The 2017–21 3rd Enabling Masterplan (3EMP), the country’s roadmap for the disability sector, defines an inclusive society as one in which persons with disabilities are recognized, empowered and given every opportunity to be integral and contributing members of the society. There is no formal definition of inclusive education as the spirit and objectives for an inclusive society extend across the education system.
Special education needs
Developed by the Ministry of Education in collaboration with the health sector and social service agencies, the 2018 Professional Practice Guidelines define ‘special educational needs’ as a condition arising from an interaction between the student’s ‘strengths and weaknesses, the level of support available in the environment, and the appropriateness of the education being provided’. Students are considered to have special education needs when they (a) have a disability; and (b) display difficulties in learning or accessing educational facilities as compared to the majority of peers of the same age, or display impairments in terms of social, academic, physical or sensory functioning; and (c) require different and/or additional resources beyond what is conventionally available.
‘Developmental needs’ refer to a range of developmental conditions spanning from physical issues (e.g. muscular dystrophy), sensory issues (e.g. vision or hearing loss) and cognitive issues (e.g. autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disability) to learning needs without accompanying disabilities (e.g. mild language developmental delays). Some children grow out of their developmental challenges after early intervention.
The government funds a range of early intervention programmes for children with developmental needs. Early intervention programmes catering for children with mild to moderate developmental needs are provided in regular preschools via the following programmes:
- The Learning Support and Development Support programmes cater for children with learning and mild developmental needs and are currently offered at about 550 preschools.
- The Development Support Plus (DS-Plus) programme has been providing more intensive support since July 2019 and is expected to be rolled out to more preschools over time.
Children with moderate to severe developmental needs are supported by the Early Intervention Programme for Infants and Children (EIPIC), which is provided at EI centres. There are currently 21 EI centres operating in Singapore, run by 10 social service agencies. The majority of these children attend both EIPIC and preschools. Some preschools also cater for these children in an inclusive setting.
In Singapore, education provision for children with special education needs is twofold:
- Students with the cognitive abilities and adaptive skills to access the national curriculum and learn in large-group settings receive education in mainstream schools. For students with moderate-to-profound visual impairment and hearing loss, special resources and specifically trained teachers cater for their needs in seven mainstream schools. More than 80% of students with special education needs access their learning in inclusive classroom settings, which can be found in all mainstream schools.
- Currently, up to 20% of students requiring more specialized and intensive support are educated in government-funded special education (SPED) schools. These 19 SPED schools are run by 12 social service agencies with decades of experience in specialized support for students with specific disabilities.
All SPED schools are deliberately located within proximity of mainstream schools, and each has standing arrangements with one or more nearby schools for joint lessons and co-curricular activities. Sixteen Satellite Partnerships between SPED and regular schools have also been established to date for more formalized and structured integration. Specifically, the Satellite Partnerships aim to provide sustainable and planned opportunities for purposeful and appropriate social integration between SPED and mainstream students. Some SPED schools that serve students who are cognitively able to access the national curriculum also explore opportunities for academic integration, where appropriate.
Early identification, screening and assessment
Before applying to a SPED school, children undertake psycho-educational assessments to evaluate their learning needs and capacity. Through the assessments, professionals provide recommendations regarding school placement or provision, including suitability for placement into a mainstream or SPED school, as well as for special arrangements and curricular exemption.
Singapore ratified the Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2013 and the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled in 2015.
The 1963 Constitution prohibits discrimination in admission to public education institutions (Art. 16.1[a]) only on the grounds of religion, race, descent or place of birth (Art. 16.1). While the 1957 Education Act regulates the governance of schools (e.g. teacher and school registration), the 2000 Compulsory Education Act, revised in 2001 and in force since 2003, focuses on compulsory primary education provision.
