Special-needs education

by Tan, Wen Sze

Education for children (of typical school-going ages) with disabilities is managed by voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs). The National Council for Social Services (NCSS) is the primary overseer with its Programme Evaluation System, while the Ministry of Education provides support. Singapore takes the “many helping hands” approach, with families, communities and the government all playing a role.1

Special-needs schools
The education of students with disabilities who are of school-going age is provided in special education (SPED) schools. As of January 2010, there are 20 SPED schools run by 13 Voluntary Welfare Organisations (VWOs) who receive funding from the Ministry of Education (MOE) and the National Council of Social Service (NCSS). These SPED schools customise their programmes to cater to the diverse range of abilities and learning needs of their students.2 Of these schools, three cater to those with sensory impairment (e.g. visual, aural) and offer curriculum similar to those of mainstream primary schools. Students take the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) at the end of their education and proceed to secondary schools. Five schools cater to those with autism, and one of which has curriculum similar to mainstream schools, thus offering a pathway for students to take the PSLE and the GCE N/O Levels. The remaining 14 schools cater to those intellectually disabled or with multiple disabilities.3

The Ministry of Education (MOE) has expanded the school-based dyslexia remediation to 22 more primary schools, bringing the total to 42 primary schools. MOE will also extend its assistance to more parents of children with special needs to enable them to better understand the learning experiences in the SPED schools and help them find a suitable education programme for their child. SPED schools will receive additional resources to promote stronger home-school partnerships and support students from needy families.

In addition, there are four privately run SPED schools run by The Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (MINDS)4 and six Foreign System Schools offering special education.5

Increased support

Support for special education increased significantly since the Prime Minister call for a more inclusive society in his 2004 National Day Rally speech.6 Officially, there was the announcement of the Enabling Masterplan 2007–2011 (EM) for people with disabilities. Helmed by representatives from public and private sectors as well as VWOs, the EM was designed to guide the development of programmes and services for people with disabilities in Singapore. A significant discussion thread in this EM was the recommendations of the committee on early intervention and education for children with special needs.7

The Ministry of Education took a more active and leading role in special education, working with special schools to develop targets for learning outcomes and VWOs to appoint school management staff.

There was also better integration between special and mainstream education, with more opportunities for students with and without disabilities to interact and partnerships between mainstream schools and special schools.

Special Needs Officers (SNOs) were introduced into mainstream schools in 2005 to support students with learning needs such as mild to moderate dyslexia or high functioning autism. To support this scheme from 2005 to 2010, S$15 million has been set aside.

To help mainstream teachers learn to teach students with disabilities, training schemes in special education were created, with a target of 10 percent of all mainstream teachers by 2010, through a part-time 108-hour Certificate in Special Needs Support that is offered by the NIE. Also, since 2005, all pre-service teachers have been introduced to the issue of disability through a 12-hour segment within a core course on student differences.8

In March 2011, MCYS announced the plan to embark on a new 5-year Enabling Masterplan, EM 2012–2016. A steering committee was formed with Mr Chua Chin Kiat, Chairman of the Centre for Enabled Living (CEL) as its Chair, and Colonel Milton Ong, as the Deputy Chair. The composition of the Committee reflects the 3P (People, Private-Public Sector) approach, with representatives from voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) as well as the private and public sectors.

The new and proposed masterplan seeks to build on the foundation laid by the earlier initiatives for Singapore to strive towards an inclusive society. It also sets out to address the emerging needs of persons with disabilities and their caregivers.9

History of special education
As with many other countries, special education in Singapore developed haphazardly, often with voluntary organisations as the main drivers. Over time, the government took on a coordinating and monitoring role.

One of the earliest centres for special education was the Trafalgar Home, where in 1947, education was provided for children with leprosy. In 1949, the British Red Cross Society set up a home for crippled children. In 1951, it started providing education for the deaf. In 1956, the Association for the Blind set up a school. In 1957, the Spastic Children’s Association was formed and thus directed attention to children with cerebral palsy. In 1962, the Singapore Association for Retarded Children, later renamed Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (MINDS) was formed, moving special education beyond those with physical and sensory disabilities to those with intellectual ones.10

Government support

Apart from the efforts of VWOs, treatment and help for children with disability were usually found in hospitals. In 1958, the Singapore Council of Social Services (now NCSS) was set up to coordinate the efforts of VWOs.

