Speeches/Interviews

November 02, 2018

Keynote Address by Ms Indranee Rajah, Second Minister for Education, at the 2018 SPED Conference

1. Good morning everyone. I am delighted to be here with all of you – the people who have made Special Education in Singapore what it is today.

2. You have been unstinting in your efforts to take SPED to the next level. Already, your frequent and rich interactions within the SPED community are seeing the sharing of best practices among VWOs and schools.

3. My purpose this morning is twofold: (a) to reflect on the strides that we have made together in Special Education since our last SPED conference and (b) to look at what we as a society should build together.

OUR PHILOSOPHICAL APPROACH

4. To set things in context let me first set out our philosophical approach to children with special needs – which is to be as inclusive as possible while at the same time making sure that their educational needs are met. We want children diagnosed with special educational needs (SEN) to be part of life in the mainstream as much as we can, and to ensure that those with higher needs have the specialised attention that is necessary for them.

5. Hence, students with SEN who can access the mainstream curriculum should attend mainstream schools, even if they need to use a wheelchair or cochlear implants or need support in overcoming difficulties like dyslexia, ADHD or mild autism.

6. This is important for 2 reasons. First, it is good for the child with SEN to be part and parcel of mainstream life, and it will prepare them for life after they complete their education in school. Second, and equally important, it is also good for children who do not have SEN – to teach them to be inclusive, to accept children with SEN for who they are and to be friends with them.

7. Today there are around 24,000 students reported with special educational needs (SEN) who are studying in mainstream schools. They comprise 90% of the students with hearing loss; 80% of the students with visual impairment; 50% of the students with physical disabilities; and about 45% of the children with autism. About 80% of these students move on to post-secondary educational institutions like Junior Colleges, Polytechnics and Institute of Technical Education.

8. At the same time, it is very important that we also have SPED schools to support the needs of those whose moderate-to-severe SEN require a much higher level of customised support. For example, students with moderate-to-severe autism are taught in SPED schools by teachers with deep knowledge of autism-friendly pedagogies, supported by allied health professionals who also share a thorough knowledge of autism. Students with multiple disabilities receive specialised support such as hydrotherapy in specially-equipped SPED schools that cater to their needs.

COMPULSORY EDUCATION

9. We are committed to ensuring that children with SEN get an education. To that end, we have included SPED in the Compulsory Education (CE) framework.

10. When Compulsory Education was first introduced in 2003, it was not possible to include SPED. At that time, we did not have sufficient SPED schools in term of quantity and quality to make that step. Since then, however, we have together – the community and the government – made concerted efforts to enhance quality, accessibility and affordability of SPED.

11. Today there are 19 SPED schools. Three of them have expanded their enrolment recently. They are Eden School, AWWA School and Rainbow Centre - Yishun Park School.

12. As a result, at the last SPED Conference in 2016, then Education (Schools) Minister Ng Chee Meng, was able to announce that, with effect from January 2019, children with moderate-to-severe SEN, born after 1 January 2012, would be included within the CE framework. So in 2-months’ time, CE for the SPED sector will come to pass.

13. The vast majority of students with moderate-to-severe SEN are already studying in our SPED schools – that is around 6,000 students or 20% of students with a reported SEN. With CE however, we can ensure that all children with moderate-to-severe SEN will get an education in government-funded SPED schools.

14. Let me now address 3 very important groups in the SPED space: professionals in Special Educational Needs; parents; and employers.

A FRATERNITY OF CHILD DEVELOPMENT PROFESSIONALS

15. With increased funding over the years, we have today an ecosystem of support comprising professionals such as teachers, job coaches, social workers, allied health professionals, VWO staff and volunteers, all working together to develop the potential of children with SEN.

16. A SEN child’s journey of support begins with a diagnosis. The Development Assessment Clinic in SGH was the first in Asia to start the new-born hearing screening, which was followed later by cochlear implants for children born with hearing loss. It was also the pioneer for the assessment and intervention of children with development problems. It was later renamed the Child Development Unit of KKH which now runs the Child Development Programme together with NUH.

