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The Big Read: Where kids with and without special needs learn together — and it's not in S'pore

VANCOUVER/SINGAPORE — It was “carpet time” at Ferris Elementary School in Vancouver, Canada. A class of seven-year-olds huddled near the whiteboard and begin reading simple passages aloud to start the school day.

Eight-year-old Joshua (bottom right) seated with education assistant Ms Jaylene Berry, as classroom teacher Mrs Andrea Argao conducts “carpet time”. Joshua has Pura syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder.

Eight-year-old Joshua (bottom right) seated with education assistant Ms Jaylene Berry, as classroom teacher Mrs Andrea Argao conducts “carpet time”. Joshua has Pura syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder.

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VANCOUVER/SINGAPORE — It was “carpet time” at Ferris Elementary School in Vancouver, Canada. A class of seven-year-olds huddled near the whiteboard and begin reading simple passages aloud to start the school day.

Suddenly, classroom teacher Mrs Andrea Argao stopped the Grade 2 class and told them to sing a cheer instead.

“Can we do it a little louder to wake Josh up?” she said.

In the group was Joshua, aged eight, who appeared to be falling asleep.

Upon hearing the cheers, he perked up and sat up with the help of his education assistant, Ms Jaylene Berry. His eyes slowly refocused on the passage the class was reading.

Joshua was not daydreaming. He has Pura syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by moderate to severe intellectual disability, excessive sleepiness and seizures, among other symptoms.

His condition is so rare that there are fewer than 500 identified cases globally — making it a remarkable feat that Joshua is not only in school, but is able to learn alongside his peers.

Joshua is not the only student with special needs in the school.

Down the hall in another classroom, hands shot up in the air when a teacher asked for volunteers to group odd and even numbers together in a maths class.

Instead of raising his hand, seven-year-old Ahmed, a student with autism, grunted loudly and made loud noises.

Neither his teacher nor classmates scoffed at him, but instead used hand signals to “tell” Ahmed to lower his volume. Two students were tasked with grouping the numbers, and Ahmed was chosen to tally them.

Although he has yet to speak and communicates mostly through signalling, that has not stopped Ahmed from taking part in class activities and playing games with his classmates.

Seven-year-old Ahmed (left), a student with autism, sitting with his friend Ryder in class. Photo: The Hummingbird Co. Pte Ltd

In Singapore, children like Josh and Ahmed are more likely to be placed in a special education school instead of a mainstream one.

But in British Columbia — Canada’s westernmost province which includes the city of Vancouver and has a population of almost 5 million — they get a shot at a normal school life, interacting with children without special needs.

Amid the push towards a more inclusive society in Singapore — which includes greater inclusion in schools — TODAY, in partnership with philanthropic organisation Lien Foundation, visited Vancouver for a week earlier this year to get a first-hand look at how schools there have made inclusive classrooms a reality.


About two decades ago, public special education schools were progressively phased out in British Columbia and special education teachers were redeployed to work at the district level, helping schools with the transition to inclusion.

But the journey towards inclusion in schools had been long-fought, tracing back to around 1955, when a small group of families — unwilling to institutionalise their children with special needs — began a civil rights movement.

They protested relentlessly to remove “institutions” for the intellectually disabled and handicapped, even providing classes for the community in their homes and church basements. Forming a provincial network, the movement has now evolved into a non-profit organisation advocating for those with special needs, called Inclusion BC. 

Between the 1960s and 1970s, British Columbia’s Education Ministry slowly began integrating children with special needs in schools, but students with severe disabilities were still taught separately.

Those categorised with mild disabilities were taught in the same school, but still in separate classes.

It was not until the 1990s when the provincial government eventually moved to provide equal opportunity and increased support for children with special needs.

The School Act was revised, entitling all school-aged children to a full educational programme, not separated from other students, in their neighbourhood schools.

In 1995, a Special Education Policy Framework for British Columbia was also established, which served to guide the development of legislation for special education programmes and services in British Columbia.

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In Singapore, the Government has made strides towards a more inclusive education in recent years, amid calls by Members of Parliament (MPs), organisations and parents of children with special needs.

The benefits of inclusive education — where children of all needs are well-supported to learn in a non-segregated environment, and not just coexist — have been well documented since the 1990s, not least because it imparts to all children the importance of empathy and acceptance. It also enables those with special needs to form a positive sense of self.

“Curriculum is learning and learning is better when you have diversity in the classroom because kids share their experiences and ideas. When you share more ideas and more experiences, kids learn concepts better because they learn (in) different ways,” said Associate Professor Leyton Schnellert from the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Education.

