MOE FY 2016 Committee of Supply Debate - Speech by Minister of State Dr. Janil Puthucheary

Published Date: 08 April 2016 12:00 AM

News Speeches

Preamble

1. Madam Chair, an inclusive education system is one where every child is challenged to his full potential, and given every opportunity to develop their talents and abilities. To make this a reality, some children need more help. We cannot treat every child in exactly the same manner.

2. Some children have special needs, some have learning difficulties, and others come from less-privileged backgrounds. To achieve equality of opportunity and bring out the best in all of them, we need to treat each child differently. More needs to be done for certain groups of students who need our attention the most. This will appear as an unequal distribution of time, effort and resources.

Pre-school Education

3. An inclusive education system has to start in the child’s early years. This is when children develop literacy, numeracy, social-emotional skills, and a sense of curiosity and wonder. These are important foundations for all. But we need to recognize that we should not be over-preparing our children for primary school.

4. Dr Intan has pointed out that we already have achieved almost universal access to pre-school. We recognise that having some parental choice and involvement in the type of experience a child has at pre-school is important. Our current system allows for this, and compulsory education for pre-school may not be the best way forward. Nevertheless, the Government will continue to explore ways to provide every child the opportunity to benefit from a structured pre-school experience. For instance, a new pilot programme, KidSTART, will be established to encourage pre-school participation at younger ages for children in vulnerable families. MSF will provide more details.

5. Dr Lim Wee Kiak and Mr Zainal Sapari asked about early childhood education. We have and will continue to invest substantial resources in improving pre-school education. Our 15 MOE Kindergartens (currently enroll about 1,700 children. The first batch of MK children is now in Primary 1, and parents have shared that their children have the confidence and social skills to adapt well to primary school.

6. MOE will continue to engage partners and stakeholders in the Early Childhood Education sector to see how we can best use the lessons learned from the MK programme to help all children.

7. Since 2014, we have been sharing good teaching and learning practices at various platforms, including the annual MOE Mother Tongue Language Symposium and the annual ECDA Early Childhood conference.

8. From this year, we will be sharing a resource we call “Big Books”. These Big Books for English and Mother Tongue Languages were piloted at our MKs. Teachers can use these Big Books as a structured approach towards language-learning. This will help more pre-school children to speak and read in English and their Mother Tongues with confidence.

9. In line with our belief that we need to do more for those who need it, additional help is given to those with weak foundations in language and literacy. We have done this through a programme called FLAiR, Focused Language Assistance in Reading. FLAiR, for K2 children in about 360 pre-school centres run by Anchor Operators and MOE Kindergartens. FLAiR has benefited around 17,400 children since 2007, helping them to build a strong foundation in English and narrow the reading gap with their peers. This programme is especially important if you come from a background or a family that doesn’t have English as a common language at home. English literacy becomes a foundation for studying a wide variety of other subjects, Science and Math for example, for accessing knowledge on your own in the library, and for achieving the self-directed learning that you need to access knowledge on the Internet. Hence, the FLAiR programme is available as an additional support for children who need it.

10. We want to replicate and extend FLAiR’s success by increasing the number of Anchor Operator-run pre-school centres offering FLAiR, and it has now been made available to not-for-profit centres. Over 50 such centres are offering FLAiR this year, benefitting about 400 children. We intend to reach out to even more children by doubling the number of not-for-profit centres offering FLAiR over the next few years. Children from less privileged backgrounds

11. I agree with Ms Denise Phua about the need to level the playing field for all children, regardless of their backgrounds. We ensure that education is heavily-subsidised for all students at all levels, and we provide additional financial assistance for needy students.

12. The provision of technology can also be a social leveller. We give all our schools the resources to provide their students, including the under-privileged ones, with access to computing devices for learning. The online Learning Space that Ms Phua spoke about will take this a step further by giving all students access to self-paced learning anytime and anywhere. This also allows teachers to use design lessons and upload them, and share work between students. This will also make possible the provision of third-party applications and ‘educationware’, including open source applications. These can be developed separately to be integrated for use by both teachers and students.

13. Ms Cheng Li Hui will be pleased to note that we also guide our students to be responsible and safe online. All our schools teach cyber wellness and also appoint students as “Cyber Wellness Student Ambassadors”, to help guide their fellow students. Our ITE, polytechnics, autonomous universities also teach cyber wellness in a number of ways, including guidelines, compulsory modules, orientation camps, and online platforms.

14. During and after school hours, we aim to provide a supportive environment for all children, especially those from a less-privileged background. The four Self Help Groups have come together to form a joint venture company, which operates six school-based Student Care Centres and will open up another four Student Care Centres in schools by this year.

