Islington private school, North Bridge House Senior Canonbury, has a novel approach for getting the best out of its pupils. In our final GUEST BLOG of the year, executive headteacher, Brendan Pavey, explains why scientific research led to the start of the school day being pushed back and how it resulted in happier, fresher and more engaged pupils.
14 December 2023
From the day children first arrive at NBH, every attempt is made to understand them and tailor our provision to meet their needs. Much of what we do you would find in the plethora of great independent schools in London but I believe it is our commitment to pastoral care, and use of the latest research to inform our processes, that sets us apart. It was back in 2016 when we first introduced our “late start”. At that time, Jonathan Taylor was the headteacher, and had welcomed to the school both Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (Professor of Neuroscience at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, UCL) and Dr Paul Kelley (then Research Associate at Oxford University's Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute and now Honorary Associate at The Open University) as part of a series of events dedicated to understanding teens. Reducing stress and accepting that the teenage brain and indeed body clock are different to that of an adult’s was a fundamental take away from the research that was presented to us. And rather than listen with interest and carry on regardless, as can often be the way in traditional independent schools, NBH took an active approach and made the strategic decision to help improve the physical and mental wellbeing of our children – and by default, positively impact on their academic outcomes - and this is where the “late starts” came in.
Too often in education, we consider how to improve academic outcomes through the sole lens of teaching and learning. I have long been an advocate of ‘happy children learn best’ and this late start was simply part of that belief. I aim to create a school where children truly love coming to learn, grow and socialise. A place where students and staff feel equally valued and understood. And whilst I accept that we won’t always achieve this utopia - ‘if you aim for the stars and fail you land on the moon’ - by harnessing evidence-based research into the “mechanics” of teenagers and listening to the children themselves in school, we can start to work with them to create the very best and most productive environment for them. If we constantly try to straight-jacket teenagers into traditional systems that suit adults, then we should expect them to conform to the stereotypical moody and uncooperative teenager. Whilst we know and accept that their brains work differently, we can also put in systems that help them. And here’s the rub – the late start is not difficult to implement, and it is not difficult to timetable.
Having learnt from Dr Kelley’s evidence-informed research that the 14 to 18-year-old body clock is two hours out of sync with adult society’s 9-to-5 culture – in which we get up at an average time of 7am and go to bed at approximately 11pm – our aim was to try and achieve as close to a 9am alarm call for our local student body as possible. And we did this simply by beginning the school day with 'Lesson 2' of the normal timetable, which is in practise a 9.50am start to lessons, with a 9.30am registration.
At first, we introduced the late start every day for 6th formers, before later implementing it for the rest of the school on a Wednesday, providing teenagers with a rest halfway through the week – something that I carried over to our senior school in Hampstead, too. The fact that we did not add any official time elsewhere to the weekly timetable was originally one of the kickbacks that I got from parents who perceived that we were taking away something without adding anything on. But we were – and in at least three ways. First, by moving INSET from Monday after school (where it was often difficult to achieve full attendance and staff were tired after a long day teaching) to Wednesday morning (staff don’t have teenage brains and so don’t need the lie in!), we vastly improved the quality of staff CPD (and the obvious associated benefits to the children). Secondly, we created a space after school on a Monday where we could have an additional slot for clubs or targeted interventions and support for the children who most needed it, further individualising the education we offer (one of our key aims). Thirdly, all children who felt they needed it were benefitting from a lie in at least once in the week.
Charlotte Tassell Dent, current headteacher and pastoral lead since the opening of the school in 2014, reflects on the late start now being ‘so embedded that it is not something we even think about. The benefits to the children are clear; teachers who join us from other schools are quick to remark on students' greater concentration levels, happier faces and proactive engagement in lessons. The odd piece of forgotten homework is no longer forgotten, and students bring ideas to the table as opposed to foggy heads.’
‘Sleep is one of our key focuses (alongside diet and exercise) in our wellbeing strategy and while we cannot pretend to have fully cracked it (teenage sleep is a real challenge!), by having the late start as part and parcel of what we do, we are demonstrating to teenagers and parents how, as a school, we recognise the importance of sleep to excellent academic outcomes,’ Charlotte adds.
Described by a parent as ‘one of the best things I think the school ever did’ and by a pupil as ‘something I couldn’t cope without,’ I am confident that late starts have underpinned our focus on creating ‘a safe haven for developing teens’ (as described in The Good Schools Guide review), in which all our children can thrive, and calmly and successfully prepare for the rapidly evolving world around them.
Brendan Pavey has twenty-eight years’ experience as a teacher, working across a range of age groups in both single sex and co-educational environments. Since joining North Bridge House Senior School as headteacher in 2017, Brendan has seen the school, year after year, achieve outstanding results, and is now Executive Headteacher of the North Bridge House school group. He brings an innate sense of understanding to the challenges and rewards of guiding children on the transition from pre-teen to young adult and has been a guest speaker at the Wellington Festival of Education, the Independent Schools Show, as well as at many Cognita Schools Conferences. He has featured in the press on educational topics including mixed ability, noisy classrooms, and student wellbeing.
North Bridge House Senior Canonbury is part of the North Bridge House group of six schools, which together provide an academically non-selective education for ages 2 to 18. The Islington based school takes a personalised approach to maximising GCSE and A Level success, combining first-class pastoral care with individualised teaching and learning, to facilitate excellent academic outcomes for all pupils whatever their starting points.