The decision for all special needs children to come under the Compulsory Education Act is welcomed ("Special needs gaps in 'every child matters' "; Dec 1). However, this will not be without significant challenges both in mainstream as well as in special education (Sped) school settings.
For one thing, mainstream teachers do not have the experience or perhaps the aptitude to handle special needs children. They may possess some head knowledge but lack the hands-on skills, confidence and perseverance to connect with these children, much less to draw out their potential.
Furthermore, since the pupils in the class will likely look up to their teacher for guidance on how to interact with these kids, their inexperience and even indifference have a knock-on negative impact as well.
This is a loss as some of these children are intellectually gifted, but the lack of certain skills (like those of social interaction and verbalisation as in the case of autism) hampers the full expression of their gifts.
One consideration might be to expose teachers, particularly those in mainstream primary schools, to working with children in a Sped school via an immersion programme.
This will raise their competencies and, most importantly, develop a deeper empathy for these children.
Another area of concern is the delivery of academic curriculum in Sped schools. Unfortunately, academics seem to take a backseat here, with greater emphasis given to life skills instead.
Although these schools supposedly follow the Ministry of Education (MOE) curriculum, this tends to be heavily watered down when the goals for the Individual Education Plan of these students are proposed.
Although one may say that the teaching in Sped schools is focused more on being functional, surely, learning to read and write, as well as doing basic maths, and later, science, are necessities and should be actively encouraged, even from a young age.
To achieve this, a nationwide standard of academic achievement for children in Sped schools should be put together. This can be set according to the IQ of these children. For instance, a seven-year-old special needs child with average intelligence should target to complete the Primary 1 curriculum by the time he is nine years old (that is, two years later than kids in his age cohort) while a child with lower intelligence should achieve this by age 10 and so forth. The baseline intelligence level of these children can be independently assessed by MOE educational psychologists and subsequently reviewed on a regular basis.
This will provide impetus to Sped teachers as well as parents to ensure that the academic needs of these children are not overlooked. A nationwide standard will also allow Sped schools to benchmark their performance and give a clearer insight into their strengths and weaknesses from an academic standpoint.
Daniel Ng Peng Keat (Dr)