15. MOE has supported the establishment of school-based Student Care Centres (SCCs) that provide after-school care, supervision, and development. The number of SCCs has risen from less than 50 four years ago to 130 today, now benefitting 15,000 students. To continue to cater to more students, we will increase the number of school-based SCCs to 140 by the end of this year, with all primary schools having SCCs by 2020.

16. Promoting health is another way we can provide support for our students. I would like to assure Mr Chen Show Mao that our school canteen stalls comply with Health Promotion Board guidelines that stipulate the need for healthier ingredients in food preparation, and also stipulate a cap on sugar content in beverages.

17. Equipping children with social and emotional competencies helps to increase their mental well-being, reduce risky behaviours, and improve academic outcomes. Mr Kok Heng Leun will be pleased to know that Social and Emotional Competencies have been included in the school curriculum a decade ago and are also incorporated with the revised Character and Citizenship Education curriculum. Students go through the process of acquiring the skills to recognise and manage emotions, develop care and concern for others, make responsible decisions, establish positive relationships and handle challenging situations. I would also like to reassure Mr Kok that teachers do use stories of loss, stories of managing change in family circumstances from literature, as well as from the media, to reinforce these lessons, particularly to highlight the need for resilience and to develop the mental and social skills for children to have resilience. These values and social-emotional competencies are reinforced during CCAs and camps. The CCE curriculum also aims to inculcate other 21st century competencies, such as Civic Literacy and Critical Thinking.

18. Many teachers that I have met do feel that this is a central part of their duty. They have a moral obligation to not just be educators but also provide a degree of care and social support for the students they are in charge of looking after. Away from the public eye, there are many circumstances that I have come across in my previous professional life where it was the teachers who demonstrated a very deep understanding of some of the traumas that underprivileged or vulnerable children might go through, and were able to support both the child as well as the family that they were in touch with.

19. All teachers are equipped with the skills and knowledge to help our students develop character and the kind of competencies that Mr Kok spoke about. They have to take a CCE module during their pre-service training, which also includes opportunities for them to engage in dialogue with experienced CCE teachers. In addition, all teachers have to take on Service Learning Projects to prepare them to conduct Values in Action programmes in schools. Having a CCE module and a Service Learning Project in the teacher training process shows how we map our expectations of behaviours and values that we have for our students onto the process that teachers undergo in their training. What we expect in terms of values and behaviours for our students inside our curriculum and in our schools, are expressed through the expectations we have for our teachers while they are being trained. There is a very tight link between the two.

20. To address Mr Png Eng Huat’s concerns, these Values in Action programmes are central to our aim of developing strong civic consciousness. Students learn to take responsibility for their own spaces in class and at home at the primary-level, before progressing to initiating collective action among their peers to improve the lives of others at school and the community at the secondary-school level and beyond. This year we have reinforced being responsible for the community in a very tangible and physical way. All primary school students play a part in cleaning their schools every day, learning good habits, learning good values, learning to respect the school environment, and learning to respect the people who work to keep their schools clean.

Children with special educational needs

21. Madam Chair, if I could return to the principles I stated at the beginning, our philosophy of developing inclusivity by giving more support where it is needed most is clearest in our efforts for children with special educational needs.

22. I would first like to assure Dr Intan that the majority of these children, who have relatively mild special educational needs, are already in mainstream schools. We at MOE, and many of their families, do believe that these children can cope with the rigours of a mainstream curriculum once given a little extra support. Every primary school and 81 secondary schools are now resourced with at least one Allied Educator (Learning and Behavioural Support), as has been pointed out. MOE will continue to recruit more going forward, and extend the availability of this service. But they are doing an important and challenging job. We have to recruit the right people with the right disposition and skills.

23. We have invested heavily in training both teachers and the AEDs(LBS). As Ms Chia Yong Yong has pointed out, we give our schools the flexibility to source specific programmes to meet local specific needs. But these school-based programmes merely supplement the structured training already provided at the National Institute of Education, our key training partner. All teachers, during their pre-service training, are equipped with an awareness of special educational needs. NIE also conducts in-service training covering disability-specific areas, leading to a certificate in special needs support. The Allied Educators (Learning and Behavioural Support) undergo the full-time pre-service Diploma in Special Education. The Advanced Diploma in Special Education is also available to them. We work with the Dyslexia Association of Singapore and the Autism Resource Centre to provide these AED(LBS) staff in-service training. As we are committed to training teachers and the Allied Educators well, we will continue to review the structured training available to them.

24. MOE has also made available the School-based Dyslexia Remediation (SDR) programme, a specialised intervention programme, to all primary schools from this year. This helps students with dyslexia to overcome their core difficulties in reading and spelling. As part of the programme, we have also developed resources to enable parents to help their children at home in their journey to overcome the challenge of dyslexia.

