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Diversity and Access to Education



These postage stamps display Singapore’s “unity in diversity”.

Singapore resonates in the minds of many as a leader in educating its citizens, evidenced through their recent achievements as a top ranking country in the internationally benchmarked PISA and TIMSS assessments and their successful implementation of innovative educational policy. Singapore, with its centralized system, manageable size, and government leadership in instituting a long-term plan and vision, has recognized the importance of education early on in developing its only natural resource, and by was quickly able to offer universal primary education to all of its citizens, shortly after Singapore’s sovereignty in 1965. Education was not only seen as a means for preparing the workforce for a free-market economy, but also as means of unifying its pluralistic society. In 1970, after the achievement of free primary education, only 72% of Singapore’s population was literate in at least one of the four national languages (Kuo et al, 1990; Postlethwaite et al, 1980). Today, 94.4% females and 98.5% males are literate in one or more national languages (Government of Singapore, 2013). The drop out rate of compulsory primary and lower secondary education (the first 10 years of schooling) is a meager 1.6% (MOE, 2008).

Meritocratic Ideals Create Access to Education

Singapore’s meritocratic government is based on the idea that merit is the deciding factor in advancement in society. Although there are people whose opinions care to differ on the reality of this system, the idea is that those that deserve to will advance in society, and everyone is given an equal opportunity to do so. The Edusave Scheme helps to demonstrate this philosophy as it rewards “students who perform well or who make good progress in their academic and non-academic work, and provides students and schools with funds to pay for enrichment programmes or to purchase additional resources” (MOE, 1993).

In recent, years, more attention has been called to the inequity that exists due to socioeconomic status. As a result, further measures such as MOE’s Financial Assistance Scheme and the School Advisory Committees’ Fund help to target families of students’ that need further assistance in covering additional expenses, such as uniforms and books, which are needed for their children to attend school. The government has also provided funding to low-income students for preschool education, as studies have shown that lack of preschool education has been attributed to lower achievement in primary grades (NCEE, 2012). Dr. Pak Ng, Associate Dean of Leadership Learning, Office of Graduate Studies and Professional Learning at the National Institute of Education (NIE) states that Singapore “will never be able to level the playing field completely” (Rubin, 2012). At least continued efforts are being made towards increasing equity amongst the population by providing equal access to education.


Having achieved universal access to education early on, the current focus of the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) educational policy has been on improving the quality of education. One tactic that has allowed for this transformation has been the development of highly qualified teachers through pre-service teacher training, and instilling a lifelong learning culture amongst educators throughout their career. The 1997 educational initiative Thinking Schools, Learning Nation has helped to push this movement. This article will explore quality measures that are currently being applied to special education in Singapore, in an effort to create a more inclusive society. Until the last decade, special education in Singapore was often overlooked. This article will explore Special Education in Singapore, and will offer further recommendations for developing a more inclusive education system.

History of Special Education

Special education services in Singapore began in 1947 with volunteer groups offering classes for children with leprosy (Quah, 1993 in Lim & Nam, 2000). Since then, voluntary associations have been the mobilizing force in providing educational opportunities for children with a variety of disabilities (Lim & Nam, 2000). This beginning led to the tripartite system that today governs special education in Singapore, a careful balance between voluntary welfare organizations (VWOs) that run the special schools, and the Ministry of Education and the National Council of Social Services, which fund the schools. In the 1970s, education for students with sensory, physical, and intellectual disabilities was established.  In the 1980s and 1990s, other new schools were created for students with autism spectrum disorders or multiple disabilities (Poon et al, 2013). As more schools opened to cater to students with varied needs, a dual system of education emerged: mainstream schools and special education schools (SPED).

This non-inclusive system for governing special education was further influenced as a result of a culture of school branding, or ratings based on performance. Students take a Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) at the end of 6th grade. The result of the examination helps place the students in different ability bands, or tracks, in order to ensure their success in secondary education. As a result of the added pressure placed on quality control through standardized testing, many students with mild disabilities are not mainstreamed in the regular education system. Like Singapore, among other developed nations around the world, there is also growing awareness of students with special needs attending mainstream schools, often undiagnosed and labeled as unmotivated or lazy students. The MOE estimates that 5% of Singapore’s student population is comprised of children with learning disabilities (Tam et al, 2006).

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s vision for an inclusive Singaporean society, which he described in his inaugural speech in 2004, has influenced educational reform efforts to provide a more inclusive environment for students with disabilities.

“Every society has some members with disabilities. How the society treats the disabled, takes care of them, and helps them integrate into the mainstream, reflects the kind of society it is. We want ours to be a society that cares for all its members; one that does not ignore the needs of those who are born or afflicted with disabilities” (Cited in NIE, 2013).

