Madam, Minister Heng spoke about the need to go beyond a narrow focus on grades and exams, and emphasise deep skills, holistic education, strong values, and lifelong learning. We want an economy that is resilient and flexible, as well as a society that is caring, harmonious, and cohesive.
I will now speak on how MOE is trying to realise our vision in the areas of bilingualism and support for students with special educational needs.
Earlier, Minister Heng and SMS Indranee have acknowledged the points made by Mr Hri Kumar on language and communication skills. Because language and communication are so integral to what we are trying to achieve for our students, I think his points bear being acknowledged by the 3rd speaker from MOE.
English, our working language, provides a common platform for Singaporeans of all races and backgrounds to interact with and understand one another. Spoken English is also a key competency for the global economy. MOE is committed to improving our students’ proficiency in it. We have created more opportunities for primary school students to speak, ask questions, and interact in class through the implementation of the Strategies for English Language Learning and Reading, or STELLAR, Programme in 2010. We increased the weightage of the listening and speaking components of the ‘N’ and ‘O’ Level English Language examinations in 2013. Our Pre-University students must offer Project Work, which emphasises group discussion and requires students to make an oral presentation as part of their assessment.
Our Mother Tongue Languages (MTLs) are an anchor to our Asian culture and traditional values, and provide a foundation for our students to acquire cross-cultural competencies.
The Member’s speech highlights a key tension between extrinsic and intrinsic motivations in the learning of MTL. Extrinsic motivations like bonus points can be useful. They encourage students to persevere and stretch themselves. They also signal the importance that we place on our Mother Tongue Languages. However, over-reliance on these motivators can have drawbacks, for instance, ending up with situations where our students stop putting in effort once the motivators are no longer there.
On the other hand, intrinsic motivation nurtures self-directed learners who will maintain good communication skills in their MTLs over their lifetimes. Therefore, while extrinsic motivators like bonus points do exist, our core goal is to foster intrinsic motivation.
We aim to teach the MTLs in fun and engaging ways that will interest our students. For instance, all our schools organise MTL Fortnights annually. These fortnights are meant to provide opportunities for students to learn and use their MTLs in authentic contexts. In addition, we recognise that we are more likely to sustain our children’s interest in MTL by leveraging their instinctive feel for technology. To this end, we had introduced initiatives such as the Oracy eLand in 2011 and the iMTL Portal in 2013. Both are online portals that aim to teach students how to communicate in their MTLs through multimedia, games, and interactive tasks.
Madam Chairperson, I would now like to say a few words in Mandarin.
Madam Chairperson, back to English.
To reinforce what is taught in the classroom, we want our students to apply their MTL communication skills outside the classroom. MOE works with community partners to provide opportunities for students to do so. These activities reach out to more than 100,000 participants each year.
Our teachers work with the Malay Language Learning and Promotion Committee to author and publish books under the Lower Primary Storybooks Project, so as to foster the love of reading among young children. Xinmin Secondary School collaborates with the Committee for the Promotion of Chinese Language and Learning and zbCOMMA (逗号) to organise the “Create Your Own Newspaper” Competition for secondary schools.
Last year, I attended Avvaiyar Vizha, an event organised by the Tamil Language Learning and Promotion Committee and the Tamil Language and Cultural Society to commemorate an influential female Tamil poet. I was heartened by how our schools worked together with community partners to promote greater awareness of Tamil literature and hone our students’ skills in spoken Tamil.
OVERVIEW OF SUPPORT FOR SPECIAL EDUCATIONAL NEEDS (SEN)
In response to Ms Denise Phua’s question about the private Special Education (SPED) schools, I will first describe the overall landscape of MOE’s support for students with special educational needs (SEN). MOE’s broad approach is to support them in educational settings most appropriate to their needs. Students who have the cognitive abilities and adaptive skills to learn in mainstream settings are provided for in our mainstream schools. Students who require intensive specialised assistance in their education to optimise learning and their potential for independent living are provided for in the 20 Special Education or SPED schools funded by MOE and operated by Voluntary Welfare Organisations (VWOs). The vast majority of our students with SEN are catered for in these two types of settings.
