'Nothing I want to do more' than reopen schools, Boris Johnson says

25 January 2021, 18:10 | Updated: 25 January 2021, 18:14

By Megan White

Boris Johnson said England's schools would reopen "as fast as possible" as he faced pressure to set out a timetable for pupils to return.

The Prime Minister said the Government would be "looking at the potential of relaxing some measures" as England's lockdown restrictions are reviewed on February 15 but could not guarantee that pupils would return to classes before Easter.

"There's nothing I want to do more than reopen schools, I've fought to keep schools open for as long as I possibly could," Mr Johnson said.

Read more: Government will 'look at potential' of easing lockdown measures within weeks - PM

"We want to see schools back as fast as possible, we want to do that in a way that is consistent with fighting the epidemic and keeping the infection rate down."

The Prime Minister faced pressure to set out a timetable for pupils to return to class - currently only vulnerable children and those whose parents are key workers are attending school, with home learning for all others.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said the Government would examine the data "and that will inform what we may or may not be able to ease from (February) 15 onwards".

He added: "It has always been our intention to ease restrictions where we can from that point on the 15th, and schools are obviously our top priority."

The Prime Minister was speaking on a visit to a vaccination site at Barnet Football Club in north London as the latest figures showed 6,573,570 people in the UK have received a first dose of vaccine - a rise of 220,249 on the previous day's figures.

Read more: Nearly four in five of over-80s have received first Covid vaccine jab, Hancock says

Mr Johnson said: "I do think now this massive achievement has been made of rolling out this vaccination programme, I think people want to see us making sure we don't throw that away by having a premature relaxation and then another big surge of infection."

Official figures showed a further 592 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Monday, while there had been a further 22,195 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is widely expected to confirm this week that there will be no return to the classroom after the February half-term break, as ministers had hoped.

The Prime Minister's comments came after England's schools watchdog warned that keeping pupils motivated to study remotely is a significant challenge for parents and headteachers.

Parents and schools are concerned about the engagement of children - especially pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (Send) - with remote education, according to research from Ofsted.

A YouGov survey, of more than 2,000 parents, suggests 40% said their child's focus on studying when learning remotely from home was their top challenge.

More than a third said their child's motivation to engage with remote learning (36%) and lack of contact with teachers (35%) were a concern, according to the poll carried out in November and December - before schools in England moved majority of pupils online during the latest national lockdown.

Meanwhile, around one in 10 parents saw access to an appropriate device (11%) or poor internet connection (10%) as a challenge.

Nearly three in five (59%) of parents of a child with SEND said their child had been disengaged with remote learning, compared with 39% of parents of children without additional needs, the report suggests.

A separate survey, of more than 1,000 teachers, carried out for the research suggests that around three in five (61%) were confident they were providing a high-quality remote education when this was needed.

But schools reported to Ofsted inspectors that staff were required to deliver content to students in class and remotely to students at home simultaneously which were seen as "posing a threat to staff wellbeing".

Amanda Spielman, chief inspector of Ofsted, said: "While remote education will help to mitigate the learning lost when children are out of the classroom, it's clear that pupils' motivation and engagement remains an issue.

"This, along with the pressure remote learning places on teachers and parents, is proving a real barrier to children's learning and development."

Earlier this month, Ofsted received thousands of emails from parents - many of which praised schools - after the Education Secretary told them they could raise their concerns about remote learning.

Gavin Williamson provoked anger among school leaders after he told parents that they could report schools to Ofsted if they were unhappy with their child's remote learning offer during the lockdown.

All pupils in England - except children of key workers and vulnerable pupils - have moved to remote education amid the latest round of school closures.

The research also found that some school leaders expressed a desire to retain some aspects of remote learning when schools return to 'normal'.

Some of the benefits listed included using the provision during snow days or extended periods of pupil absence to minimise learning loss, as well as using video lessons from subject experts to provide teacher cover or where there are teacher recruitment and retention issues in specific subjects.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said: "Research published by Ofsted shows that schools are working incredibly hard to provide high-quality remote education to children while they are at home.

"However, it identifies that a key challenge is pupil engagement and motivation, which is hardly surprising in these very difficult circumstances.

He added: "Remote education, no matter how well it is done, is obviously never going to be a substitute for direct face-to-face teaching, particularly for pupils who struggle the most.

"So, that is why we need not just words about fully reopening schools, but practical actions and a timeline of how to do this in a way that is safe and inspires the confidence of education staff and the public."