SINGAPORE: Infrastructure and manpower will not be a cause for concern when compulsory education is extended to all children with disabilities from 2019, Minister of State for Education, Janil Puthucheary said on Saturday (Nov 5) in an exclusive interview with Channel NewsAsia.
According to the Ministry of Education, there are around 40 children with special education (SPED) needs each year, who are enrolled in private education institutions, are home-schooled or unable to attend schools due to severe disabilities.
"Given the number of kids that are not currently enrolled in SPED schools, and the total capacity and the total number of children that are already enrolled, that absolute, big picture number is really not an issue,” said Dr Janil who chairs the advisory panel on how the change will be implemented.
"The places, the spaces are there, but what are the skills and resources that need to be deployed? We've got a bit of work to do ahead of us and that's why we have this advisory panel. We've got about a year, or just over a year to sort all this out. And we will."
Dr Janil added that special attention needs to be paid to SPED children after they leave school. "That's the next big step that we need to take - what happens when they leave school and they become adults with disability and adults with special needs, in terms of either care or employment," he said.
"Consistently, the biggest thing that stands out is the concern about bullying and social stigmatisation."
Dr Janil's interview with Channel NewsAsia is reproduced below:
Q: Why did the government decide to make education compulsory for special needs children?
A: Long-term, the idea is to firstly, make it clear that we're inclusive, and we want to make sure that all children get some form of appropriate education. And really understand deeper, what are the challenges for those families that currently face difficulties accessing education - what more can we do to bring them into the fold and have those kids have an opportunity to access education.
Q: Is this move a very big commitment from the government when in fact, it only really affects 40 or so SPED students per year?
A: We don't have an absolute indication of the numbers. We have a sense of those children who are not in the SPED space and are not in mainstream schools in terms of an absolute number. But without them being part of the system, we don't have a deep understanding of what their challenges are and what their needs are.
Now, a fair number of them may actually be getting very appropriate education and care, either at home from their parents and people in their community, or in private schools, or foreign system schools. So we're not automatically saying that all 40 of these kids per year need to be relocated. But we want to be able to engage with these families and engage with these kids and see what we can do for them.
Q: How equipped are we to accept 100 per cent of such students in terms of the manpower required and the infrastructure?
A: Given the number of kids that are not currently enrolled in the SPED schools, and the total capacity and the total number of children that are already enrolled, that absolute, big picture number is really not an issue.
The number who are not enrolled is very, very small, compared to the total spaces available, and the total number of children available. What may or may not be a challenge - and we don't know that yet, is the specific needs of those kids.
So the places, the spaces are there, but what are the skills and resources that need to be deployed? We've got a bit of work to do ahead of us and that's why we have this advisory panel. We've got about a year, or just over a year to sort all this out. And we will.
We're going to engage healthcare experts, SPED experts, policy experts, bring people together and really do that groundwork to make sure we get those kids appropriately placed.
Q: The recommendation to tweak the Compulsory Education Act came about five years ago. So what has happened between then and now, leading up to the policy change?
A: In the last five years, we've had a big increase in the number of staff, the availability of spaces, but really the key issue is the programmes and the professionalism that have been developed within the sector. All of that wasn't done because we were going to launch changes to the Compulsory Education Act. Those were done because they needed to be done in service of these children and their education. From our perspective, now that it's all been done, we can amend the Act and deliver on that promise.
Q: I believe at Pathlight, there is a queue for kids who want to enter that school. Is there a perception perhaps that Pathlight school is better than the rest of the SPED schools? And if that's the case, how does the government balance that so that there isn't an extra demand on just Pathlight?
A: You see our system, we have an idea, and a principle, and an intent, that parents have a choice, and we want to preserve that. Now, once you say that you give people choice, there's going to be some imbalance. There are going to be people who choose to go one place, and not so much the other place. As a result, you have queues.
Now, that doesn't mean there isn't capacity in the system; there isn't capacity in other schools. One of the things about Pathlight that makes it very attractive is the ability to access mainstream curriculum. I think it is very difficult for a parent of a child with special needs to not want that. And if you say: "I'm not going to go into a school which offers the mainstream curriculum", in a way you're accepting that your child will not have a mainstream education, and will have a slightly different education.
It is very understandable that parents cannot easily make that choice. I think it's entirely understandable. So that leads to this perception, that they want to get into a place like Pathlight so that they can access the mainstream education.
So we have to do some work, and that's part of what the advisory panel needs to do, to balance the aspirations the parents have, the needs of the children, and the resources we're going to have available and make available.
Q: Having walked the ground and gathered feedback from the SPED sector, tell us about some of the observations you've made.
A: There is a very real and significant anxiety about what happens once they leave school. I think this is the next big frontier that we really have to ... I know lots of work is happening on this - SG Enable is doing a lot of work, many employers are coming on board, and MSF is doing a lot of work.
But I think in terms of settling the anxiety of the families that are within this space, that's I think the next big step that we need to take - what happens when they leave school and they become adults with disability and adults with special needs, in terms of either care or employment. So that's one big concern.
You know speaking to the families and speaking to the professionals, both at MOE side and within the sector, we talk about any number of factors that we can make better, whether it's the physical infrastructure, or whether it's the curricula approach, whether it's the regulatory approach, how we structure the schools, we can talk about all these factors.
But when I speak to the kids, who have been through, and who are now in the post-secondary space - whether ITE, poly, university - consistently, the biggest thing that stands out is the concern about bullying and social stigmatisation. And it's quite incredible. We can talk about all these other things, but that's the reality.
From an individual perspective, it is that idea of dignity, of normal human interaction, and that's not something you can legislate, that's not something we can do from a policy perspective. We've really got to have that whole society approach and bring people along this journey.
So actually, we've come full circle. That's what this is about. It's about sending a message to everybody, that we have to treat everybody with dignity and not to have that approach of stigmatisation and not allow bullying to go unremarked upon and have that kind of embarrassment and fear out there.
And if we can fix that, then that's a huge step for the whole society.