SINGAPORE — Speak to industry players or any parent who has a child with special needs and the consensus is clear: Singapore has some way to go when it comes to making the education system more inclusive for children with learning disabilities.
While the authorities have undertaken efforts to provide support for children with mild learning disabilities, those with more severe special needs and their parents are, more often than not, left to their own devices, especially when it comes to pre-school education.
Plagued by a plethora of issues, the privatised pre-school sector has been seen as the weak link in the national education system and there have been calls for the Government to take a more hands-on approach towards the sector.
Despite introducing a raft of measures in recent years — including initiatives to ease a manpower crunch, increase the number of pre-school vacancies, improve affordability, address the uneven quality across pre-schools and ease the transition from pre-school to Primary One — policymakers have yet to adequately address the lack of support and pre-school education options for parents of children with special needs.
Nevertheless, the Government said last October that it is reviewing how the sector could be better organised to help these children.
International research has shown the importance of providing pre-school education for special needs children, as well as the benefits of integrating them into mainstream pre-schools.
A 2009 policy brief by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) urged countries around the world to provide children with disabilities access to formal pre-school education, calling it critically important. It argued that early childhood care and education are a “powerful means of nurturing diverse abilities and overcoming disadvantages and inequalities”.
“The early years offer a special opportunity to foster developmental gains in children, as 80 per cent of the brain’s capacity develops before the age of three. The gains are shown to be highest for those with maximum disadvantage,” it said.
There are about 7,000 children aged six and below, or 3 per cent of their cohort, who have developmental difficulties. Often, parents of children with special needs must trawl forums or rely on word-of-mouth to find a suitable kindergarten. Many of them end up turning to costly pre-schools or those far from their homes, or signing their children up for extra enrichment lessons.
Four-year-old Ben (not his real name), who has Down Syndrome, will not be attending pre-school this year. His mother, Mrs Rina Ong, 45, an operational risk manager, said: “Even a normal child has difficulty finding a place at a pre-school, not to mention my son ... He’s not independent yet (and) still needs some kind of support. Also, I’m concerned whether teachers are well trained enough to handle my child.”
In 2012, the Government introduced a pilot for the Development Support Programme, which provides learning support and therapy for children of pre-school age with mild developmental needs at mainstream pre-schools. After a successful trial, the initiative, which has an annual budget of S$4 million, has been progressively rolled out at all mainstream pre-schools.
By this year, about 2,000 children each year with conditions such as learning difficulties and behavioural problems are expected to benefit.
Principal of Melbourne International Specialist School Ms Juliet Cooper speaks about the importance of holistic education for special needs children, as well as the challenges of special needs education.
However, in contrast to places in the region such as Japan and Taiwan, pre-school education options and support here remain limited for children with more severe developmental difficulties.
Currently, many parents of children with special needs enrol them in the Early Intervention Programme for Infants and Children (EIPIC). Demand for the programme is high — with some parents having to wait more than a year before getting a place — but industry players said it is not a substitute for pre-school education.
Subsidised by the Government based on household income, EIPIC provides five to 10 hours of therapy a week on motor, communication, social, self-help and cognitive skills. Children with intellectual, physical or multiple disabilities are usually referred by doctors to the 17 EIPIC centres run by voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) such as Rainbow Centre. Therapy fees are between S$2 and S$960 a month after means-tested government subsidies.
Responding to TODAY’s queries, a Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) spokesman said EIPIC seeks to help children with special needs maximise their developmental growth potential and “learn how to learn”, and is for families to learn how to support them, but it is not a kindergarten or pre-school programme.
“Children attending EIPIC who are ready to do so should enrol in a mainstream pre-school as well,” he said. Citing the Development Support Programme, he reiterated that the Government is working to improve its support and services for children with special needs of pre-school age.
Social and Family Development Minister Chan Chun Sing said last October that the Government is exploring other models to improve social integration of children with special needs, within the constraints of its resources. He cited two models: Grouping children with special needs together or integrating them in programmes and schools with mainstream children. The latter would be more resource-intensive, requiring dedicated teachers to guide those with special needs, Mr Chan noted, adding that the authorities need to find a balance between the two models.
