COS 2022: Staggered School Start Times

MP Jamus Lim

Assoc Prof Jamus Jerome Lim (Sengkang): Sir, this House has previously debated the possibility of later school start times. Those in favour have cited evidence, which was compelling in my view, that phase delays in adolescent Circadian rhythms predisposed them towards sleeping and waking later, typically by about two hours, although some, like my sister, appear to have never grown up and exited this phase.

The counter arguments are often two-fold. First, that any delay would simply mean that students go to bed even later and, second, that such delays could give rise to disruptive rush-hour crunches. The first assertion, as it turns out, is one that is weakly supported by evidence. Students who have later start times sleep longer, with bedtimes that either remain unchanged or delayed by a smaller amount than the additional time afforded. Many credible studies have shown that affording adolescents additional sleep can have yielded payoffs in terms of improved behaviour, health and academic outcomes. This is even so, with a relatively modest delay of just half an hour or so. More importantly, the reality is that students are already experiencing sleep deprivations from the status quo. One study placed this proportion at a staggering 80% of Singaporean teenagers hailing from high-ranked schools. 

Think of all the marginal steps that parents take – the additional hours of supplemental tuition, the move to a neighbourhood closer to a preferred school, the endless bottles of essence of chicken. And it strikes me as failing to pick the lowest hanging fruit when we look at more expensive and intrusive educational interventions but neglect this relatively simple one.

As for the second assertion, I am sure that we will all agree that we should not be compromising as important an outcome as student performance simply in favour of one of logistical convenience. My proposal today is simple. Delay upper Primary school start time by half an hour and Secondary school start time by an hour. For schools currently starting at 7.30 am, the earliest start time at the moment, this would mean a meantime of 8.00 am for the Primary cohort and 8.30 am for the Secondary cohort. While I am not suggesting any strict guidelines for post-Secondary levels, it is reasonable that ITEs, Polytechnics and Junior Colleges start even later, at 9.00 am.

The additional half hour for upper-Primary students is consistent with how sleep phase delay may occur as early as the onset of puberty and also, certainly, by the time that they are teenagers. And since Primary cohorts are also comparatively larger than Secondary cohorts, it also makes sense to balance out the inflow of students headed to schools in the morning. 

While delays for upper Primary and Secondary school students will, undeniably, alter traffic patterns, its contribution to the overall morning rush-hour jam is likely to be somewhat limited. The half-hour delay for half the Primary cohort would likely add a limited number of additional vehicles to the road, seeing that many upper Primary school students would already begin travelling to school by public or private buses by then. Moreover, these buses would, in any case, begin their pick-up rounds between 7.00 am and 8.00 am, well before typical work start times. And as more Secondary school students already know how to travel to school independently by public transportation, their even later start time will also likely have a limited impact on traffic patterns. Indeed, with more parents working from home or exercising flexible work schedules in a post-pandemic world, it could easily be the case that any anticipated increase in rush-hour traffic be offset by the reduction in working commuters. 

The staggered school start times could also carry a tangential logistical benefit. Schools currently often face jams during arrival and dismissal times, with roads surrounding schools ensnarled by traffic. This is an isolated but genuine problem as those of us who have received complaints from residents living near schools would well understand. Staggering school start times could reduce the incoming traffic by as much as a third, which would help alleviate this morning school rush-hour crunch.

7 March 2022
Ministry of Education

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