Saturday, 5 November 2016

Compulsory education for all special needs children from 2019

School a must for special needs children
Compulsory Education Act to be extended to include those with moderate to severe conditions
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 5 Nov 2016

In a move that fully includes special needs children in the education system, those with moderate to severe conditions will need to attend publicly-funded schools from 2019, just like all other children in Singapore.

The move to extend the Compulsory Education (CE) Act will take effect from the Primary 1 cohort just over two years from now - affecting those who turn seven then.

With the change, they will have to attend one of the 20 government-funded special education (SPED) schools, unless they obtain approval to be exempted. Primary 1 registration will begin in 2018.


Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng, in announcing the new policy yesterday, called it "an important milestone in Singapore's continuing drive towards national inclusiveness". "This is a reaffirmation that every child matters, regardless of his or her learning challenges."

The policy change comes nearly five years after it was recommended by a government-appointed panel, and the wait was to ensure SPED schools here had enough resources to support every special needs child.

Every cohort sees about 1,770 such children. Around 75 per cent have mild conditions such as dyslexia, which means they already come under the CE Act, and have to attend mainstream schools.

There are currently 18,000 students with mild special educational needs in mainstream schools.

The other quarter with more serious conditions such as autism, which number around 440 every year, do not have to go to school. But nearly all do so. Currently, 5,500 children with moderate and severe needs are in SPED schools.

Every year sees about 40 children who do not enrol, likely because of severe medical conditions, or whose parents prefer to homeschool them or send them to private schools. From 2019, this group will have to go through the public system, unless they can explain why they should not.

The CE Act, passed in 2000, requires all Singaporean children to complete six years of primary education in national schools before they turn 15. Parents can be fined up to $5,000 and/or jailed up to a year otherwise.

But Minister of State for Education Janil Puthucheary said: "CE doesn't mean we're going to force everybody to do one thing. We're just going to do more in terms of including as many kids as possible into the education space." He will chair a panel appointed by the Education Ministry to look into how best to put the policy into practice.



Asked why the policy is being changed only now, he said the Government had to be "confident" of being able to cater to every special needs child. And this has become possible "because of the good work... that has happened in the SPED sector". From 2002 to 2012, 13 SPED schools were constructed and five others refurbished. There are now 1,000 SPED teachers, up by about 6 per cent since 2012.

Every one of the 20 SPED schools is run by a voluntary welfare organisation (VWO), and the VWOs have long been pushing for CE to be extended to special needs children.

MP Denise Phua, who is on the boards of the Pathlight School and Eden School for autistic children, said: "It ensures that every child has access to education opportunities, education being an important passport to a better life."

In a Facebook post yesterday, Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin called the change a huge step in making Singapore more inclusive and said it would "open up opportunities for continual learning, and employment" for special needs children.




















MOE reassures parents who worry about lack of finances
By Priscilla Goy and Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 5 Nov 2016

No special needs child will be denied an education because of a lack of finances.

This was the assurance the Ministry of Education (MOE) gave yesterday, highlighting how parents have different avenues for help, from voluntary welfare organisations to government aid schemes. It also pointed out how, on average, it spends 2½ times more on a special needs child than a mainstream student in supporting their education.

Yesterday's announcement that children with moderate to severe special needs must attend publicly funded special education (SPED) schools from 2019 was welcomed by the sector.


But parents had also been hoping that the long-awaited move would see the Government absorbing more of the costs involved in schooling a special needs child. These range from transporting a child needing a wheelchair to school, to other needs such as speech and occupational therapy.


Singaporean children in mainstream schools pay up to $13 a month in fees. The fees are similar for those enrolled in more than half of the 20 SPED schools. But in some cases involving more severe conditions, the fees can climb to as much as $350 - although needy families can apply for this to be waived.


Dr Victor Tay, president of the Association for Persons with Special Needs, said that raising a special needs child can leave families financially strapped.

"There are cases where one parent has to stay at home to take care of the child, and the family's earning power drops," he said, adding that more subsidies for them could be helpful.

Housewife Juliah Kasiman, 35, takes her son, who has cerebral palsy, to a hospital for speech and occupational therapy every three months. "It costs about $90 each time, after government subsidies, and it'd be good if this could be further subsidised. Caring for special needs children is not cheap."

Some parents also called for the subsidies to be extended to private education. Housewife Goh Pin Pin, 43, said her eight-year-old son, who has global developmental delay, enjoyed his time at a mainstream kindergarten, so she enrolled him in Victory Life Christian School, which caters to both special needs and mainstream children. It costs $600 a month.

"If education in private schools can be subsidised too, in cases where parents show that private schooling is the best option for the child, that'd be great," she added.

Experts in the disability sector recognised the significance of the policy change as a key step towards inclusiveness.

Ms Anita Fam, who was on the expert panel which recommended in 2012 that special needs children be included in the Compulsory Education Act by this year, called it an "important breakthrough".

Dr Kenneth Poon, from the National Institute of Education's early childhood and special needs education academic group, said it recognises that "every child should have access to education, including those with special needs".