In April, a workgroup was set up by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) to look at how to better integrate children with learning needs into pre-schools.

While inclusive preschools, such as Kindle Garden and Sail Playhouse, have started operating in recent years, they still form a minority in the preschool sector.

Starting this year, it has also become compulsory for children with moderate to severe special needs to attend school under the Compulsory Education Act — unless they apply for an exemption.

Prior to the change, children with moderate to severe special needs are exempt from compulsory education.

In response to TODAY’s queries, Mrs Lucy Toh, Divisional Director from the Special Educational Needs Division at the Ministry of Education (MOE), said the proportion of students with special needs in Special Education (Sped) schools and mainstream schools has not changed with the extension of the Act.

Currently, there are about 32,000 students with special needs.

About 80 per cent of these students (or 25,600) have mild learning needs and are in mainstream schools, including those diagnosed with dyslexia, mild Autism Spectrum Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, said the MOE. 

The remaining 20 per cent (or 6,400), with moderate to severe needs, attend one of 19 Sped schools in Singapore, which are run by social service organisations.

While it remains a work in progress to improve inclusion in schools and expand educational pathways for children with special needs, Sped schools are expected to expand further as the number of children with special needs such as autism has risen in recent years — due in part to increased awareness and early diagnosis.

As Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Education Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim told Parliament in July last year, embracing those with different abilities will take time and a sustained effort.

‘We need everyone to commit to this – teachers, schools, parents, the public, employers and the wider society,” he said during the debate on the motion on the future of Singapore’s education system.

Ahmed with his classmates from Ferris Elementary School. Photo: The Hummingbird Co. Pte Ltd


As Singapore develops its own brand of inclusive education, it could take a leaf out of what British Columbia is doing. Among other things, elementary schools there have in place continuous support structures to help children with special needs.

Thanks to the alternative educational pathways and individual educational plans (IEPs) for those with special needs, the pressure of having to pass grade exams like their peers is taken off, and those with special needs can still pass through mainstream schools without “failing” or “dropping out”. If they are not able to graduate by taking the provincial exams, they receive a certificate recognising their achievements.

Here is a closer look at some of these practices:


In British Columbia, most children — including those with special needs — attend the same school from Kindergarten to Grade 7. This provides them with access to similar support structures from the age of 5 to 12.

British Columbia in Canada is divided into 60 school districts, which administer publicly funded education until the end of Grade 12 (equivalent to pre-university in Singapore). Every school district has access to a team of professional allied health educators such as occupational and speech therapists.

These therapists provide support for children with special needs in the school itself.

For example, at Ferris Elementary, speech therapists work with children with special needs in between classes — minimising the need for these children to travel out of the school, or receive additional help after school hours.

Singapore has in place support and early intervention programmes for children with special needs, but they are currently segmented between those under 6 years old (preschoolers) and those in primary schools.

Preschoolers can receive support through the MSF’s Early Intervention Programme for Infants and Children and Development Support Plus programmes, which were recently enhanced.

From Primary 1 onwards, support is provided through various schemes by the MOE such as Learning Support Programmes and Dyslexia Remediation programmes, which have been made available for all schools since 2016.


Another key factor in making inclusion a reality in mainstream schools is the availability and capabilities of allied educators and health professionals, such as occupational and speech therapists.

These assistants not only support students with special needs, but also take some pressure off classroom teachers who are teaching curriculum.

In British Columbia, education assistants are the equivalent of learning and behavioural support allied educators in Singapore — they cooperate with classroom teachers to provide support for students with special needs.

The MOE had embarked on training allied educators and teachers in special needs in 2005 to support children with mild special needs in the mainstream school system.

There are more than 25,000 students with special needs in mainstream schools here, and about 500 learning and behavioural support allied educators, said the MOE. 

In British Columbia, there are currently about 73,000 students with special needs, with close to 12,000 education assistants. 

At Ferris Elementary, for example, there are 12 education assistants to support a total of about 26 children — 18 with certified diagnosis of a diverse range of special needs and another 8 “low incidence cases” — from K1 to Grade 7, making the support ratio about two to one. 

In comparison, there is at least one allied educator in every primary school in Singapore, the MOE said.

A learning and behavioural support allied educator in Singapore could arrange, for instance, for a weekly session of about 30 minutes to an hour with these students, during which they will receive specific coaching tailored to their needs.

For more complex cases, allied educators could work with MOE educational psychologists to draw up targeted intervention plans for the students, to help them work towards independence in their area of difficulty.

