When it comes to tackling issues of special needs education, Chan Chun Sing has a ‘special weapon’

Minister for Education Chan Chun Sing paid tribute to Second Permanent Secretary (Education) Ms Lim Wan Yong in Parliament, calling her his  “secret weapon” when it comes to managing special needs education (SPED) in Singapore. 

Speaking to members of Parliament on Tuesday (13 September), he laid out how the Ministry of Education (MOE) and Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) work jointly to oversee the SPED industry.

Enter Ms Lim, who is also Second Permanent Secretary (Social and Family Development). 

Minister Chan said:

“I’ve personally asked her to oversee the continuum to work out the models required to support our SPED community in terms of infrastructure, in terms of manpower.”

Ms Lim, said the minister, is his secret weapon to make sure that “nothing falls through the cracks”. She is Second Permanent Secretary (Education) since 2021 and took on the additional portfolio at MSF in February this year.

But more than just joint oversight between ministries to set up the right infrastructure for a thriving and effective SPED system, Chan pointed out that manpower issues remain the most pressing and biggest challenge. 

Currently, SPED teachers are not directly employed by MOE as social service agencies have autonomy in recruitment. The 22 SPED schools in Singapore are led by 12 social service agencies.

Nominated Member of Parliament Dr Shahira Abdullah asked whether the Government would consider having all SPED school teachers to be employed under MOE so that they can receive the benefits of being an MOE teacher. 

Minister Chan, in response, said MOE is prepared to work with social service agencies and the community to explore different models for SPED schools.

While MOE and MSF have plans to increase the number of SPED schools in Singapore, hiring and retaining local staff remains an issue, due in part to the unique nature of special needs education. 

He said, in response to a supplementary question from MP Ms Carrie Tan (Nee Soon):

“In planning for SPED schools, the manpower needs are not as straightforward as a conventional school because in a conventional school, the needs are perhaps more homogeneous. Whereas in a SPED school, different SPED children have different needs and different types of needs…[with]…different degrees of severity.” 

However, Chan added, the government wants more locals to join the SPED sector, forming a significant core of Singaporeans so that “we can take care of our own people, especially the vulnerable even amidst possible disruptions in the manpower supply”.

Acknowledging that there are “pain points” that hinder the recruitment of staff in the SPED sector, such as the emotional toll on caregivers and staff, Chan said that the education ministry tries to recruit enough SPED staff to create a buffer for staff to go on training or breaks. 

But more importantly, aside from SPED schooling, Chan noted that the “biggest gap” at the moment is planning for the journey of special needs students after they reach 18, as they transit from the school system to adulthood.

According to Chan, planning for this transition is paramount so that Singapore can “better support the SPED community, including the caregivers who are always worried what will happen to their special needs children when they are no longer around”.