A small number of private education institutions (PEIs) offer full-time special education courses. The majority of students enrolled across these schools are non-Singaporeans. These schools do provide additional choice for some Singaporean parents too.
While we will carefully consider the Member’s proposal, these schools are currently regulated through the Private Education Act by the Council for Private Education (CPE), a statutory board under MOE. While the Council does not accredit the academic quality of programmes offered by PEIs, its regulatory framework aims to safeguard the interests of students and parents and to help them make more informed choices. The Council ensures minimum standards in corporate and academic governance, strengthens student fee protection measures, and requires the PEIs to disclose key information on courses and teachers.
Whenever cases involving privately-funded SPED schools come to the Council’s attention, they have been looked into carefully. The Council has also taken the appropriate steps to address issues at these schools. I wish to assure Ms Phua that we do not condone abuse or criminal misconduct at any of our PEIs, including the private SPED schools. If any evidence of such conduct is uncovered, the matter will be referred to the police.
STUDENTS WITH SPECIAL EDUCATIONAL NEEDS (SEN) IN MAINSTREAM SCHOOLS
We also acknowledge the Member’s concern for students who are at risk of being “left behind”. I wish to emphasise that MOE is committed to ensuring that all students have the opportunity to fulfil their potential. Minister Heng has touched on various measures including enhanced financial assistance.
On the issue of a potential digital gap, I would like to share that our schools can loan computing devices to students from lower-income backgrounds. On the issue of international exposure, our Trips for International Experience (TIE) initiative provides all students with the opportunity to embark on overseas learning programmes. Our schools, polytechnics, and ITE are also provided with an Opportunity Fund which can be used to subsidise computer purchases as well as overseas visits, student exchange programmes, and school enrichment programmes for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
On Members’ suggestions on supporting SEN in mainstream schools, we constantly welcome feedback from VWOs, the community, and other stakeholders for strengthening our models of provision for support. Such feedback has been useful in the past. We will continue to seek feedback and refine what we are currently doing.
On SEN, MOE is committed to uplifting the current level of support. 10 to 20% of teachers in every mainstream school are trained to have deeper knowledge and skills to support students with special needs. They work together with Allied Educators (Learning and Behavioural Support) [AEDs(LBS)], who have been posted to all primary schools and 69 secondary schools.
I wish to thank several members, Ms Chia Yong Yong, Ms Denise Phua and Dr Intan Azura for expressing strong interest in our AED (LBS).
I wish to share that MOE is committed to attracting, retaining, and systematically training our AEDs(LBS). We have increased the numbers of AEDs(LBS), from 300 in 2010 to around 400 today. In addition, all newly-recruited officers undergo a one-year full-time Diploma in Special Education offered by the National Institute of Education (NIE) before they are deployed. We also provide in-service professional development by sponsoring officers to attend the Advanced Diploma in Special Education. We will continue to review our AED (LBS) staffing to ensure adequacy of support for our students with SEN. I cannot agree more with our members that when doing so we must always be very careful because it is important to recruit officers who have the right disposition, the right heart for our students with SEN and the potential to do a great job.
We have also invested more to help students with dyslexia and this has been shared by Minister Heng earlier. We introduced the School-based Dyslexia Remediation (SDR) Programme in 2012. Since then we have been scaling it up as quickly as we can. Along the way, we have refined our instructional methods and trained more instructors. This year sees the expansion of the SDR Programme to 60 additional schools. The programme will be made available to all primary schools in 2016.
Support for children with SEN also comes in the form of allowing special arrangements for some of them sitting for national examinations. One example would be the Mother Tongue Language exemptions at PSLE that Mr Yee Jenn Jong spoke about.