A former learning and behavioural support allied educator, who worked in a mainstream school in Singapore, said that one of the biggest challenges was the case load which she had to manage.

The 32-year-old, who only wanted to be known as Ms Lim, told TODAY that in her three years working as an allied educator, she would at times have to “juggle up to 50 cases”.

“As a result, we don’t get to spend much one-to-one time with students with special needs,” said Ms Lim, who left the profession in 2014.

She also noted that classroom teachers at times asked for “instant fixes” for children with special needs, or requested her to take them “out of the class”. This, she said, was understandable as the teachers’ workload might be heavy as well.

“They have to juggle other projects and not just teach. Also, in a class, sometimes it’s not just one student with special needs, some classes have up to 10 with varying needs,” said Ms Lim, who is now a freelance therapist but continues to work with children with special needs.


While British Columbia — like Singapore — still grapples with the problem of attracting and retaining allied educators due to the long working hours and relatively poor salary, the opportunity for education assistants to improve their prospects in the Canadian province has encouraged some to continue.

Among other things, unions which protect the rights of workers such as education assistants have allocated more funds to support their skills development in recent years.

In the 2009/2010 school year, the Support Staff Education and Adjustment Committee allocated C$3 million (S$3.13 million) to support skills enhancement and retraining initiatives for workers including education assistants.

In addition, certified education assistants in British Columbia are put through at least two practicums.

Some polytechnics there also require applicants to first have two years of college study or have done 100 hours of volunteering with children before accepting them into the course.

These baseline qualifications provide certified education assistants with a launchpad to further their careers.. With additional training, they are able to transition into more challenging roles, such as becoming sign language therapists, or even classroom teachers.

However, the requirements have been notably relaxed in some school districts recently in a bid to alleviate the shortage in education assistants — much to the alarm of the current cohort, with some saying standards should not be lowered just to bring support into schools.

One education assistant who is upgrading herself is Ms Christie Hartwig, from Golden Ears Elementary, who is studying to be a classroom teacher.

For five years, she had been assisting classroom teachers to teach children with special needs. She wants to be a classroom teacher so that she could have “a chance to help everybody, not just those with special needs”.


Granted, with a class size averaging 20 at schools in British Columbia —  about half the average class size in Singapore — embracing inclusion could be easier, as the workload on classroom teachers would be lighter, and both allied educators and teachers could have more time to work with those with special needs.

But instead of the “divide and conquer” approach  — where classroom teachers are still seen as leading the class with support staff — why not get curriculum teachers and allied educators to “conquer together”?

The latter is known as a “non-categorical resource model”, said Assoc Prof Schnellert, whose research interests include shifts in classroom practice.

“Someone could walk into a classroom and they couldn't tell if I was the special educator or if I was the classroom teacher. You're both working with kids, you're both at the front, you're taking turns, you're moving around,” he said. “That's one form that works really well if there's a synergistic or similar personality teaching styles between the two educators.”

Ms Kate Campbell, a teacher consultant in the British Columbia district support team, added: “Some schools have collaboration time (for teachers, allied educators and allied health professionals) built into their timetables.

“It's a nerve-racking thing to invite other professionals into your classroom sometimes (but) the more we practise it and do it, the better we get."

Cooperation between teachers and allied educators also works both ways, said teachers in British Columbia — it is not just always about allied educators supporting teachers. 
For example, Mrs Argao, Joshua’s classroom teacher, took a first aid course to learn how to lift handicapped persons to help Ms Berry lift Joshua out of his wheelchair after he got “too heavy over one summer”. 
“If he is in a wheelchair, it is a barrier between him and the rest (of the class)... it also weakens his muscles, and we wanted him to still participate in class,” said Mrs Argao. 

Such a model of co-teaching, as practised in British Columbia, was welcomed by Dr Jacqueline Chung, senior principal and academic director at St James' Church Kindergarten in Singapore.

Dr Chung, who is also an Early Childhood Development Agency Fellow, was also on the trip organised by the Lien Foundation to witness how classes were conducted in elementary schools in British Columbia.

“I think often in Singapore, we think that the mainstream teacher does the mainstream stuff, and if any child has special needs, it's the special needs teacher. And so they carve out, this is my portion, this is your portion… and hopefully whatever we do will meet the needs of the child,” she said.

She added: “But in (British Columbia), what I see here is not divide and conquer, it's... ‘how can we together work towards supporting the child’.”

To that end, the MOE said it is working towards equipping all teachers with basic competencies to support students with special education needs.