In December, the Lien Foundation and the Asian Women’s Welfare Association (AWWA) announced an inclusive pre-school that would be the first of its kind here, 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 pre-school will take in 75 children — with 30 per cent of places set aside for special needs children— when it opens in July.
Currently, some organisations here adopt a partially inclusive model. For example, Wee Care (Singapore) offers an early intervention programme for special needs children to build functional, communication and social skills. Its therapy fees are between S$60 and S$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 with their mainstream peers at Wee Care’s kindergarten. A parent, who wished to be known only as Madam Xu, saw her four-year-old son, who has autism, make that progression, but only after sending him for extra therapy at two other centres.
Nevertheless, the fees, in the thousands of dollars, paid were worth it, she said. “Otherwise, he wouldn’t have the opportunity to learn how to socialise with other children.”
A pricier option for parents of children with special needs is private pre-schools such as the Melbourne Specialist International School (MSIS), which officially opened here yesterday. Using visual and performing arts to teach literacy, numeracy and other skills, the school takes in children with special needs from three to 18 years old.
In its pre-school programmes, a therapy team works with teachers to develop learning strategies for each child. Principal Juliet Cooper said she had received queries from Singaporean families although the programmes are targeted at expatriate families. Annual fees for its full-day kindergarten classes are as high as S$21,400.
Wee Care Group’s managing director Denise Lai said: “If you leave it to the private sector, yes, it can meet needs, but it will invariably discriminate … Families who can’t afford the fees will not (enrol their children) and centres can’t reduce their fees as they have to pay rent (and) salaries.”
Lien Foundation CEO Lee Poh Wah added that the fact that mainstream pre-schools are unable to receive extra financial support for taking in children with special needs further discourages them to reach out to such children, even if these centres have the capabilities to care for them.
“(The mainstream pre-schools) need to commit additional resources to go that extra mile for these children.”
Calling on the Government to do more to provide help and financial support in pre-school education for families with special needs children, he said: “There is statutory support for inclusion practices in education in Japan, South Korea and China. Singapore must catch up.”
While more government support will go a long way to improve the situation, experts said there is also a shortage of qualified manpower specialising in caring for children with special needs in the pre-school sector, which is facing a labour crunch.
To compound the shortage, a high teacher-to-pupil ratio is necessary when it comes to providing special needs children with pre-school education.
Moulmein-Kallang GRC Member of Parliament Denise Phua, a vocal advocate for special needs education and who is also president of the Autism Resource Centre, said the expertise of educating children with special needs at mainstream pre-schools has to be deepened.
Agreeing, AWWA CEO Tim Oei added: “That would start (making) the teachers more comfortable with taking in children with different needs and I think that will (nudge) schools to take in more children (with developmental difficulties).”
Ms Phua suggested that the Government and key disability centres work more closely to identify early intervention centres with strong expertise that can be imparted to other EIPIC centres and mainstream pre-schools, while Mr Lee proposed leveraging the existing Development Support Programme by extending it to support children with more severe special needs.
Last November, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stressed the need for Singapore society to value every individual. Speaking at the 50th anniversary gala dinner for SPD, a social service provider and advocate for the disability community, he said: “Are people with special needs just there to be helped or should they not be people who matter in our society, who are enabled to contribute to our society in full measure? Our society should value every person ... These are the basic principles that should guide us as we build a fair and just society.”
Ms Phua reiterated that many people with special needs can be trained and become contributing members of the workforce, if they receive timely and effective early intervention and education. For parents such as Mrs Ong and Mdm Xu, what they want is for their children to have the best shot at life — and this would entail starting on the right footing.
On the limited options, Mdm Xu said: “It means the load has to be on the parents to teach their child at home or to find another option.”
Despite efforts by the authorities to do more for children with mild learning disabilities, it is still challenging for these children and their parents to keep up at mainstream primary and secondary schools.