Dear readers, I have decided to change the format of my blog entry today.
This is my position paper on special education.
I invite any reader who discovers a problem with my argument to point it out to me in the comment section. I would be sincerely grateful to have different perspectives on this subject.
ONE EDUCATION SYSTEM FOR ALL
by Jorain Ng
A lady in her mid-thirties with moderate autism paces around her parent’s house aimlessly, sometimes speaking and shouting to no one in particular. With no educational degree or certificates, the lady remains unemployed. To care for her daughter’s daily needs, her mother left her job and became a fulltime homemaker. Now in their late sixties, her parents constantly worry about their daughter’s future well-being. This is a very disheartening scenario, and one that occurs to many Singaporean families who were unable to send their children to school.
In the recent years, the educational opportunities for children with disabilities have been steadily improving. With the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) on 18 August 2013 and the introduction of the Enabling Masterplan 2012-2016, the Singapore government, in particular the Ministry of Education (MOE), has started to take on more roles in the governance of Special Education (SPED), and worked closely with the National Council of Social Services (NCSS) and the SPED schools to enhance the quality of the curriculum, pedagogy, and professionals of SPED.  Such efforts are commendable but access to education remains a problem for children with disabilities. Due to their automatic exemption from Singapore’s Compulsory Education (CE) Act, the education rights of these children are left unprotected.  To guarantee and protect their right to education, this paper argues for the need to extend CE to children with disabilities, placing SPED under the ultimate governance of MOE.
Qualified, not Automatic Exemption
Opponents of legislation would argue that this model of education is educationally inappropriate and impractical. In her letter to Singapore’s newspaper, the Straits Times, Mrs Loke-Yeo Teck Yong, Director of the Education Services Division from MOE, contended that “we cannot have a one-size-fits-all approach, especially for students with special needs, who have a broad and diverse range of needs.” She also pointed out that “it may be overly harsh on both caretakers and the child [with severe multiple disabilities and medical conditions] to enforce the CE Act on them. They may be better served by home-based education and care.”
It seems, however, that this argument misunderstands how CE would be applied to children with disabilities. Granted, the disabled minority have varying functional and productivity levels; no one type of learning would suit them all. But there is no reason why MOE taking a greater governance role in SPED would mean that the needs of these children would not be catered for. Currently, there are already a number of children with disabilities in mainstream schools, and Allied Educators work closely with teachers to support them. In this way, MOE already cares for those with different learning styles, and thus does not run a “one-size-fits-all” education system.
Moreover, legislation does not negate the possibility of exemption for those truly unable to attend schools. Currently, an exemption clause is already in place for children intended for home-schooling and religious schools. Legislation would place children with disabilities under the same clause, and require parents or caregivers to satisfy certain MOE requirements before applying to the Compulsory Education Unit for a certificate for exemption. In this way, exemptions are not automatic but qualified. So those with more severe disabilities could apply for exemptions from CE in the same way any home-schooled student would.
Issue of Enrolment
Another point of contention lies in the necessity of introducing legislation when other issues have yet to be resolved. In the Enabling Masterplan 2012-2016, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) and other stakeholders decided that legislation “may not be the only solution” and that “it is even more important for government, NCSS and education service providers to address other barriers to accessing special education, such as parental education, professional capacity and resources.”
But this argument glosses over the fact that not all children with disabilities would have the opportunity to benefit from these improvements in the education system. Increased professional capacity and resources often do not trickle down to the broad masses. Despite the collaborative effort made by MSF (then known as the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports), NCSS and other parties in the disability sector in expanding the capacity of the Early Intervention Programme for Infants and Children (EIPIC) up to 40% over the last few years, the waiting list for places remain long. “EIPIC currently serve only about 40% of the 2000 children who are diagnosed with moderate to severe developmental delays each year.” Thus the more pressing issue to be addressed should be enrolment. If CE was extended to children with disabilities, there would be a legal responsibility for the Government to ensure that they have a place in an educational institution, be it a mainstream school or SPED school. It is hard to imagine other solutions to this long-standing issue.
Limitations of Current SPED Model
Related to the issue of enrolment is the governance of SPED schools. Historically, all SPED schools have been independently run by Voluntary Welfare Organizations (VWOs). The Pathlight School and Metta School, for examples, are run by the Autism Resource Centre (Singapore) and Metta Welfare Association respectively. The board of these VWOs and the school management committees currently make decisions on how SPED schools are to be run.
Despite all the good work done by everyone involved in special education, there seems no question that the current SPED model suffers from several limitations. According to the Enabling Masterplan:
the lack of homogeneity in the SPED model has created unevenness in the quality of education across different SPED schools as well as impediments for special education to progress on strategic issues such as manpower development and curriculum. There are strong ground sentiments from professionals to reform the leadership structure with greater ownership by MOE to complement the strengths of the VWOs.
Parents expressed a similar desire to have greater support from the Government in terms of supervision over SPED schools. In 2003, a survey of parents revealed that “96% of 2,489 parents of special needs children were in favour of compulsory education.”
Benefits of Extending CE
The long term benefits of extending CE to children with disabilities must be highlighted. Firstly, formal education will enhance the employability of persons with disabilities. The open job market today requires formal certification. This makes it necessary for persons with disabilities to obtain educational degrees and certificates equally with others in order to complete and be part of the workforce. Considering that persons with disabilities suffer from disproportionally higher rates of unemployment due to discrimination, this becomes all the more important. In the long run, the negative impact of the unemployment of persons with disabilities on gross domestic product will be reduced.
