SINGAPORE: The Government’s plan to extend compulsory education to all children with special needs sends a strong signal of inclusiveness, those in the sector told Channel NewsAsia.
On Friday (Nov 4), Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng announced that all children with special needs above six years old and below 15 will need to attend school. This includes those children with moderate to severe special needs, who were previously exempt from compulsory education.
President of the Autism Resource Centre Denise Phua said the move “brings to par children with or without special needs”.
“It ensures that every child has access to education opportunities, as education is an important passport to a better life,” added Ms Phua, a Member of Parliament and long-time special needs advocate.
Vice-president of the Rainbow Centre Singapore Kenneth Poon applauded the move as well. “Over the years, what we have seen is an acceleration of MOE’s involvement in the sector. What I would be expecting is the same trajectory to continue, and it is heartening that there are more and more initiatives being introduced,” Dr Poon said.
However, Ms Phua noted a key challenge is the lack of skilled manpower in the sector and the reluctance of professionals to serve those with more complex needs. “Special education (SPED) schools indeed will have to gear up for this change,” she said.
Many of the SPED schools Channel NewsAsia spoke to also said manpower constraints was a significant concern. There are 20 SPED schools in Singapore run by 13 voluntary welfare organisations.
President of the Association for Persons with Special Needs (APSN) Victor Tay noted the “resource-intensive teaching environment” in the four schools his organisation runs. “We have around 1,200 students and a staff base of 400,” he said. “We need to be able to scale that up.”
He added that it is “not easy” to attract teachers to SPED schools. “We have only 20 SPED schools, and hundreds of mainstream schools, so the ability to rotate these teachers and attract teachers to come over becomes important.”
“It is going to be a challenge developing more people, but we welcome it as we think it’s important that something must be done,” said CEO of non-profit organisation AWWA, Tim Oei. He added that manpower constraints are not just limited to those in teaching, but stretch across the sector to include roles like therapists, psychologists and social workers.
“We need to be able to develop people longer-term with more programmes, whether it is a bachelor’s degree or a post-graduate degree in special education.”
Parent Jazmyn Fong recalled looking for a therapist for her 10-year-old son Zack, who has autism. “Seven to eight years ago, I could only manage to make an appointment for him in a Government hospital once a month and that’s definitely not enough,” she said. “I had to bring him to a private therapist and that cost a lot.”
“If they could increase the number of therapists in Government hospitals so children can get at least appointments once a week, that could help,” she added.
Indeed, the high costs could be a barrier for parents to send their children with special needs to school.
Some families and caregivers could also face financial constraints, said APSN’s Mr Tay. “No doubt the school fees are low, but I think some of them felt the transportation fees, textbooks and various reference materials … that could be one thing the Government can look towards supplementing, possibly with subsidies,” he said.
AWWA’s Mr Oei also noted that infrastructure could be another challenge. “Buildings must be ready to receive children of different function groups, and a transportation system must be in place,” he said.
“If we bring in children with high support needs, there will be a greater need for the system to support them, be it buses or the train system,” he added.
IMPLEMENTATION MAY NOT BE STRAIGHTFORWARD
The Ministry of Education (MOE) said on Friday that it will appoint an advisory panel chaired by Minister of State for Education Janil Puthucheary to recommend how the change will be implemented.
He said the implementation will not be straightforward, as there are many “difficult and small technical and operational issues” that the panel will have to consider.
“The main thing the panel has to do is to get to grips with where the gaps are, and what we can do within the next year and a half to close them,” he said. “Why is it that some kids are not attending SPED schools or mainstream schools or having any kind of education, and what can we do to help those kids close that gap?”
“We would like to get a better idea of what the challenges are for them, and think about how we can provide an education for all children,” he added.