17. Next comes helping families on how to proceed once the child is diagnosed with SEN. Since 2003, we have had the Early Intervention Programme for Infants and Children (EIPIC) overseen by Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), formerly MCDS. EIPIC provides these children with intensive social, educational and therapy services through targeted early intervention programmes.

18. MSF has partnered KKH and NUH to build capacity and set service standards for Early Intervention in Singapore. There are now 21 EIPIC centres across Singapore, with 3200 places available. Children with SEN joining mainstream and SPED schools are now better prepared than before.

PROFESSIONAL PRACTICE GUIDELINES

19. The sense of community and common purpose among the professionals in this space is vital in bringing about optimal development opportunities for children with SEN.

20. In 2011, this community came together to write Singapore’s first Professional Practice Guidelines (PPG) on the Psycho-educational Assessment and Placement of Students with SEN. This year, they have updated the PPG to include the latest clinical and educational research and understandings in the field of Special Educational Needs.

21. Obtaining an accurate diagnosis of needs is so important for children to receive timely and appropriate support and for parents to have clarity about how best to provide for their children. It is thus very important that educational psychological assessment by all practitioners and therapists be uniformly of the highest quality. I applaud the hard work that has gone into the preparation of the PPG but more than this, I applaud the spirit of camaraderie and the common desire to serve this sector.

CHOOSING THE RIGHT SCHOOL

22. Once a child has been diagnosed with SEN, the next step is choosing the right school. This is not an easy task for parents. Many parents have deep emotional reactions when they first realise that their child has special needs. Some struggle to accept the fact that their children need the higher level of support and that mainstream schools would not be suitable for their child. This is sometimes made even more difficult when some parents wonder if they are somehow at fault or have failed in some way, and how others will perceive them and their child.

23. The key to making the right decision is acceptance – acceptance of the fact that the child has special educational needs (SEN) and that this will be a different sort of journey. However, this is a journey that we will walk with you.

24. To make the right decision, parents need to be courageous and to ask which school will be in the best interest of the child and not fear stigma. To help the make the right decision they need the professionals advising them to be candid yet informative and aspirational.

25. Hospitals, EIPIC centres, agencies and schools give parents the information they need through forums, websites and publications like the Parents’ Guide, which has also just been revised. The Guide aims to assist parents in identifying a school that best supports their children with SEN.

QUALITY LEARNING EXPERIENCES AND PASSIONATE TEACHERS

26. Once a child is enrolled in a SPED school, our aim is to give our students the best possible foundation for life and to equip them for Living, Learning and Working.

27. This educational journey is very much a partnership between the teachers and the parents. We are fortunate to have many SPED Teachers who are passionate about their work and deeply committed to helping their students.

28. Take Ms Pauline Cheng, from AWWA School, for example. Having left a successful career in the Information Technology industry, she now uses ICT and communication tools to open up possibilities for her students, including 18-year-old Yong Huei.

29. Yong Huei used to get frustrated because he could not express his needs and wishes. Believing in his potential, Pauline worked with his Speech and Language Therapist and parents to help him find his voice through technology. Now he is able to communicate through an iPad and a communication app. Yong Huei’s Mother says this has strengthened their relationship, as both are now able to understand each other better.

30. Then there is Ms Gena Tan who opened up the world of music for Jerryl Ong, from Cerebral Palsy Alliance Singapore School. Jerryl’s fingers have limited dexterity, but that did not stop Gena from suggesting that his mother sign him up for piano lessons. Today, Jerryl enjoys playing the piano and being part of the school’s performing arts group. This was made possible because Gena believes in expanding her students’ horizons, for instance through music and the performing arts, whatever their abilities may be.

31. Teachers also work closely with the Parent Support Group and the community to create new experiences that would enrich their students’ quality of life. Mdm Tay LiLing, mother of Liu Kai En who studies at St. Andrew’s Autism School, used to think it would be impossible to have a meal as a family in a restaurant just like others, let alone go on a trip together. She was concerned it would be difficult for Kai En to keep calm for long in a bustling or enclosed space, as well as about the stares and judgement from the public if he had a meltdown. But not anymore. Mdm Tay’s family is now not only able to eat at a restaurant together, but also go on a family holiday.