Learning life skills and resilience at SPED school
By Priscilla Goy, The Straits Times, 5 Nov 2016

Nine-year-old Jarene Hong, who studies at a special education (SPED) school, has a rare condition that affects her face and throat muscles.

Called Moebius Syndrome, the condition makes her unable to swallow and she has to be fed through a tube in her stomach. It does not affect her intelligence, but her speech is unclear.

Her mother Sally Kwek had enrolled her in a mainstream primary school a few years ago, but that lasted only six months.

Staff there were supportive, said Ms Kwek, but she withdrew her daughter after she was asked to hire a shadow teacher to offer Jarene more support. That would have cost her $2,500 to $5,000 a month, which she could not afford.

For the last two years, Jarene has been studying at the Cerebral Palsy Alliance Singapore School.

School days last up to five hours daily, and she takes English and maths lessons in a class of just six children. In a mainstream school, school days are longer and a class usually has 30 to 40 children.

"With the small class size and every teacher being well trained in teaching special needs children, there isn't a need for shadow teachers at the SPED school," Ms Kwek said.

"Jarene is now in a school where her teachers believe in her, accept her differences and are committed to bringing out the best in her.

"In this environment, she picks up life skills such as self-discipline and responsibility, and learns what is socially appropriate."

She also noted that the school instils a lot of self-worth in the children, teaching them to be resilient.

Ms Kwek, 40, is the founding editor of SpecialSeeds.sg, an online magazine for families with special needs children. She hopes more can be done to support such families financially.

She pays $20 a month for school fees and $200 for a feeding tube that lasts eight months, among other things, but said other families have it tougher as she need not pay for medication or wheelchairs.

In a survey commissioned by Lien Foundation this year, 43 per cent of 830 parents with special needs children aged nine and below said they did not receive enough financial help from the Government, and close to six in 10 of those with a monthly household income of $7,000 to $9,900 felt this way.

"There are financial aid schemes for the needy, but the sandwich class is most affected," said Ms Kwek. "Compulsory education should come with better funding support for whatever it takes - including assistive devices and shadow teachers."










Scheme to help students with special needs find work
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 3 Nov 2016

Students with special needs will receive more help to support them beyond graduation through a guide and training scheme.

From next year , all special education (SPED) schools will receive a guide titled Transition Planning For Living, Learning And Working - Making It Happen, to help students with setting post-school goals.

"Careful planning and preparation is important for such students and their families," said the Ministry of Education (MOE) yesterday in a statement, acknowledging the challenges of transiting out of school, especially for SPED students.

SPED schools will therefore work more closely with their students from the age of 13, as well as their families, and help link them up with relevant services after they graduate. For instance, students could have individual transition plans that would help them see which pathways best fit their interests.

Mrs Lisa Goh, principal of Grace Orchard School, one of the five schools which has tested the guide since 2014, said it provides suggestions and templates on how schools and parents can prepare students for the transition process.

Her school works with parents, teachers, training instructors, job coaches and therapists, as well as the students, to come up with individual plans for students based on their strengths and interests.

Currently all its 18-year-olds - 14 of them - have drawn up such customised transition plans, and the school will be extending it to its younger cohorts, ranging from 15 to 17 years old, next year.

Madam Wong Mah Li, 51, whose 18-year-old son Shawn has Down syndrome, said she appreciated how Grace Orchard School looked out for job stints for him that suited his outgoing personality. He is graduating from the school this month.

During school, he tried out attachments at places such as an equestrian academy and a social enterprise bakery, Flour Power, and will be starting part-time work at the latter next January.

"I meet up with his job coach, teachers and work supervisors now and then, to look at how he's doing and see if the job fits him," said Madam Wong, a real estate agent.


Of the 30 students who joined the school-to-work transition programme, which started in 2014, 24 found a job, with 20 staying employed for at least six months.

The government agencies' statement said students who took part felt they had a sense of self-worth in being able to earn an income and contribute to their families.

Parents said the programme helped their children acquire work skills, more self-confidence and independence, while employers reported that their staff developed more positive attitudes towards people with disabilities.



The programme started in 2014 with students from five schools - Pathlight School, APSN Delta Senior School, Grace Orchard School, Metta School and Minds Woodlands Gardens School.

It begins in the year of graduation and lasts for up to a year after that. SG Enable and schools identify students with the potential to work and match them with job training based on their interests. They also receive support from job coaches.

Retired engineer Chong Voon Teck, 64, is thankful that his daughter, Wan Shuen, 20, who has a mild intellectual disability, could find a job with help from the programme.

After graduating from Minds Woodlands Gardens School, she had two months of training with SG Enable last year before starting an internship with the National University Hospital's linen department, where she learnt to fold and sort clothes. Since January, she has been hired as a health attendant in the same department.

"She does it with a smile, and she travels on her own to work, so I think she enjoys it," said Mr Chong. "The programme made my burden lighter. I never thought she would be able to work. She's so lucky."








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