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Starting School Later (In Singapore) Is Actually A Horrible Idea

When Channel NewsAsia (CNA) first reported on Nanyang Girls’ High School (NGHS) “starting school later at 8.15am”, I could kinda guess the comments that were going to come.

Some netizens are going to “blame the 70%”, some are going to compare our system to those of the Scandinavian countries, but most tellingly, the majority of netizens are going to praise this scheme and ask for the authorities to implement it.

I used to harbor similar thoughts – start school later and world peace would be attained.

But as time went on and I graduated from Secondary School, it became obvious that the problems of such an arrangement extends past its sheer unfeasibility. The whole proposed scheme was not only detrimental to students and the wider society (yes, like society-society), it simply doesn’t address the root problem of students not getting enough sleep.

Photo: Malcom McLeod / The Straits Times

Common sense

Right off the bat, the cynical part of me failed to comprehend how the results of a trial done on one of the top, elite schools could be deemed conclusive. Why not do it in a school with a notorious reputation like Changkat Changi? Why pick a school which only the brightest minds could be admitted to?

After all, if the purpose was to establish a link between the amount of sleep and the levels of academic performance, wouldn’t the findings be more pronounced on students stereotypically labelled as stupid or cannot-make-it?

NGHS requires a PSLE aggregate of 264 to enter. Achieving that score already signifies that one has either the discipline to manage their time, sleep, and studies, or have parents to enforce that discipline.

But what about tiger moms, you say? Elite schools are more competitive in nature, so isn’t it better to offer some buffer time in the morning lest these poor students get forced to study late into the night?

Well, two things:

Firstly, you’re offering highly stressed and overworked students an extra 45 minutes worth of sleep in the morning. Confirming their increased performance in school isn’t a scientific breakthrough, it’s common sense. Unless the study expands to co-ed, neighborhood schools, the positive findings, in my opinion, are almost entirely useless and inconclusive.

Secondly, by shifting the focus towards the parents’ behavior, the issue isn’t about sleep management anymore now, is it? The problem lies with poor parenting, and altering the start time of school won’t change their kiasu attitudes. If anything, these tiger moms would force their kids to wake up as per usual and utilise the ‘extra’ time to study further.

Photo: The Straits Times

What’s the cause?

Students are tired because they know the skills required to achieve their dreams, but the cookie-cutter nature of our education system prioritise a letter grade to enable those pathways.

Students are worn out because they know the healthy foods they ought to be eating to maximise their performances, but the school canteens only serve pre-packaged, sugar-rich, empty-calorie meals with minimal nutritional value.

Students are exhausted because they know how to regulate their sleep schedules, but their hectic after-school commitments (extra tuition, co-curricular activities (CCA), homework, project work discussion etc.) makes it hard for them to put that into practice.

Ultimately, students are fatigued not because they “wake up too early”; they’re mentally drained because the Singapore education system is one built around lame subjects with little real-world application and exams masquerading as regurgitation wankfests.

The question I want to pose is this: What purpose does the learning in our schools provide students with?

If the higher-ups fail to give students a reason, or even remotely interest them in whatever they’re teaching, then how is it an epidemic when students appear lethargic and disinterested in class?

Think that’s unfair? Grab some teenagers and tell them they’ll be having breakfast with a semi-naked G-Dragon or Mia Khalifa – let me know if they mind waking up at 5.30 in the morning.

Fatigue, in my opinion, is tied directly to motivation. If something is truly important, you’ll find a way to complete it, no matter how tiring it might be to do so.

Some might argue that if students are entitled to switch off when the content gets boring, they might miss some of the more critical and ‘necessary’ lessons.

While that’s true to a certain extent, I have to respectfully disagree. The onus has to be on the teachers to prove the value of the content they’re preaching.

Learning calculus is boring. So is learning how to do your taxes.

Learning how to calculate the quadratic formula is boring. So is learning how to analyse the reliability of media sources.

Learning how phenomenal our government policies are is boring. So is learning how to navigate office politics.

Yet, you can be sure students would be awake for half of those classes.

Which half? Your guess is as good as mine.

Impossible logistics?

