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With the pandemic hogging headlines for nearly a year, a positive development in our local education sector brings a little cheer to the doom and gloom of 2020.

In a recent announcement by Second Minister for Education Indranee Rajah, students with special needs in mainstream schools are set to have more social and emotional support from peers and teachers in the years ahead.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) has already introduced two programmes in some schools in recent years, to encourage students to look out for each other, while school staff have been trained to better meet the needs of special needs students who have difficulties such as anxiety issues.

Ms Indranee said these two programmes, known as Circle Of Friends and Facing Your Fears, will be extended to all schools in the next few years.

She was speaking at a concert organised by Extra.Ordinary People, a charity that supports special needs children and youth through therapy services and access to the performing arts, at the National University of Singapore’s University Cultural Centre.

Ms Indranee also announced that three new government-funded special education schools will be set up over the next few years to address the growing demand for places in autism-focused schools.

Currently, there are six schools which take in students with autism and/or multiple disabilities: Pathlight School, AWWA School, Eden School, two Rainbow Centre Schools and St Andrew’s Autism School.

The government has spent more on special education, said Ms Indranee. Over the past five years, total funding for special education schools has risen by about 40 per cent.

To make school more affordable, from January next year, six special education schools will also lower their fees by at least 25 per cent for Singapore citizens.

These six, which include Eden School and Grace Orchard School, currently charge higher monthly fees of between $200 and $350 for students with autism. 

“This is a significant move in making special education more affordable for families with children with special educational needs,” said Ms Indranee, adding that there are extra costs that they already have to bear.

Currently, 20 per cent of students with special needs are in 19 special education schools.

These students could have intellectual disabilities, autism or multiple disabilities.

The rest, 80 per cent, or 26,000 students, including those with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, attend mainstream schools. These fall under mild special needs.

This figure has doubled from 13,000 in 2013.

The Circle Of Friends peer support programme will be conducted in primary and secondary schools weekly over five to eight sessions.

Social and emotional support in schools

Students with special needs who are facing social, emotional and behavioural difficulties meet with their form teacher or allied educator, together with six to eight friends they are comfortable with.

For students who struggle with anxiety issues in secondary school, they will have 10 weekly sessions with a group of two to four peers with similar needs to help them learn to manage their fears.

The programme, Facing Your Fears, is conducted by allied educators who specialise in learning and behavioural support.

Ms Indranee said that both schemes were conceptualised based on research and MOE’s evaluation studies, which have seen positive results.

Training will be provided for teachers and allied educators in schools to run the sessions, and students will be taught practical strategies to help their peers.

This could include self-management skills, such as deep breathing and taking gradual steps to face specific fears, as well as active listening and problem-solving skills.

“Students offer much support to each other, including encouraging one another to apply the self-management techniques and coping strategies, even beyond the sessions,” said Ms Indranee.

New special education schools in the works

Charity organisation Metta Welfare Association will be operating one of the new schools in 2021, with about 25 places per cohort.

This new campus, to be located in the east, will be ready in 2024.

In the interim, from 2021, students will have their lessons at the current campus of Metta School in Simei that the organisation operates.

The new school will have about 25 places per cohort. In time, this will grow to 300 additional places for students aged seven to 18 with moderate to severe special needs, who have both autism and intellectual disability.

The second new school will be run by the Autism Resource Centre (Singapore) for students with moderate autism and who can access the national curriculum.

This will be Pathlight’s third campus, after Ang Mo Kio and Tampines.

Ms Indranee said MOE will conduct a limited invitation for proposals for the third school, which will also be for students with moderate autism.

Text: Amelia Teng/The Straits Times