Compulsory Education for Children with Special Needs

Education should be compulsory for all children, including children with special needs.

International research has shown the importance of providing preschool education for children with special needs as well as the benefits of integrating them into mainstream schools. People with special needs can become contributing members of the society if they receive timely and effective early intervention and education.

A poll in 2003 revealed that 96% of parents with special needs children were in favour of compulsory education.

A 2009 policy brief by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation urged countries all over the world to provide children with disabilities access to preschool education. Early childhood care and education are vital in nurturing diverse abilities and overcoming disadvantages and inequalities. The early years are important in fostering development in children as 80% of the brain's capacity develops before the age of 3. The developmental gains are shown to be the highest for those with maximum disadvantage.

There are about 7000 children (3% of the population aged 6 and below) who have developmental difficulties. Many of them end up sending their child to costly preschools or extra enrichment classes.

What has been done

In 2012, the Government introduced the Development Support Programme (DSP) which provides learning support and therapy for children of preschool age with mild developmental needs at mainstream preschools. However, preschool education options and support here remains limited for children with more severe developmental difficulties.

Currently, many parents are enrolling their children with special needs in the Early Intervention Programme for Infants and Children (EIPIC). The average time taken between referral and assessment for suitability to be enrolled in EIPIC services have shortened from 6 months to 3 months. EIPIC seeks to help children with special needs maximise their developmental growth potential and  "learn how to learn" but it is not a preschool programme. This programme provides 5 to 10 hours of therapy a week on motor, communication, social, self-help and cognitive skills. There are 17 EIPIC centres run by voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs). The number of spaces has almost doubled from 1,200 to 2,200 in 2014. The MSF aims to provide 3,200 places by 2018. Monthly therapy fees are between $2 to $960 after means-tested government subsidies. 

Kindle Garden is an inclusive preschool by AWWA with curriculum and facilities designed for mainstream and special needs children to learn and play together. The fees will be subsidised by the government and the preschool takes in 75 children with 30% of places set aside for children with special needs.

Wee Care offers an early intervention programme for children with special needs to build up their functional, communication and social skills. Therapy fees are between $60 and $140 an hour with intensive therapy sometimes recommended at 25 to 40 hours a week. When deemed suitable, children with special needs will be integrated at Wee Care Kindergarten.

Melbourne Specialist International School takes in children with special needs from 3 to 18 years old. They use visual and performing arts to teach literacy, numeracy and other skills. In its preschool programmes, a therapy team works with the teachers to develop learning strategies for each child. Annual fees for its full-day kindergarten classes are as high as $21,400.

Mainstream schools are not obligated to admit students with special needs as well as to provide the necessary support while special education schools have long waiting lists. Mainstream schools need to commit additional resources that help to go that extra mile for children with special needs. However, they are unable to receive extra financial support for taking in children with special needs which further discourages them to reach out to these children, even if the centres have the capabilities to care for them. 

Starting from 2019, all children with special needs who are above six years old and below 15 will have to attend school, Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng said on Friday (Nov 4 2016).

MOE said that the change is part of the Government’s ongoing efforts to build a more inclusive society. “While parents are primarily responsible for ensuring that children attend school, the Government is also committed to providing school places and opportunities for learning for all Singaporean children,” it said.

Speaking at a special education conference on Friday, Mr Ng described the change as “a significant milestone” in Singapore’s "continuing drive towards national inclusiveness". But he added that the Government is mindful of the challenges given the "sheer diversity and complexity of the special needs landscape". (Click here to read the news article.)

Challenges

  • Shortage of qualified manpower specialising in caring for children with special needs
  • High teacher-to-child ratio; smaller class size
  • Families with children who have severe disabilities who they are unable to comply due to their circumstances
  • Integrate and include children with special needs

What needs to be done

  • Framework to systematically organise and deliver special education services
  • Special education pedagogy and training that converge on a core set of standards of best practices
  • Hiring and retaining qualified specialists and allied educators
  • Leveraging on the existing DSP by extending it to support children with more severe developmental difficulties
  • Clear pathways of professional development; career progression for staff in special education
  • Improve social integration of children with special needs by finding a balance between grouping children with special needs together and integrating them in programmes and mainstream schools

Other countries

Hong Kong: Special education is compulsory and free for children aged 6 and above for at least 9 years. 8 out of 10 students with special needs study in mainstream schools. Children with more severe disabilities are enrolled in special education schools.

Japan: Special education is compulsory and free for children aged 6 and above for 9 years. Special needs education is offered in regular classes and in special classes within mainstream schools. Children with severe disabilities are enrolled in special education schools.

South Korea: Education for children with disabilities is compulsory for 9 years, at the elementary and middle school levels.

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