Disability, special education needs and developmental needs
The Compulsory Education Act aims to help every child attain (a) common knowledge that will provide a firm foundation for further education; and (b) common school experiences that will help build national identity and encourage social cohesion. In 2019, the Compulsory Education Act was expanded to include all children with moderate-to-severe special education needs born after 1 January 2012. Following strong enhancements to support provisions for children with special education needs and the wider SPED sector, these children are no longer exempted from compulsory education and are required to regularly attend a national primary school, which includes government-funded SPED schools.
An Implementation Advisory Panel was set up in 2016 to provide recommendations about placement of children with special education needs in appropriate educational settings.
Singapore has charted plans to support persons with disabilities under the Enabling Masterplans (EMPs). Each EMP is a five-year roadmap that guides Singapore towards becoming a more caring and inclusive society. Among other areas, the EMPs promote the social and economic inclusion of persons with disabilities with initiatives across areas such as early intervention, education, employment, transport, health, adult care, accessibility and technology. Three EMPs have been released thus far, beginning with the first EMP introduced in 2007. Singapore is currently implementing the EMP3.
In 2013, the Development Support and Learning Support programmes were rolled out for children with mild developmental needs in regular preschools to offer tailored support in language, socio-emotional and motor skills, attention and behaviour, and literacy. Children with moderate to severe developmental needs are supported through EIPIC provided at EI centres. In 2019, building on the efforts of the EMP3, the Ministry of Social and Family Development enhanced support for children with developmental needs by offering two new early intervention programmes (EIPIC Under-2s and DS-Plus) which provide additional intervention options tailored to the needs of children as they develop over time.
Ethnic, linguistic and indigenous groups
Malays are recognized as the indigenous group of the country, and their political, educational, religious, economic, social and cultural interests and language are protected and promoted by the government in virtue of Article 152.2 of the Constitution. Official languages in Singapore are Malay, Mandarin, Tamil and English and everyone is entitled to use, teach and learn any language (Art. 153A.1).
Bilingual policy has always been the cornerstone of Singapore’s education system, and students learn both English and a mother tongue language. Official mother tongue languages include Chinese, Malay and Tamil.
The Ministry of Education provides financial assistance for fees and other school expenses for eligible students in both mainstream and special education schools. The government introduced the KidSTART pilot in 2016 to provide upstream and holistic support for children from low-income families, benefiting some 1,000 children.
Gifted and talented children
Singapore funds specific programmes for the intellectually gifted, namely the Gifted Education Programme at the primary level and School-Based Gifted Education provisions offered by Integrated Programmes schools at the secondary level. Pupils are identified at Primary 3 and admission is merit-based.
The Direct School Admission scheme is an alternative admission mechanism to recognize students’ academic and non-academic talents beyond those demonstrated at national examinations during secondary or pre-university years. At the secondary and pre-university levels, specialized independent schools allow students with talents and strong interests in specific areas such as mathematics and science, applied learning, sports or the arts to pursue their interests in dedicated education settings that adopt a whole-school approach to developing that talent area.
The Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) is the regulatory and developmental agency for the early childhood sector in Singapore, overseeing key aspects of children’s development below the age of 7 across both kindergartens and childcare centres. By the end of 2020, the Ministry of Social and Family Development was expected to have progressively integrated the oversight of early intervention services with preschool services under the ECDA to better coordinate early childhood development and support services and capability development of early childhood educators and professionals, as well as to enhance inclusion.
The Ministry of Education is responsible for education in mainstream and SPED schools. The ministry works with the Disability Office at the Ministry of Social and Family Development and SG Enable. The Disability Office is the national focal point for policy issues concerning persons with disabilities. It works closely with all government ministries, disability organizations and other stakeholders on issues relating to the interests of persons with disabilities, including education. The office also serves as the Secretariat for three cross-sectoral EMP workgroups on (i) preparing adults with disabilities for the future economy; (ii) promoting independent living through technology and design; and (iii) inclusive preschools. The workgroups collaborate with government and community partners to conduct engagement sessions with persons with disabilities, caregivers and social service agencies from the disability sector.