32. This was made possible because of teachers like Ms Caroline Tan. She works with parents to enable families to do the things they wanted to do. For instance, she reached out to companies like SilkAir, conducted training for the cabin crew, and conducted familiarisation exercises in the airplane for her students and their families. This enhances the quality of life of not just SPED students but their families as well.

33. A key part of the curriculum for SPED schools is to create opportunities for interaction with same-age peers who do not have the same disabilities and special educational needs. For example, students from Rainbow Centre – Margaret Drive School (RCMDS) participated in the inaugural Play Inclusive Festival in July with students from Queensway Secondary School. The festival, co-organised by SportCares and Special Olympics, and supported by MOE, brought together student-athletes from 13 SPED schools, and unified partners from 16 mainstream schools, to share sporting experiences. The students learned a new sport alongside each other over a series of training sessions and they then took part as a team in the tournament.

34. Ms Maria Koh from RCMDS plans adaptive and differentiated learning processes to help her students acquire skills or be involved in sports. As part of RCMDS’ Adventure Club activity, her students kayak either in the reservoir or the swimming pool at Singapore Polytechnic (SP) where SP students volunteer to work with her students in the programme.

35. Pauline, Gena, Caroline and Maria all embody the spirit of inclusion in their own ways. In recognition of their stellar work, they will be receiving the 2018 MOE-NCSS Outstanding SPED Teacher Award. They will receive their awards shortly but for now, please join me in applauding them as well as all the wonderful teachers in our SPED schools.

HONOURING PARENTS

36. Singapore’s journey in quality SPED provisions is also the story of sacrificial parents who saw their own child’s needs as a way to serve other children with similar needs.

37. Ms Denise Phua, the school supervisor of Pathlight and Eden School is here with us today. Ms Phua and many other parents have drawn from their own experience and put their heart and soul into serving persons with disabilities and special needs in Singapore. Dr Balbir Singh of the Down Syndrome Association Singapore and Ms Chia Yong Yong of SPD are amongst many individuals who have contributed at national level to make strides in the sector. The Enabling Masterplans are examples of their efforts.

38. We also salute the everyday commitment of parents who volunteer in school. Take for example, the highly motivated and dedicated parents who volunteer to read to Primary One students at Chaoyang School. Mrs Karen Sim, PSG Chairman, has shared how such activities reinforce the positive partnership between school and parents or caregivers and brings joy to the students to be able to see their parents during school time.

39. Many parents put a great deal of effort into supporting their children at transitional stages in their lives. Last year Cheng Chang Jing (or C.J. to his friends) graduated from MINDS Lee Kong Chian Gardens School. His father, Mr. Cheng, worked hard to support C.J in his transition from school to work. He reinforced the skills C.J learnt in school and organised C.J’s schedule on a calendar at home. He also encouraged him to participate in various activities to hone his social skills. These efforts not only enhanced C.J’s quality of life, but also the family’s as well - C.J now assists his grandmother in buying things at the market.

40. We want to enhance our partnership with parents in this journey. That is why we have extended the SPED Conference to parents this year through the Parents’ Seminar. We would also like to honour the parents in our midst. May I invite them to stand. Let us honour them today for their courage, commitment and resilience in this journey.

WELCOMING PLACES OF EMPLOYMENT

41. C.J is a participant of the School-To-Work Transition (S2W) Programme, a collaboration between MOE, MSF and SG Enable. This initiative has increased the employment opportunities for SEN students. It will be scaled up to include all SPED schools serving students at the secondary level by next year, bringing the total number of participating schools to 15 from the current 12.

42. Every year, approximately 400 students graduate from SPED schools. While not all of them can work in open employment, we believe that many more of them can. We also believe that it is vital to their quality of life to have the opportunity for the dignity of work, to earn for themselves, to interact with others and to contribute to society.

43. For this to happen, everyone – employers, bosses, co-workers, customers and society at large should extend welcome and support. Consider how much courage is required of persons with disabilities and special needs to overcome their challenges daily. So do not shun or reject them but where possible extend employment opportunities to them, and walk alongside them on their life journey.