Before 1988, special education was provided by the VWOs, with funding from the National Council of Social Services. The government line was that VWOs are the best agencies to run special schools, as they had a strong sense of mission, and their autonomy allowed them greater flexibility to respond quickly to new needs and demands. By then, there were 11 special schools run by seven VWOs. Enrolment stood at 2,301 students.

1988 was a turning point as MOE became an equal partner with NCSS in special education. This was based on the initiative of the Advisory Council for the Disabled (established by Dr Tony Tan, then Minister for Education). MOE would provide land for schools and financial support at twice the amount for a primary school student. The Community Chest would match the financial contribution. As a result, the maximum per capita cost per child was S$4,700 from MOE and S$4,000 from the Community Chest. The total is four times the amount spent on educating a primary school student.

In 1996, the government extended the Edusave Scheme to children in the SPED schools, three years after the scheme started in 1993.11

Teacher training
Local teacher training specific to special education began in 1984 when the Institute of Education, presently known as the National Institute of Education (NIE), launched a three-year programme leading to the Certificate in Special Education. In 1991, when it was re-organised as NIE, it launched a two-year Diploma in Special Education. In 2003, a Masters in Special Education programme was established. This portended further degree and post-graduate programmes in Special Education.12


Tan Wen Sze

1. Ministry of Education. (2015, April 16). Special Education. Retrieved 2016, May 6 from Ministry of Education website: https://www.moe.gov.sg/education/special-education/list-of-sped-schools
2. Ministry of Education. (2015, April 16). List of SPED schools. Retrieved 2016, May 6 from Ministry of Education website: https://www.moe.gov.sg/education/special-education/list-of-sped-schools
3. Ministry of Education. (2015, April 16). Special Education. Retrieved 2016, May 6 from Ministry of Education website: https://www.moe.gov.sg/education/special-education/list-of-sped-schools
4. MINDS. (2010). Special Education Services. Retrieved 2016, May 9 from MINDS website: http://www.minds.org.sg/sped.html
5. Tan, T. (2011, November 7). Privately run special needs schools sprouting up. The Straits Times, p. 2.  Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Lim, L. et.al. (2008). Exploring disability in Singapore: A personal learning journey. Singapore: McGraw-Hill, pp. 14–15. (Call no.: RSING 371.9095957 LIM)
7. Tan, J. (2012). Education in Singapore: Taking stock, looking forward. Singapore: Pearson, pp. 108–109. (Call no.: RSING 370.95957 EDU)
8. Ministry of Social and Family Development. Early Intervention and Education for Children with Special Needs. Retrieved from Ministry of Social and Family Development website: http://app.msf.gov.sg/Portals/0/Files/EM_Chapter3.pdf
9. Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports. (n.d.). Enabling Masterplan 2012–2016. Retrieved from Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports website: http://app.msf.gov.sg/Portals/0/Topic/Issues/EDGD/Enabling%20Masterplan%202012-2016%20Report%20(8%20Mar).pdf
10. Lim, L., & Quah, M. (Eds). (2004). Educating learners with diverse abilities. Singapore: McGraw-Hill, pp. 31–32. (Call no.: RSING 371.9095957 EDU)
11. Poon K., Khaw J., Tan L.S. (2007). Special Needs Support: The Singapore Context. In K. K. Poon & J. Khaw. (Eds.). Supporting Students with Special Needs in Mainstream Schools. Singapore: Pearson/Prentice Hall, pp. 1–8. (Call no.: RSING 371.9046 SUP)
12. Lim, L., Thaver, T., & Poon K. (2008). Adapting disability studies within teacher education in Singapore. In S. L. Gabel & S. Danforth (Eds), Disability and the Politics of Education: An International Reader. New York: Peter Lang, pp. 585–588. (Call no.: R 371.904 DIS)

The information in this article is valid as at 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


Students with disabilities--Singapore
Special education--Study and teaching--Singapore