Teenagers are being damaged by the British school system because of early start times and exams at 16 when their brains are going through enormous change, a leading neuroscientist has said.
Sarah-Jayne Blakemore said it was only in recent years that the full scale of the changes that take place in the adolescent brain has been discovered. “That work has completely revolutionised what we think about this period of life,” she said.
Blakemore, a professor in cognitive neuroscience at University College London, told the Hay festival that teenagers were unfairly mocked and demonised for behaviour they had no control over, whether that was moodiness, excessive risk-taking, bad decision making or sleeping late.
The changes in the brain were enormous, she said, with substantial rises in white matter and a 17 per cent fall in grey matter, which affects decision making, planning and self-awareness.
All parents know that teenagers would sleep late if they could but it is all to do with brain changes, she said. “It is not because they are lazy, it is because they go through a period of biological change where melatonin, which is the hormone humans produce in the evenings and makes us feel sleepy, is produced a couple of hours later than it is in childhood or adulthood.”
They are then forced to go to school when their brain says they should still be sleeping. That is then exacerbated at weekends when teenagers try to catch up by sleeping until lunchtime – what Blakemore called “social jetlag”.
“They are constantly shifting their body clock from one time zone to another, which must be very disorientating.”
She said schools should start later but added that the problem was bigger in the US where schools start at 7.30am or 8am, and were distances could be so huge some children had to set off at 6am.
She also said it was wrong to have such stressful GCSE exams at 16, when the teenage brain is going through such a big change.
“This country is the only country in the world apart from countries that follow our education system, like Commonwealth countries, that have big national public exams at 16. Given our children have to stay in some form of education until 18, we don’t need those exams … Why do we still have GCSEs?”
“It doesn’t make any sense to me to impose this enormous stress, when we are so focused on grades, just at that precise moment in time.”
Blakemore said it was important because teenage years were the time when people were more susceptible to mental illness, whether anxiety, depression, self-harm or addictions.
Not enough resources were being channelled to the issue, she said. “This is a hugely neglected area in terms of the amount of resource given to mental illness in young people. The government is paying lip service to it but we really need to see actual change rather than just words.”
Blakemore, the mother of a 10-year-old and a 13-year-old, said she was not the best person to give parenting advice other than she found that teenagers and adults felt empowered when they found out the facts about how much the brain changes.