44. I am heartened by the number of Singaporean employers who have stepped forward to partner SPED schools in providing work experiences and job placements for our students. Such enlightened employers have understood that persons with disabilities and special needs are not only able to work, their presence also helps shape team dynamics and organisational culture, making their companies even better places to work which inevitably translates into profits, quality and sustainability.

45. For example, Grow & Glow Jurong West Childcare Centre is now involved in training SPED students from Grace Orchard School to be Teacher Childcare Aides (TCCA). This initiative for young adults with intellectual disabilities to be employed in early childhood job settings is a collaboration between Grace Orchard School (GOS) and Presbyterian Community Services. Umairah, a student training to be a TCCA said that the modular job trainings and reflections enabled her to be better at the job that she aspired to get. This unique opportunity now adds to the diversity of the currently available vocational opportunities.

46. For this effort, GOS will be receiving the MOE-NCSS Innovation Award. They will be sharing this award with Delta Senior School’s “I Am Ready For Life” project, and AWWA School’s project on “Everyday Language”.

47. Each year, an average of about 90 students from Delta Senior School (DSS) undergo internships with about 40 organisations from various industries. One of these is Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa Resort & Spa. The partnership goes beyond student internships to include attachment for vocational trainers and joint CSR programmes. According to Joshua Tang, a graduate from DSS who has been working at the resort for 4 years, working in a restaurant can be challenging due to its fast-paced environment. But he has worked hard with his colleagues to give customers their very best.

48. At UOB Scan Hub, the nerve centre for checking, digitising and archiving customer documents, Toh Kai Min, a graduate from Pathlight School, thrives. The work he does requires a sharp eye for detail, high-levels of concentration and an ability to work methodically. These are all attributes that play greatly to his strengths. Kai Min enjoys his job as he has to work with great accuracy and focus. Ms Agnes Tay, First Vice President of Group Technology and Operations at UOB remarked that Kai Min is a valuable asset to the team. He executes tasks efficiently with his cheerful personality and can-do attitude, and is also well-liked by his team-mates. The team is glad to have Kai Min on board and will continue to support his career growth at UOB.

49. We hope more local companies will extend internships to students in their final years at our SPED schools as well as to our students with SEN who are in our Institutes of Higher Learning (IHL). The extra learning and accommodations that customised internships can provide help to make the transition to working life much easier for them.

SOCIAL INTEGRATION AND INCLUSION

50. At the end of the day, we want to build a society that is inclusive and where children and adults with special needs are integrated into society just like any other.

51. This is sometimes easier said than done. People without special needs don’t always know how to react to those who do. They feel awkward or don’t know what to say. In more extreme cases, some may display negative reactions. However, we must overcome this if we are to be a truly inclusive society. The key to building the kind of society we want to be is to be warm, accepting and supportive. This does not take a lot to do.

52. Recently, Mrs Brenda Tan, a writer and parent of a student at St. Andrew’s Autism School conducted a survey of autistic persons to ask them how the rest of us can give them a greater sense of welcome. Many of them answered, “say hi and give a smile.”

CONCLUSION

53. I started with Compulsory Education. The Enabling Masterplan 2 called for it and it has come about. But there is still more to do. The 3rd Enabling Masterplan sets out strategic directions that include ensuring integration and inclusion of children with special needs within the context of our education system. More needs to be done to create an inclusive environment for persons with disabilities and special needs.

54. Thus, whether it be the 18 artworks that were featured on the NDP funpacks, or the beating of the drums signifying Singapore’s heartbeat during the National Day Military Tattoo display this year; or the combined schools’ choir’s moving performance at the True Colours Festival in March, we could not have been more proud seeing our SPED students beaming with joy and confidently contributing back to the community in their own ways. The wonderful work of our SPED schools in growing the spirit of inclusion will come to naught if the rest of society fails to embrace persons with disabilities and special needs on a daily basis.

55. As Singapore aspires to be a more inclusive society, we should remember that no one chooses to be born with a disability or special needs. Our acceptance of our persons with disabilities and special needs reflects the soul of our nation – it invites everyone to be more open, empathetic and understanding towards one another – to embrace each other for who we are and not just for what we can or cannot do. To achieve this, we need to continue to create opportunities and space for our students with SEN and for adults with disabilities and special needs as they too have a place and part to play in our Singapore story.