Our Achievements So Far
In the last three decades, the impact of the APSN on its students and society has been noticeable. Through consistent efforts at public education, at both government and societal levels, the students’ education is now better funded by the government. Greater awareness of its work also means that mainstream schools now refer children to the APSN. Children who need a slower pace of learning, and would otherwise have been left behind in the mainstream education system, can now have their needs met.
Because of the Association’s advocacy, its students are also more active in the employment scene.
Cultivating Support and Acceptance
Changing public mindset takes years, and the APSN’s public education and advocacy work with the general public, the government and potential employers allow its pupils to find a place in society where there was none before.
“Years ago you would not see our special children in public. These days, I am very happy to see that the public is accepting our children. They seldom receive glares from the public. The parents too have helped by taking them out instead of hiding them at home,” says Mr M.K. Wong, psychologist and a founder of the APSN.
The Association also made a crucial point with the MOE and the general public in 1978, in the naming of its schools. It was given a name with which students could view themselves with greater pride, even when they had intellectual disabilities. At that time, all the special schools were called “so-and-so school for retarded children”, “school for the deaf”, “school for the blind”, etc. The Association instead suggested Katong Special School. It explained that because it wanted students to go out and work, the chances of employment would surely be lower if potential employers saw that the applicant came from a school for ‘retarded children’.
Official Recognition and Funding
The government has become much more supportive towards the APSN’s pupils, mainly due to the Association’s success in educating students and the committee members’ steadfast advocacy. Now more than ever, the APSN is seen as a credible organisation in the area of special needs education.
While the APSN schools are still considered private schools and not directly under the charge of the MOE, it is now perceived a necessary and important part of Singapore education.
“Because we have grown, the MOE, the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports and the National Council of Social Services (NCSS) have come to work more closely with us,” observes Mr Tan Ju Seng. “The MOE and its mainstream schools are the frontline and can refer special needs cases that otherwise would have gone without help.” Government agencies have helped to publicise the work of the APSN and raise its profile among schools and social agencies so that cases can be referred.
Funding from the NCSS since 1984 was also an important milestone, an official recognition of the APSN’s work. “Fundraising at one time was a major activity, taking away time and resources for what our real work was about — educating the students,” says Mr Tan.
Funding from NCSS freed the APSN to concentrate its energies on providing improved education to its students and paying teachers fairer salaries. It also meant that the APSN could offer a wider range of services to students, including occupational therapy, music therapy and job placement services.
This was a far cry from its early years in the 1970s, when funds came from fees paid by parents, projects of companies’ service clubs or fundraising dinners. Salaries for teachers were meagre then.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, the general impression was that the Association’s work yields little returns. The funding received from the NCSS showed a more enlightened stance towards special needs children that the Association was advocating.
The Association was able to show that funding education in special schools is cost-effective. Even if the students not earn a lot of money, they are self-sufficient and do not drain the family’s income and the country’s welfare resources.
Another issue that the APSN addressed was that the MOE had no formula for calculating the costs of educating special needs children. The APSN had to provide a scheme that accurately reflected these costs. With this, the MOE could then allocate funds to the APSN through the NCSS. And by the 1980s, the MOE was also providing the Association with some trained teachers.
Today, 71.5% of the APSN’s schools recurrent expenses are generously provided by the MOE.
Visit any APSN classroom today and you will find that chaos no longer reigns. The teachers are more confident and have better skills at their disposal to manage and teach special needs children.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, the Association and its benefactors did what they could to prepare teachers for the more demanding work in special education. A few teachers were sent to Australia or New Zealand on attachment to enhance their expertise. The APSN also took every opportunity to organise and engage in talks with visiting special educationists.
Mrs Liza Ow, a principal with Tanglin School remembers starting out as a teacher in 1990 by understudying more experienced teachers for the first 3 months before embarking on a part-time teachers’ training programme at NIE in special education. There was a great sense of camaraderie among staff: sharing teaching materials, teaching techniques and strategies with one another in a small multipurpose room, the only place for teachers to fellowship.
Through its direct efforts, the Association persuaded the National Institute of Education (NIE) to run a diploma programme for special education teachers, with its first class of teachers graduating from the three-year programme in 1987.
Dr Dixie Tan explained, “We were growing all the time, but we didn’t have enough trained teachers from the MOE; we were employing our own who had no training whatsoever. So we went and begged the Institute of Education at the time. The director Dr Sim kept saying he didn’t have extra resources to start a new course. We gave him no peace, asking to see him endlessly, and finally he was kind enough to mobilise his existing resources.” Dr Sim managed to start a course, the Diploma in Special Education, which is still being given out today.”
Today, trainee teachers spend half a day receiving training at NIE and the other half of the day gaining practical teaching experience at the school.