25. More students with special educational needs are entering our Institutes of Higher Learning. More than 1,400 students have sought assistance at the SEN Support Offices available in every Institute of Higher Learning since their establishment. This is almost triple the number who sought assistance as of February 2015. Rather than be concerned about the average disbursement or a particular target, what is important is that these students have access to resources, and that these resources are matched to their needs. The needs are greatly varied. Some students need a very small intervention – a ramp, a mechanical keyboard – whereas other students need a very wide series of both physical as well as process interventions. An average may not be very meaningful. To give an idea, about 90 students since 2014 have been assisted by the Special Educational Needs Fund for the purchase of assistive technology devices and support services, and about a quarter of a million dollars have been disbursed to them.

26. For the smaller group of students with more severe special educational needs, we believe that they are better catered for and dedicated to in special education schools. These schools are provided substantial funding by MOE – significantly more than the mainstream schools – which goes towards paying specialised staff and providing more intensive support for their students.

27. We have worked closely with SPED schools to provide a quality education and to help prepare their children for life after school. To cite just one example, we have piloted the School-to-Work Transition Programme in five SPED schools with MSF and SGEnable so that more students can be gainfully employed upon graduation. We identify these students’ interests and strengths, and put in place structured internships and customised training pathways with support from job coaches in various organisations. Most of the participants from the first cohort are now successfully employed in a wide range of industries.

28. The School-to-Work programme will be made available to more SPED schools. MOE is working with interested schools to put in place new processes to enable them to identify and support their students. As we look to improve the transition from school to work, a consistent challenge is the mindset of employers and co-workers. This will take time to change, and I urge all Singaporeans to keep an open mind, to offer these students and the adults they grow into every chance to be part of our society.

29. Ms Phua suggested co-locating SPED schools and mainstream schools to promote inclusivity. To some extent, this is already happening. We need a range of inclusive practices to cater to a range of different needs, and allow for meaningful interaction and integration. Our satellite partnership model includes this range of practices. Some SPED schools practice ‘social integration’ with their mainstream partners. Others like Pathlight School allow their students to join their mainstream peers in class. Canossian School practices ‘full inclusion’, and its students already join in mainstream classes for all academic and non-academic activities.

30. In addressing Mr Zainal Sapari’s concerns regarding SPED schools, I would like to point out that the majority of SPED schools – 13 out of the 20 – charge around $10 to $20 per month. This is comparable to fees at Government schools. The remaining seven SPED schools charge higher fees. This is because they cater to students with multiple disabilities and challenges, who have a greater need for additional educational and therapy support. Nonetheless, their fees are still significantly lower than private SPED schools or international schools. In addition, MOE provides help for needy families through the SPED Financial Assistance Scheme. These schools also offer fee subsidies for eligible students. We will continue to work with SPED schools to improve their affordability.

31. Over the years, we have been upgrading school premises, setting up new schools, and expanding existing ones to allow more students to access special education. In the past few years, we have built a new campus for Delta Senior School, expanded Metta School, and created additional classrooms for Pathlight School.

32. More than physical capacity, skilled, committed, and passionate staff are at the heart of our efforts to support children in SPED schools. Just last year, we made available more funds for SPED schools to increase the salaries of teachers, allied professionals, and other staff. This is not only to help schools attract and retain personnel, but also to recognise the crucial and challenging work that they do every day.

33. Madam, I have visited a number of SPED schools, including, most recently, the AWWA Special School. Speaking to everybody in all the schools – the members of the board, education staff, the therapy staff, the nurse who mans the medical bay – you get a very pervasive sense of mission, a sense of purpose, a sense of pride and professionalism. They explain how much they are devoted to this calling that they have, the work that they do, and the students that they care for. But from the outside, it doesn’t look so much like mere professional pride in their job. It looks like love. They love their work. They love their cause and their mission. They love the institutions they have supported, that they work for, that they raise funds for, that they volunteer for. They love their students. Sometimes the students are challenging. Some of the staff get injured. There are problems with the physicality of their work. This doesn’t stop them. They go back to it.

34. Voluntary Welfare Organisations should continue to play a key role in SPED. Over the years, they have built up a deep expertise in catering to specific disability types. Each has created, nurtured, and supported a specific community of educators, therapists, families, and focused on a particular group of children and their challenges. This is a model of shared responsibility between the Government and the community. MOE will continue to support these groups, these schools, these professionals, to do what they do so well.

Conclusion

35. Madam Chair, let me affirm MOE’s commitment to build an inclusive education system in an inclusive society. We will continue to invest the necessary resources to enable all children, regardless of their starting points, to reach their full potential.

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