We have made special accommodations for a small group of students at PSLE who have compelling reasons for finding it hard to cope with MTLs. Among these students, some may have joined or re-joined the school system mid-stream without having learnt MTLs before. Others are students with certified medical conditions or SEN, such as dyslexia, autism spectrum disorder, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Each exemption appeal citing medical grounds or special educational needs is carefully reviewed by an MOE panel comprising specialists who will consider submitted evidence such as medical reports, school reports, examination results and work samples.
I wish to highlight that exemptions from MTL are not given lightly. If the child indeed has the condition cited in the application, exemption will be considered. If the member knows of instances where this is not so, you can provide us with the details and we will be sure to look into these cases.
STUDENTS WITH SPECIAL NEEDS IN INSTITUTES OF HIGHER LEARNING
I would like to thank Ms Chia Yong Yong for asking about the SEN Support Offices (or SSOs) in our IHLs, as well as capability development and manpower training to help make them more effective in supporting our students with SEN. These are the key initiatives to support our students with SEN in our Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs). Every ITE college, polytechnic, and publicly-funded university now has an SSO that serves as a first-stop help point. The SSOs also administer the SEN Fund, which helps ITE and polytechnic students with physical or sensory impairment purchase Assistive Technology (AT) devices or support services.
More than 500 students have sought help from these offices. To enhance capability development, the SSOs in the polytechnics and ITE colleges meet every three months to share best practices. This month, Singapore Polytechnic will be hosting a workshop on Accessible Education by Brandman University’s Office of Disabilities Services for the SSOs in all of our IHLs.
Our IHLs have also been actively conducting staff training on basic SEN awareness and support on campus since 2013. The training introduces IHL staff to a wide range of SEN, and teaches classroom strategies to support students in their learning.
In our polytechnics and ITE, 1,500 staff members have been trained, including 1 in 5 of these institutions’ academic staff. Over the next 5 years, our polytechnics and ITE will work towards training all their academic staff in basic SEN awareness and support. Our universities also provide training opportunities for staff who interact with students with SEN.
I think quite a lot is happening in terms of SSOs in IHLs and I would like to thank Ms Chia as well as Ms Phua for your strong support for this initiative.
Let me cite the example of a student who has been helped by this initiative. He is Lionel Tan, an 18 year-old Business Services student at ITE College Central with visual impairment. Upon receiving an offer for the Nitec in Information Communication Technology (ICT) course, ITE’s Learning Accessibility Office (LAO) spoke to Lionel to understand his needs. Through this session, which included a tour of the ICT labs, Lionel realised that the course might not be suitable for him. The LAO then worked with Lionel to identify his other interests, and helped him enrol in a course suitable to his strengths and needs. The Office then helped provide Lionel with the appropriate support. A discussion between Lionel’s lecturers and his former teachers at Ahmad Ibrahim Secondary School was arranged. The Office also purchased a text-to-speech software and a note-taking device using the SEN Fund. Lionel’s lecturers have also worked with the Office to provide him with accessible learning materials.
I wish to thank Ms Phua for her proposal to allow students with other types of SEN to tap on the SEN Fund. The SEN Fund is part of a broader framework of measures to support students with SEN. We aim to tailor our support measures to the specific needs of students, such as access arrangements for students with dyslexia, orientation of training facilities for students with ASD, and additional assistance in classroom learning for students with ADHD. MOE and our IHLs will continue to review the range of support available, and work towards strengthening it.
SUPPORT FOR SPECIAL EDUCATION SCHOOLS
DPM Tharman and Minister Heng have spoken about how our spending on SPED schools has increased by 50% over the last 5 years. Please allow me to flesh out how this has translated into new programmes and better programmes that enhance the affordability, accessibility and quality of SPED. With your permission, Mdm Chair, I would wish to display an infographic on our screens.