School used to start at 8.45 in the morning for me on Mondays.

I’ll be the first to say I absolutely hated it.

School not only ended later, I had to squeeze in with the working tribe on an overcrowded train cabin. I could usually get a seat on the MRT during my commute if I arrived at the station (red line, towards Jurong East) before 6.30am.

Looking at the faces of soulless, overworked office employees and criminally underpaid blue-collared workers didn’t help with morale either.

The lack of personal space is one reason why Singaporeans are so stressed – everywhere you go on this dense island, you’re surrounded by throngs of people and loud ambient noises.

No one enjoys being stuck alongside sweaty people conversing loudly in a small, moving box that could break down anytime. If the purpose of starting school late was to mitigate the stress stemming from an earlier waking time, wouldn’t a crowded train nullify this benefit?

Now, imagine if the whole of Singapore were to start school at 8.15am. Can the MRT and buses handle an additional 100,000+ students during the glorious morning peak hours?

Forget about even making it to school; our public transport system would collapse spectacularly on the very first day.

Oh, while your principal’s Mercedes gives him/her permission to drive against oncoming traffic, it doesn’t get them out of a jam.

So, yea, this whole 8.15am movement? Not going to happen.

Tackling the root cause

As some netizens have rightly noted, a shifting body clock could also be responsible for Singapore’s students chronic sleep deprivation. The circadian rhythm of teenagers get altered during puberty, which means they get sleepy later into the night compared to adults.

If we can’t neither start school later, nor force teenagers to sleep earlier, what should the government do?

My ideal scenario? Reducing schooling hours.

Stick with the usual starting times, compress periods, provide more holistic assignments, ban compulsory remedials/supplementary lessons, and allow CCA to commence earlier.

Mr Michael Chee, the director of the Centre of Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke-NUS Medical School (you know, the university who decided to trial this whole 8.15am thinghy) admitted himself that our students’ chronic sleep deprivation comes down to two major major factors, one of which being the long studying hours.

I have a friend who had to attend school for 14 hours during his O-level year. A normal day for him consisted of 8 hours of lessons in the morning, followed by compulsory study sessions that ended at 9pm.

Do you really think the by-effects of such draconian scheduling would be resolved simply by starting school an hour later, and subsequently releasing the students at 10pm?

14 hours is still 14 hours regardless whether school starts at 7.30am or 8.15am. Instead of, quite literally, re-scheduling the problem, we should be looking at making classes more efficient, allowing more after-class hours to explore our passions and hobbies.

I myself am a benefactor of such a change. School used to start from as early as 7.40am to as late as 4pm in the afternoon, but the school board eventually changed it to a standard 7.40am – 1.30pm, reducing each period by 10 mins to 50 mins each.

It was refreshing and I could feel an improvement in my academic performance and attentional levels in class (except during A. Maths, an utter dross of a subject that even one of my teachers admitted was only useful if you want to be an A-Maths teacher).

To NGHS’s credit, they successfully delayed the start time of classes without ending the afternoon later.

Another factor Mr Chee said contributed to the sleeping issue was the extended use of electronic devices.

Could schools do more to educate their students on the effects of blue light, the harmful rays that emit out of your phone and computer screens, on melatonin, the hormone that makes one sleepy? Maybe invest on glasses that cuts out blue light, or regulate the use of electronic devices for schoolwork?

Photo: The Odyssey Online

We’re not ang-moh

In a way, I’m happy CNA decided to cover this pilot scheme – the fact that it is branded as radical by netizens only proves that Singaporeans understand the issues plaguing our education system. That itself is an encouraging sign, but we must be wary of spending resources on flawed solutions in a fit of zealousness.

In other countries, starting school at a later time might genuinely work.

Sadly, we’re not Finland. We’re not Denmark. We’re not Germany.

We’re Singapore, and the only way we are going to make students not ‘tired’ of learning, is if we ditch the current educational system for a curriculum that’s engaging, purposeful and has immediate real-world applications.

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If you enjoyed this article, you might be interested in some of my other Unpopular Opinions, such as my latest one, Please Stop Saying The PSLE Isn’t Important.

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