Children with learning difficulties follow similar developmental stages as ordinary children, albeit with some delays and lower levels of achievement. Teachers and psychologists often need to find learning situations and activities that both challenge and support the children emotionally and academically.
With improvements in teaching standards and a deeper understanding of what it means to provide functional education and life skills, the curriculum at the APSN has also made dramatic and beneficial shifts. As the children grew, the curriculum grew with them.
Since 1981, the school began to provide vocational training, where pupils are individually assessed and matched to jobs that are suited to their abilities. They are then trained for those specific skills, including social and behavioural skills needed for them to integrate into the workplace. More recently, pupils have been trained for jobs in hairdressing salons, food and beverage outlets, hotels, gardening, air- conditioning unit maintenance and professional cleaning.
And as of 1982, child-centred learning came into force at the AESN schools. This approach is particularly suited to special needs children, with their differing learning abilities. The curriculum would be developed based on the realistic needs of the child rather than trying to impose an existing curriculum on the child. In this approach, children could learn by discovery and bring his or her experiences into the learning.
Five years later, in 1987, learning by discovery would be reinforced through the introduction of thematic learning. This enabled teaching and learning to be more coherent, by connecting lessons much more closely with student’s life experiences. For instance, when students work on the theme of clothes, Mathematics and English lessons will be geared towards that topic. And this can also help open discussions with students, such as what it means to be modestly dressed, so that learning in all areas reinforce one another.
In recent years, staff from the different APSN schools has been actively involved in the process of setting clear strategic directions to better equip pour students to lead independent and meaningful lives.
Delta Senior School has been leading the way by taking the process of learning beyond the classroom. Rather than complain about space constraints within the school, classes were conducted outside. Students took their learning into the community or created simulated environments within the school, so that English, Mathematics and life skills are used in true-to-life situations. Senior students who have been trained in home care skills learn to engage with society at large through community service. They visit the homes of the elderly nearby to clean their flats and also to socialise with them.
Delta Senior School has also become more involved with employers, by making arrangements for would-be employers to host students on-site while they learn hairdressing or other skills. In other instances, students who learnt to service air-conditioning units put their skills to the test in the homes of the Association’s staff, at the same time to raise funds for charity.
Priorities too have changed about what is important for children to learn in terms of literacy. For example, learning the alphabet was once considered crucial. “But how is reading A to Z going to help a child at the MRT station?” reasons Mrs Ow. “If the child can read the letters but not the signs, that defeats the purpose of leading an independent life. So instead, they can learn the shape of the word. If they are going to Newton, at least they can recognise the shape of the word ‘Newton’”.
To practice the English and Mathematics learnt at school, students also visit the supermarket to buy ingredients that they have budgeted and calculated for and return to kitchens in the school to learn how to measure and weigh ingredients and prepare meals.
Higher-functioning students are encouraged to continue with national certification programmes such as BEST. Those that perform well academically have opportunities to take ‘N’ level examinations.
Greater Employment Opportunities
Improved funding and public perception has meant that students have found greater acceptance among employers. “We have created every opportunity to interact with employers,” declares Mr Tan Ju Seng. Currently, the APSN has employment officers to liaise between employers and students, so that employers’ expectations are met and students have a smoother transition between school and work life.
More than ten years ago, when the Association first started courting employers, teachers also acted as liaison between the companies and the students. However, as of 2004, Delta has two full-time employer liaison officers who fulfill that role.
“Employers thought that they were doing charity work when they employed our students. But they later realised that they were getting value for money. They were employing our students for what they could do rather than for what they were. This was a gradual process,” observes Mr Tan Ju Seng. “We pushed very hard for employers to give our students opportunities. That meant doing everything to court them. It meant trying to get them to see our programmes, showcasing our students and trying to overcome their mindsets about the abilities. We got placement officers to work hand in hand with employers. We invested time and resources to give employers confidence in our pupils,” he adds.
One important area where special children have stretched themselves and enjoyed public support has been sports.
Sports is another area for the children to develop themselves, enhancing their motor and social skills and improving their health. It first began as a recreational and social event for the children.
The Special Olympics Singapore was also formed by the APSN and Movement for the Intellectually Disabled, who are the charter members. The year 1989 marked the first Singapore Special Olympics, with a torch run from Chao Yang Special School, through Scotts Road, Whitley Road, Bukit Timah that ended at Ngee Ann Polytechnic. Funds to send participants to the world games once every four years are raised through flag days.
Membership with the Singapore Disability Sport Council also allows students to be talent spotted for other competitions, such as the Paralympics. APSN teachers are often involved with identifying students with sporting abilities that can be nurtured.
The APSN and its pupils have come a long way. They now enjoy more services, public acceptance, employer support and funding than ever before. Every hard-won victory is precious because of the impact on the Association’s students on society. This is the foundation of our dreams for our children’s futures.