SINGAPORE - Starting from 2019, children with moderate to severe special needs will need to attend publicly-funded schools, just like all other children in Singapore.
The move to extend the Compulsory Education Act to this group of children will take effect from the Primary 1 cohort three years from now.
With the change, they will be required to attend any of the 20 government-funded special education (Sped) schools here, unless they apply for exemption.
Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng announced the new policy on Friday morning (Nov 4) at the annual Sped conference, saying: "This is indeed an important milestone in Singapore's continuing drive towards national inclusiveness.
"I am heartened to hear that nearly all children with special needs are receiving formal primary education in government-funded schools, either mainstream or Sped."
He noted the progress made in the Sped sector in the areas of curriculum, teaching and learning, professional development for teachers and infrastructure.
"It is therefore timely to include our children with special educational needs within the framework established by the Compulsory Education Act. This is a reaffirmation that every child matters, regardless of his or her learning challenges," he said.
The policy change comes nearly five years after it was recommended by a a 32-member, government-appointed expert panel. Experts have said that including special needs children in the Compulsory Education Act would compel parents who do not send their children to school - due to lack of awareness of opportunities, or fear of their children being seen in public - to do so.
It also guarantees to provide enough places for special needs children. Currently, some Sped schools have long waiting lists.
The Ministry of Education (MOE) has pledged that there will be enough school places for all Singaporean children.
A quarter - or about 440 - of the 1,770 children with special needs per cohort are currently exempt from the Compulsory Education Act, according to MOE figures. They have moderate to severe special needs, such as autism, intellectual disabilities and cerebral palsy.
Of this, about 40 children do not go to school.
The remaining three-quarters of the cohort - whose disabilities are mild, including conditions like dyslexia - are in mainstream primary schools.
The Compulsory Education Act passed in 2000 requires all Singaporean children to complete six years of primary education in national schools before they turn 15. Parents can be fined up to $5,000 and/or jailed for up to a year otherwise. Besides those with moderate to severe special needs, children attending designated religious schools or being homeschooled can be exempted.
Dr Janil Puthucheary, who is Minister of State for Education, will chair an advisory panel appointed by MOE to look into implementing the new policy.
"Over the years, MOE and various voluntary welfare organisations have worked closely to enhance the quality, accessibility and affordability of Sped. We have also implemented measures to strengthen support for children with special educational needs in mainstream schools," said Dr Puthucheary.
"The advisory panel will have some work ahead, to make sure that we implement compulsory education in a way that serves the needs of all children, but with the community and the professionals coming together I'm sure we'll be able to."
Mr Ng said that his ministry is mindful of the challenges involved in implementing compulsory education for children with special needs, noting that there will be a small group of children with serious conditions who cannot attend school or whose parents may still prefer to teach their children at home.
"We will need to work out exemption processes for this group to ensure their interests and welfare are safeguarded. But the overall policy intent is clear, as is our determination to facilitate what will be in the best interests of our children."
The welfare community lauded the move.
Dr Victor Tay, president of the Association for Persons with Special Needs, said that Singapore had signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1995, which states that every child has the right to education.
"Somehow we did not put it into effect fully, because perhaps the Sped sector was not prepared and was still building up its resources and curricula," he said.
"But there has been more discussion about moving towards a more inclusive society in the last few years, and schools are more ready now for such a mandate."
Today, there are a total of 18,000 students with mild special educational needs in mainstream schools, while another 5,500 with moderate and severe needs are supported by Sped schools.
These schools are provided substantial funding by MOE - significantly more than the mainstream schools - which goes towards paying specialised staff and providing tailored support for students.
In a Facebook post on Friday, Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin said that MOE's plan to include children with Special educational needs in the Compulsory Education Act "is a huge step in making Singapore a more inclusive society".
"The changes to the Compulsory Education Act support the recommendation in the Second Enabling Masterplan for more support in enabling children with special needs to access education in both mainstream and Sped schools. This will help children with special needs to realise their potential, and open up opportunities for continual learning, and employment," he wrote.
He noted that MOE has been working closely with Sped schools over the past few years to improve the quality of education, affordability and accessibility for students. Support for children with special needs in mainstream schools has also been improved, so that they can learn and develop in a natural setting.
Mr Tan said the Ministry of Social and Family Development will be working with MOE and the new advisory panel to further build on efforts to enhance the learning opportunities for children with special needs, "so that they are better able to develop and build competencies".