Mainstream Education

In response to the increasing number of at-risk students in mainstream education, various measures have taken place to provide necessary support. One of those includes the staffing of learning support coordinators for math and reading literacy at primary schools. Additionally, the MOE Training in Special Needs policy initiative of 2004, requires 10% of all primary and 20% of all secondary school teachers to have received professional development training to support students with disabilities within their classroom. These teachers serve as valuable resources for their schools. In 2005, a learning and behavior specialist was appointed to all primary schools accommodating students through “in-class support, pullout support, or indirect support via collaboration with teachers” (Poon et all, 2013, p.3). Furthermore, increasingly more mainstream schools are being updated with the proper infrastructure to support students with visual and hearing impairment, along with other physical disabilities (Poon et al, 2013).



“There is recognition now that children with special needs do exist in mainstream school settings.” – Kenneth Poon, Centre for Research in Pedagogy and Practice
(courtesy http://singteach.nie.edu.sg/issue41-bigidea/)


Special Education

From 2005 to 2008, the MOE allocated $55 million per year to improve education for children with disabilities, both mainstream and SPED schools (Tam et al, 2006). There are twenty different SPED schools in Singapore that cater to students from mild to severe disorders. The mission of SPED schools is “to provide the best possible education and training to children with special needs so as to enable them to function optimally and integrate well into society” (MOE, 2013). Each school serves students with different needs, and they are categorized according to these needs. Nine schools cater to students with autism spectrum disorders, three for the hearing impaired, eleven for students with intellectual disorders, three for those with multiple disabilities, one for visually impaired students, and one for students with cerebral palsy. Of these schools, three offer the mainstream curriculum, while the others have an alternative curriculum, which includes an Individualized Learning Plan, and emphasizes the development of life skills. Some common features of SPED schools are smaller class size ratios, a greater presence of teacher aides, specialized therapists to support students through varied services, and the equipment to support students’ specialized needs (Poon et al, 2013).

Since 2010, satellite programs have been implemented in special schools that are located close to mainstream schools. Students with the intellectual capacity may attend classes at both schools. These partnerships have been established in an effort to create greater social inclusion for these students. Alternative schooling is offered through the secondary level, but at any point, if students are able to pass the required benchmark assessments, such as the aforementioned PSLE, or have met other specified benchmarks, they are encouraged to join mainstream schools (Poon et al, 2013). If it is not feasible for the student to integrate into a mainstream school, transitional programs are offered through a collaboration between the MOE and the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF), providing SPED students with an opportunity to be specially trained to sufficiently enter the workforce (MOE, 2013).


Educational Pathways for Students with Special Needs

The NIE’s first special education teacher training was offered in 1984, leading to a Certificate in Special Education. This professional development opportunity was designed for teachers already teaching in the mainstream school system (Quah, 1993 in Lim & Nam, 2000).  In 1991, the Diploma in Special Education, a yearlong fulltime programme, was designed only for teachers already teaching in SPED schools. Previously, teachers wishing to further specialize in bachelor’s or master’s in this field had to purse degrees in special education programs abroad.

Teachers that work at the SPED schools that offer mainstream curriculum must earn a Specialist Diploma in Special Education or Specialist Post-graduate Diploma in Special Education. While a mainstream schoolteacher can transfer into a SPED school, the reverse does not hold true. Teachers in special schools do not have the required credentials to transfer into mainstream schools.  These teachers’ educational training differed to those of MOE teachers, as they are employed by the VWOs that run them. To further exacerbate differences, Heng & Tam (2006) claim, “special education is low on the teacher education hierarchy. It is also low in status within many higher education programs” (p.151). This lack of training can hinder instructional capabilities, as studies have shown that special education teachers’ knowledge and integration of assistive technology in the classroom, which is encouraged under the MOE’s Third ICT Masterplan, is limited, thus also impeding students’ learning (Wong & Cohen, 2011).

In recent years, there has been a movement to embed core classes that train pre-service teachers to use a variety of approaches to support and accommodate the needs of diverse learners.  In the past, these classes were taken for elective credit. The NIE also now offers a Master’s of Education with a specialization in Special Education (Poon et al, 2013).


Although Singapore has gained recognition for its successful education system, the Ministry of Education knows that further efforts could be made to improve educational quality and access for all Singaporeans. While advancements are being made in providing support for students with disabilities within mainstream schools, there are still many more changes that can be made to break down the barriers created by a dual education system. The incorporation of greater professional development opportunities for mainstream teachers and the revamping of pre-service teacher education programs are steps that can be taken to help educators develop the skills they need to differentiate instruction to create a more inclusive classroom environment. Improvements must also be made in the training of SPED teachers. Beyond teacher education, the employment of a comprehensive system for identifying learning disabilities at early stages, allocation of resources to aide in this process, and supportive services for developing further opportunities for students in mainstream education are also needed. Singapore could learn from comparative educational studies of other countries, such as the United States, who have made great efforts in mainstreaming students with disabilities. The government has made a commitment to create a more inclusive society, but advocacy efforts and policy recommendations from parents, teachers, or community organizations could instill greater success in government efforts to develop better quality education for all.



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