Speech by Dr Janil Puthucheary, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Education, at the Inclusive Education in Higher Education 2017: Inclusion in Action Forum, at Tan Chin Tuan Lecture Theatre, Nanyang Technological University

Published Date: 05 October 2017 12:00 AM

News Speeches

Professor Kam Chan Hin,

Deputy Provost (Education), President’s Office, Nanyang Technological University

Dr Sheryl Burgstahler,

Founder and Director, Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology (DO-IT) Centre and Affiliate Professor, College of Education, University of Washington

Ladies and gentlemen

Good morning.


1. Thank you for inviting me to join you here today, and congratulations on NTU’s inaugural forum on Inclusion in Action. This is going to be a very useful platform to think about how we can build on the good work done so far, develop strong networks and exchange ideas on what more can be done for our special needs community in our Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs).

Removing Barriers, Encouraging Inclusion

2. It has actually only been three years since MOE established our Special Educational Needs Support Offices, or SSOs, in all of our publicly-funded IHLs. And so much has happened over that short period of time.

3. If I could just think about a larger education landscape, 75% of children with SEN attend the mainstream schools today. Three quarter of them are 100% integrated into that school life, through the deployment of our Allied Educators (Learning & Behavioural Support), Assistive Technology (AT) devices and the introduction of changes to infrastructure. There have also been changes in the professional development of teachers, whether in NIE or in teachers’ post-graduate professional development. The other 25%, requiring special facilities, resources and a different curricula approach, attend one of our 20 Special Education (SPED) schools.

4. We have a model for inclusive education – a particular approach on how we deal with children with SEN and provide them with the opportunities and challenges in the mainstream school space. But we did not necessarily set out with that model in mind. We have arrived at that position after many years of looking at best practices around the world, and making changes as we go along. We look for movement of children between our two systems, and are trying to make it into one system with the extension of Compulsory Education Act, to include all children including those with SEN.

5. When it comes to the higher education landscape, it is not so clear. The courses are not like in primary school, where all students are expected to have a similar experience. By definition, in higher education, you want for all students to have very varied experiences. You want them to pursue their passions, interests and to develop relationships. You want the landscape to be, look and feel varied. The needs of students will be different. The courses will be different, and the institutions that they attend will have different needs and challenges.

Our SEN Support Offices (SSOs)

6. We have a series of support for students with SEN, such as grants to enable access and to assist with technology. But one of the things that we did across all our IHLs in 2014 was to staff and support the SSOs. We left the space open for each institution to develop their own approach, structures and processes. I’ve been visiting all of the SSOs in IHLs. I speak to faculty leaders to find out how the work of the SSOs fits into the overall ethos and how they manage student affairs. I speak to SSO officers to find out what type of training they had and how they go about their work. And I also speak with the students to find out how this is working out for them.

7. There are big differences. The work of the SSOs and the way they do their work, by necessity, are different. The type of courses they support, the confidence that faculties have in dealing with SEN students, and also the challenges that the students face are different. But there are some commonalities. When I ask the students “What can we do better? What do we need more of?” the first thing they do is to point at their SSO officer and say, “Can we have another Jack?”. They understand that it is not about the grants and technologies alone. The biggest possible intervention is people. People who can take ownership of the space, understand the needs and work out some plans.

8. The importance of people is not limited to just the officers, but also the involvement of the wider school community. At many institutions that I have visited, it is heartening to note that there are student volunteers who participate in inclusion. They will find some way to integrate the work that the SSOs do and the needs of SEN students into the larger student life. This is vital to really having a handle of a model of inclusion. It is not about policy, money, technology or infrastructure. It is really about taking an active step from the wider community to be actively inclusive. It has a moral value, a social value and it enables education which is a key enabler for our social aspirations.

9. I think there is a lot of great work over the last three years. A lot of excellent work that student volunteers and institution leadership have done in trying to find ways to embed these values and make them come alive. The question is - Where do we go from here? What do we do next?

How Much More Can Be Done?

10. The primary and secondary school space has a very clear model. When somebody talks about a new initiative or best practice from around the world, we can hold that new initiative or best practice against our own model, and ask ourselves if it makes a difference to our model? We have something to test it against and we can make a decision about what to do next. When it comes to early childhood and IHLs, it is not clear. For the early childhood space, MOE is working with the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) and Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) to study how we can better support children with SEN before they even enter school. There are programmes focused on health or education. Overtime, we need to develop our own coherent strategy to bring all of those together. The work is ongoing, and we will continue to find ways to strengthen that model. Just as we have achieved a coherent model in primary and secondary school, we need to achieve a coherent model in early childhood education.

11. In the adult space, MSF works with SG Enable to establish the Enabling Village and how we help people with disabilities to access work. On how we look at job transformation, we are working with employers and Voluntary Welfare Organisations (VWOs). This is still ongoing. For youths who are transitioning from 16 years old to the workforce, that space is something that SSOs have been working on over the past three years. There have been lots of different solutions, lots of different ideas and lots of good work. How do we then get coherence in that space and still preserve the unique character of every institution and the challenges of each course?

12. We are starting to do some work. We have brought the SSOs across institutions for many different workshops, to study and research best practices. Overtime, we need at least a set of principles and ideas that will crystallise that model at the IHLs.

13. Why do we need this? People who are working in this space know why. For example, when I talk to students in IHLs and ask about transition from school to IHLs, there are sometimes conflicting statements. Some mention that they get less support and assistance, and things are a little harder. But the person next to them can see it differently. They share that they become more independent – they have to find their own way and persuade their parents that they can commute on their own. That they can start thinking of themselves as adults. From secondary schools to higher education, all students go through the transition of becoming an adult and becoming their own person. When it comes to interventions that we put in place for students with special needs through the SSOs, are we increasing their independence or are we removing that empowerment a little bit too much? Do we have clarity on the role of higher education in that empowerment towards adulthood?

14. Across the higher education landscape, perhaps we need some clarity on how we strike the right balance between empowering towards adulthood versus over supporting. There is some work going on by Jack and his team from SMU on a research study, and I understand many institutions are already participating in it to crystallise some of these larger principles. Across our IHLs, you will come together as a professional committee of practice and establish what those principles might be. This will help to develop a coherent view of our philosophy of what special needs education in the higher education landscape should look like. And we can think of how MOE can support this better. I think if you can do more across your institutions to develop that clarity that we can leverage on, it would be one of the most important things when serving students with special needs in our higher education landscape over time.


15. In conclusion, thank you very much to NTU and NTU’s Accessible Education Unit for taking the initiative to organise this platform. Thank you all for coming together and taking your time to share your best practices to challenge the established wisdom, to learn from each other, and ultimately committing yourselves as educators and staff working in this space to provide much more accessible and inclusive education for all Singaporeans. Thank you.

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