Secondly, an integrated national education system will create more opportunities for meaningful interaction, which will help promote an inclusive society based on mutual respect and rights. By integrating SPED into national education, all schools will be under the same governing body, making it easier for institutions to engage in cross campus activities. So students from SPED schools could visit their neighbouring mainstream schools to share physical facilities, play and even learn together. There are currently two SPED schools – Pathlight School and Canossian School – involved in such satellite partnerships with mainstream schools. Known as the Satellite School Model, this good practice should be encouraged. Regular interaction between students with disabilities and their typically developing peers will encourage and instil in children the mindset of inclusion from young, and educate children to appreciate and respect others for their differences.
Students’ Education is Ministry’s Responsibility
For readers still unconvinced, we need only consider the symbolic meaning of having SPED under the purview of welfare organizations rather than the MOE. The clear separation in governance implies that the education of children with disabilities is a matter of welfare, when really all students’ education is the ministry’s responsibility.
For all the reasons listed above, I believe that MOE can and should play a bigger role and responsibility by integrating SPED schools into the national education system. This requires the enforcement of the Compulsory Education (CE) Act on children with disabilities, which will place SPED under the ultimate governance of the ministry. Let’s not forget that children with disabilities are, like their typically developing peers, full-fledged Singaporean citizens deserving of equal treatment.
 The term “special education schools” are commonly used to refer to school systems that only receive students with impairments as opposed to “mainstream schools” that receive students with or without impairments. Teck Yong, Loke-Yeo, “Special Education Can’t Be One Size Fits All,” Straits Times, October 10, 2014, http://www.straitstimes.com/archive/saturday/premium/forum-letters/story/special-education-cant-be-one-size-fits-all-20141011 (accessed October 20, 2014); See also Ministry of Social and Family Development, Enabling Masterplan Steering Committee, Enabling Masterplan 2012-2016, 2012, p. 32.
 I recognize that there is no barrier to access, but rather that access remains limited because there is no legal responsibility for MOE to ensure that all children with disabilities are placed in an educational institution. Ministry of Education, “Compulsory Education: Exemptions,” Ministry of Education, Singapore, http://www.moe.gov.sg/initiatives/compulsory-education/exemptions/ (accessed October 20, 2014).
 Teck Yong, “Special Education Can’t Be One Size Fits All,” October 10, 2014.
 Ministry of Education, “MOE to Provide Greater Support for Special Education,” Ministry of Education, Singapore, March 10, 2010, http://www.moe.gov.sg/media/press/2010/03/moe-to-provide-greater-support.php (accessed October 20, 2014).
 Ministry of Education, “Compulsory Education: Exemptions,” http://www.moe.gov.sg/initiatives/compulsory-education/exemptions/.
 Ministry of Social and Family Development, Enabling Masterplan 2012-2016, pp. 34-5.
 Ibid., p. 14.
 “Child Development Programme Statistics of Children Diagnosed with Developmental Delays,” in Ministry of Social and Family Development, Enabling Masterplan 2012-2016, p. 9.
 Ministry of Education, “List of Special Education Schools,” Ministry of Education, Singapore http://www.moe.gov.sg/education/special-education/schoollist/ (accessed 20 October 2014).
 Ministry of Social and Family Development, Enabling Masterplan 2012-2016, p. 33.
 Jessie Ee. (2003). Attitudes of parents on compulsory education for special needs in Ministry of Social and Family Development, Enabling Masterplan 2012-2016, p. 34.
 United Nations, General Assembly, Thematic study on the right of persons with disabilities to education: Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, A/HRC/25/29 (18 December 2013), available from http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Disability/Pages/ThematicStudies.aspx, p. 5
 Sebastian Buckup, “The price of exclusion: The economic consequences of excluding people with disabilities from the world of work”, Employment Working Paper, No. 43 (ILO, 2009) in United Nations, Thematic Study on the right of persons with disabilities to education, p. 5.
 Pathlight School, “Secondary School,” Pathlight, http://www.pathlight.org.sg/programmes/secondary-school (accessed October 20, 2014); Ministry of Social and Family Development, Enabling Masterplan 2012-2016, p. 38.
Ministry of Social and Family Development, Enabling Masterplan Steering Committee. Enabling Masterplan 2012-2016. 2012.
Ministry of Education. “Compulsory Education: Exemptions.” Ministry of Education, Singapore. http://www.moe.gov.sg/initiatives/compulsory-education/exemptions/ (accessed October 20, 2014).
Ministry of Education. “MOE to Provide Greater Support for Special Education,” Ministry of Education, Singapore. March 10, 2010, http://www.moe.gov.sg/media/press/2010/03/moe-to-provide-greater-support.php (accessed October 20, 2014).
Pathlight School. “Secondary School.” Pathlight. http://www.pathlight.org.sg/programmes/secondary-school (accessed October 20, 2014).
Teck Yong, Loke-Yeo. “Special Education Can’t Be One Size Fits All.” Straits Times, October 10, 2014, http://www.straitstimes.com/archive/saturday/premium/forum-letters/story/special-education-cant-be-one-size-fits-all-20141011.
United Nations, General Assembly. Thematic study on the right of persons with disabilities to education: Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. A/HRC/25/29 (18 December 2013), available from http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Disability/Pages/ThematicStudies.aspx.