Regarding affordability, we know that parents of children with SEN are more likely to face additional financial outlay. That is why it is so important to help them with affordability. MOE therefore provides substantial financial support. We have extended various schemes to SPED schools over the years. These include the Edusave Scheme, the SPED Financial Assistance Scheme (FAS), and the School Breakfast Programme. We will continue to extend financial support, to help SPED students fulfil their aspirations. This year, we will be enhancing school-based financial assistance for the next three years to $25,000 per school on average, up from $15,000. We will also enhance the SPED FAS to include a public transport subsidy.
At the same time, we will fully subsidise the exam fees paid by Singaporean students in SPED schools taking national examinations, as well as examinations leading up to national vocational certification.
To give a sense of what this subsidy entails for the students, let me cite the example of Shaherah bte Daud, a 16 year-old student at Metta School. Shaherah aspires to be a chef, and will be taking the ITE Skills Certificate (ISC) in Baking Practice. Shaherah does not need to pay for the assessments for ISC Type 1 and Type 3 modules over the next two years. If she wishes to improve her mastery of baking, she will not need to pay for the assessments for the Type 2 and 4 modules subsequently. From now until she reaches 21 years of age, Shaherah can take these assessments and work towards obtaining her certification.
For accessibility, MOE works to make it easier for children who need special education to be placed in the right schools. To this end, we regularly upgrade school infrastructure and expand the capacity of some SPED schools to meet demand. Today, 15 SPED schools are purpose-built, and 5 have been refurbished.
We also want to help parents make the important decision of placing their child in the right school. To do so, we have introduced Post-Diagnosis Educational Guidance, providing accurate information and advice, as well as emotional support, to parents whose children have been recommended for placement in a SPED school.
The key plank in our efforts to raise the quality of SPED has been the SPED Curriculum Framework put in place in 2012. This guides SPED schools in delivering a quality and holistic education, and helps SPED students achieve living, learning, and working outcomes. I want to thank Ms Denise Phua for working tirelessly with us on improving the curriculum and also for her new suggestions, all of which we will consider carefully.
We have also directed additional resources to SPED schools like the Teaching and Learning Fund, the Curriculum Enhancement Fund, the High Needs Grant for students to fund manpower for students who need more help, the MOE-Tote Board ICT Fund for schools to purchase info-comm technology as an aid to teaching, and a Parent Support Group Fund to build and sustain home-school partnerships.
Beyond funding, MOE recognises that it is crucial for SPED schools to have skilled and dedicated teachers, and staff.
We support SPED teachers to upgrade their skills by developing milestone programmes like the Diploma in Special Education and awarding post-graduate scholarships to deserving teachers. We also fund SPED schools to conduct training workshops and send teachers for conferences and learning journeys.
One key initiative has been the Advanced Diploma in Special Education targeted at experienced teachers. We have received very positive feedback about the Advanced Diploma. Educators have found it meaningful, enriching and appreciated the research-to-practice approach taken by the course.
Given the context of SPED, we know that parents and SPED educators are very concerned about what their children or students will do after they leave school. To help address this concern, we have been working hard on helping SPED students be future-ready.
We introduced a Vocational Education Framework in 2010 to cater to students who can go further in terms of work-capability. We have also facilitated quality vocational education programmes in SPED schools serving students with mild intellectual disability leading to national certification in selected industry areas. This has enabled 1 in 4 SPED graduates to be successfully employed.
For students who can work but may not benefit from vocational certification, we have worked with MSF, SG Enable, and the SPED schools to prototype a School-to-Work programme in 5 SPED schools starting in 2014. We intend to make it available to more SPED schools in phases from 2016.
These measures provide different pathways for SPED students to build a robust foundation of skills, and prepare for the world of work. In this regard, I think we can think of the SPED sector as an early adopter of the key spirit of SkillsFuture.
Madam, the Government has been doing more to ensure that we continue to be a society that gives hope and assurance to all.
MOE will continue to work with MSF, NCSS, SG Enable and other partners to embrace Singaporeans with special needs as full and integral members of our society.
But the Government cannot do it alone. I wish to thank our Voluntary Welfare Organisations, supportive employers and businesses, our educators and everyone who have worked hard to build an inclusive society.