Compulsory primary education for special needs children will promote inclusiveness, improve teacher training and curriculum, and make it free - relieving a key financial strain for parents.
But more than four years since a 32-member, government-appointed expert panel recommended exactly this, the authorities have yet to give a firm answer on whether this would happen, and when.
The delay has frustrated some in the welfare sector, who point out that parents and educators have been calling for special needs children to be included in the Compulsory Education (CE) Act even before the law was passed in 2000.
Ms Anita Fam, a board member of the National Council of Social Service and part of the steering committee behind Enabling Masterplan 2012-2016 (EM2), told The Sunday Times: "I am disappointed that the consideration of having special needs children included in the CE Act has not been completed, even though there was a referenced end date (2016) stated in our earlier EM2 recommendations."
EM2 is the second five-year national blueprint to guide the development of policies and services for people with disabilities. The CE Act, which took effect in 2003, ensures that children regularly attend school and complete six years of primary education before they turn 15. Parents can be fined up to $5,000 and/or jailed for up to a year otherwise.
IN OTHER PLACES
HONG KONG: Children aged six and above with special educational needs have free and universal basic education for at least nine years.
About eight in 10 special needs pupils study in regular schools. Children with more severe disabilities enrol in special schools.
JAPAN: Education is compulsory and free for all children aged six and above, for nine years. Special needs education is offered in regular classes, and in special classes within mainstream schools. There are also special education schools for children with severe disabilities.
SOUTH KOREA: Under the Special Education Promotion Act, education for children with disabilities is compulsory for nine years, at the elementary and middle school levels.
When asked if the Act would be extended to special needs children by the year end, later, or not at all, a Ministry of Education (MOE) spokesman said it "has been carefully studying the issue". This includes taking into consideration the varied disability profiles and the different needs these present, the impact of compulsory education on children and parents, and the ways to support them.
She added: "There is also ongoing work to enhance the quality, accessibility and affordability of special education (Sped), which are prerequisites to the extension of the CE Act."
There had been broad support for the recommendation. A 2003 poll of about 2,500 parents of special needs children found that 96 per cent were in favour of compulsory education.
In 2007, the panel behind the first Enabling Masterplan recommended the exemption of special needs children be "reviewed in the future when the Sped sector is more developed".
Five years later, the EM2 committee acknowledged the challenges of enforcing the Act on special needs children, and recommended that the implications be studied and addressed with the aim of including such children in the Act by 2016.
Said Ms Fam: "One of the main perceived challenges in enforcing the Act was the plight of families with children with such severe disabilities that they cannot comply. But we felt that the benefits of including special needs children in the Act would far outweigh the disadvantages if they weren't."
One of the main perceived challenges in enforcing the Act was the plight of families with children with such severe disabilities that they cannot comply.
MS ANITA FAM, a board member of the National Council of Social Service
Including special needs children in the CE 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, be it in Sped or mainstream schools. Now, some Sped schools have long waiting lists, while mainstream primary schools are not obligated to admit special needs pupils.
Mr Lee Poh Wah, chief executive of philanthropic group Lien Foundation, said: "Parents now have to independently look for primary schools that are willing to go the extra mile to provide for their children's needs... Schools are also not obliged to provide the necessary support if the child enrols."
Extending CE to special needs children is also important as it has been accepted globally as best practice, he added. More than half of the 20 Sped schools charge $10 to $20 per month; some that cater to more severe needs charge more than $400 per month. There are subsidies, but these offer little consolation for some parents of special needs children, as they already have to pay more than other parents for transport costs, apart from therapy services and medication.
WHY THE DELAY?
MOE said that even without making it compulsory, "only a small number" of special needs children do not attend school. Most are in mainstream schools, which currently have an enrolment of 18,000 special needs pupils. The rest are in Sped schools, which have been expanding in recent years. The ministry has also been investing heavily in training teachers, developing a curriculum framework for Sped schools.
Some voluntary welfare organisations have asked if the delay is due to concerns that the Government may struggle to hire and retain enough qualified specialists and allied educators, for instance, or uncertainty on how best to integrate special needs children.
Ms Denise Phua, who is president of the Autism Resource Centre and heads the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, supports the extension of the CE Act, but said it was important for the Sped sector to be prepared first.
"When a government legislates CE, it has the duty to enforce the law in a fair and reasonable manner for both the children affected and those supporting them," she said.
For instance, service providers that cater to children with more complex needs and find it harder to retain staff could find their duties more onerous if the CE Act is enforced without considering the challenges they face, she said.
But even if the Government is not ready to extend the CE Act, most are hoping it will at least publicly declare its commitment to push it through. Disabled People's Association executive director Marissa Lee Medjeral-Mills said: "A government commitment to CE for people with disabilities does not mean that MOE has to act right away, but does mean that it should begin work on it."
A third Enabling Masterplan is being drawn up and is expected to be ready by next year. Ms Fam, who chairs the panel behind this plan, said she "will ensure" that the issue of including special needs children in the CE Act is again reflected in the new set of recommendations.