Under the Special Education Policy Framework for British Columbia, students with special needs must each have a customised IEP, which spells out their goals for the academic year.

The IEP is collectively devised by classroom teachers, education assistants and parents of students with special needs.

The programme provides the foundation for an alternate educational pathway for those with special needs while in the mainstream system, reducing their drop out rate.  

Based on their goals, students with special needs can receive a certificate even if they are unable to meet requirements to graduate with a diploma. The certificate — called the Evergreen Certificate — represents the completion of personal learning goals as laid out in the students’ IEPs. 

The law also requires that the decision to put a student in a certification programme should not be made prior to Grade 10 (age 15 to 16), and should include the informed consent of the student’s parents. 

In Singapore, students with special needs in mainstream schools work towards the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) at Primary 6, as with their peers. 

Speaking to TODAY, a mother of a 9-year-old boy with dyslexia and difficulties in writing — who is enrolled in a mainstream school — lamented the emphasis on preparing her child academically to pass the school’s tests, which “supersedes the focus on whether the child is being supported in his learning, based on his profile needs and abilities”.

The mother, who wished to be known only as Mrs Tan, said: “If my child cannot even differentiate between ‘B’s and ‘D's and has problems writing words, why do I need him to learn and master a whole list (of words for) English spelling test?”

Mrs Tan said that although MOE Education Psychologists had suggested for her son to be assessed via oral modes instead of writing, this was not taken up by the school’s teachers who cited a lack of manpower and class size as obstacles to implementing differentiated learning strategies.

“The school leader and teachers said that they hoped that the need for such differentiation and adaptations like reduced questions for homework would stop and my son can catch up with his peers because he needs to be able to be ready to take the PSLE,” said Mrs Tan.

She felt that this reflected the mindset of some educators in mainstream schools that children with special needs have a “deficit” and are a “liability… always having to catch up” with their peers.


The British Columbia experience suggests that apart from sound policies and strong support structures, there is also a need to develop a culture that embraces inclusion in schools.

One way to achieve this is by breaking down the walls that separate children with and without special needs.

At Ferris Elementary, for example, principal Diane Steele said the school makes it a point to have “demystification” sessions for all children.

During such sessions, the conditions of students with special needs are explained to the class, with the permission — and participation — of parents, counsellors and education assistants.

She cited the case of a boy with Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (characterised by behavioural and physical problems) who had a demystification session with a counsellor in class.

“There’s an open conversation about it. They (students) all drew a brain and they talked about how brains were different, and this little boy was able to articulate that (his) brain was different,” she said.

For Chanelle and Mia, Joshua’s classmates at Ferris Elementary, such sessions have proven to be helpful in getting to know their classmate. 

Chanelle said: “We learnt that if we sing a song like Baby Shark, if he faces towards us and crawls, that means he wants (our) attention… we (can) try to help Joshua with his daily physical activity by pushing him on the track... and we can use his (bib) to wipe his drool.” 
Mia added: “I first knew Joshua in September (last year)… Now I think I'll tell people that you should be nice to him, even though he doesn't know how to talk or walk.” 

Mia Yang checks on Joshua who has Pura syndrome, a rare chromosomal disease which causes symptoms such as excessive sleepiness, speech and mobility delays. Photo: Cynthia Choo/TODAY


One of the fiercest advocates in Singapore for inclusive education is Jalan Besar GRC Member of Parliament Denise Phua.

Ms Phua is also co-founder of Pathlight School, and helped start The Purple Parade, an annual initiative to support inclusion and celebrate abilities.

Cautioning against “blindly following” another school system, Ms Phua — who was not part of the trip organised by the Lien Foundation — called for a “local system that adopts the best of both mainstream and special education”. She noted the spectrum of special needs and the education culture in Singapore which still emphasises academic results in some ways.

Apart from academic integration, many students with special needs also require “the hidden curriculum”, which covers life skills such as work habits and social skills, said Ms Phua, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education.

She said: “Inclusion if not carefully designed, will not lead to maximising the potential of the students in the long term.” 

Nevertheless, she agreed that an inclusive system must have features such as an IEP, trained allied educators, as well as availability of education psychologists and other specialists such as occupational and speech therapists.

“For students who require more support, locate satellite schools within an education village of sorts that allows for physical and social integration even if they don’t always benefit from academic integration,” she suggested.

This article was done in partnership with philanthropic organisation Lien Foundation, as part of How We Do School, a series of learning journeys overseas to study inclusive practices in education. Visit to find out more.

Related topics

special needs Education inclusive Canada

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