team are leading the Teensleep project, which aims to measure the impact of starting school at 10am and educating students about sleep. They are recruiting 100 schools to participate in their experiment. “We are focussing on education because that is a system that is easiest to change”, says Paul.

Hampton Court House school in Surrey is one school that has acted on the scientific findings independently of the Teensleep project, and changed sixth form students' start times to 1.30pm, based on the science of teenage body clocks. This is the first year of the new timetable and Headmaster Guy Holloway says “so far, so good”. The school is confident that students will see positive results, and not just in exams.

Guy Holloway points out that the stereotype of the surly, grunting teenager may simply be down to sleep deprivation. Later school starts and better sleep for teenagers might just make life easier for everyone.

Dr Dagmara Dimitriou from the UCL Institute of Education welcomes new research on sleep and learning. “Sleep is so crucial, but it is often overlooked” she told us. Her research has shown the importance of understanding sleep patterns in wider social and environmental contexts.

“Adolescents are very complicated” say Dagmara. “Our research has shown that sleep patterns are impacted strongly by use of stimulants like fizzy drinks and screen-time on tablets, laptops and smart phones.” These factors are influenced by families more than schools.

“It is important to involve the whole families in improving sleep”. Dagmara is concerned that simply starting school later might mean that students stay up later, and sleep may be disrupted by screen times and stimulant use. She argues that sleep education is just as important for parents to help establish good routines as it is for school students.

Dr Sarah Bell is a 2015 British Science Association Media Fellow. Her Fellowship was supported by the Royal Academy of Engineering and she was placed at Sarah is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering and director of the UCL Engineering Exchange.