As part of the EMPs, the government set up SG Enable in 2013 as an agency dedicated to enabling persons with disabilities through information and referral services for child and adult disability services, administering grants and support to persons with disabilities and their caregivers, enhancing employability and employment options for persons with disabilities and rallying stakeholder support in enabling persons with disabilities to integrate with the community at large. Since October 2020, SG Enable has served as the single touchpoint for the disability sector, taking over the administration of disability programmes, a role that includes working with the Ministry of Education on administering funding to SPED schools, managing the services run by these schools, and providing a continuum of services for SPED graduates and caregivers across their different life stages and needs. The new single-touchpoint structure is intended to bring stakeholders under one umbrella to co-create and co-deliver services and solutions for persons with disabilities.
In terms of the physical environment, the Ministry of Education has initiated major programmes to upgrade schools to the latest standards in order to provide a conducive learning environment for students, such as the Programme for Rebuilding and Improving Existing Schools (PRIME) in 1999 and the Primary Education Review and Implementation Programme in 2013. New school buildings and existing ones that undergo major upgrading must comply with the prevailing regulatory Code on Accessibility in the Built Environment under Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority to address the needs of various users, including persons with disabilities and the elderly.
Key stakeholders and schools were consulted to draft the 2012 SPED Curriculum Framework and ensure that it reflects the perspectives and aspirations of children with special education needs, their families and professionals. SPED schools, like all schools, are accountable to the Ministry of Education for the quality of their implementation of curriculum and other plans, with external reviews taking place on an approximately five-year cycle. Likewise, mainstream schools are accountable for the development and enactment of their school plans regarding special education needs based on the ministry's guidance on a whole-school approach. Concerning gender, some courses of the national curriculum have been redesigned and renamed and have been opened to girls and boys without differences. For example, Technical Studies and Home Economics were previously taught primarily to boys and girls, respectively. These subjects, now renamed Design & Technology, Food and Consumer Education (at the lower secondary level), and Food and Nutrition (at the upper secondary level) have been taught to both boys and girls.
Special attention has been paid to educational materials and curriculum to ensure that gender stereotypes are not perpetuated, for instance in textbook illustrations.
The ECDA works with the National Institute of Early Childhood Development (NIEC) and other training institutes to provide the necessary training to preschool teachers. In pre-service training, early childhood teachers are taught the basics of identifying and working with children with developmental needs, including where to get additional support if needed. The NIEC also offers a Specialist Diploma in Early Childhood Learning Support and an Advanced Diploma in Early Childhood Intervention (Special Needs) to equip those who wish to take on specialist roles as learning support educators and early intervention teachers, respectively, to support children with developmental needs.
All teachers in mainstream schools are equipped with a basic understanding of special education needs. Students with special education needs in mainstream schools are also supported by specialized personnel, such as Allied Educators (AEDs), who are trained in providing learning and behavioural support for students with special education needs, and Teachers trained in Special Needs (TSNs), who have been equipped to use differentiated strategies for diverse learning needs. These school personnel, together with key school leaders, form a case management team which looks into both the needs of specific students and the whole-school approach to support for special education needs. The team in turn receives support from a team of educational psychologists from the Ministry of Education who provide assessment services and consultancy on intervention and school systems and structures.
All teachers of SPED schools are registered with the Ministry of Education. They attend specialized pre-service training, the Diploma in Special Education (DISE) programme, at the National Institute of Education (NIE). Teachers are also provided with opportunities to attend customized in-service courses by the NIE and other training institutions.
Collaborative learning platforms, such as cluster, special interest and applied training workshops, are organized by the ministry to increase cooperation opportunities among professionals and practitioners of mainstream and special education.
Data on persons with disabilities is presently collected by government agencies when such persons use services administered by these agencies and provide their information to the agencies in this context. The government is currently developing a system to improve information gathering on the demographics and needs of persons with disabilities so that service providers and the government can better provide holistic assistance to persons with disabilities, as well as improve ease of access to schemes and services by persons with disabilities and their caregivers.