Help for those living in a world of their own

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 June, 2007, 12:00am

Special needs (SN) education provision continues to be a contentious issue in Hong Kong. Generally parents and educators agree that provision is steadily growing but many believe it is still not a priority in Hong Kong schools. However, there have been some notable developments over the past year.

The Springboard Project (hosted at the Korean International School) for mild to moderate learning difficulties has expanded to cater for the secondary age range. Its new 'middle class' programme has six secondary students working with one teacher and two assistants. The primary class has 10 children.

The Rainbow Project, linked to the Hong Kong Academy Primary School, is about to open a resource centre as a service to autistic people in the community. This would include occupational and speech therapists and tutorials for teachers and parents. Plans to open a third classroom are also in the pipeline.

The Children's Institute for autistic children, founded and run by Jill Samelson, has moved to The Harbour School in Kennedy Town. It was registered as an international school in January and is a huge new space with incredible facilities. The increase to three classes has allowed a more integrated setting where children can work in the mainstream alongside their typically developing peers.

'The philosophy behind the school is taking what's great about special education - tailor-made education for each individual - then helping children to expand their strengths and develop their weaknesses so they can also become strengths,' Ms Samelson said. 'We do this by having small classes and a high teacher-student ratio.

'Full mainstream may not be appropriate for some children, but being located within an international school gives the opportunity for partial mainstreaming.'

The English Schools Foundation (ESF) continues to be the main provider of primary and secondary support for a wide range of special needs. It has significantly expanded its provision by opening three more learning support classes located at Quarry Bay, The Peak and Clearwater Bay schools, with the bulk of the funding coming from the Education and Manpower Bureau (EMB).

With the already established Bradbury School class this has increased provision from 56 to 77 places for primary aged children. These classes are for moderate to severe learning difficulties and give children an ideal mix of specialist support and integration in mainstream classes.

There is still a huge waiting list for places. Parents need to be clear that the application process is different to mainstream schools; allocation of places goes through the central admissions and review panel.

The ESF Jockey Club Sarah Roe School caters for the most seriously disadvantaged. The foundation is working on recommendations from the major special needs review last year, including training for mainstream teachers to upgrade their skills in assisting and coping with special needs children. It has also increased training for teachers to focus on gifted children.

The over-identification of students with learning difficulties in mainstream schools pinpointed by the review has led to a change in the policy framework. Through specialist action research projects linked to the Hong Kong Institute of Education, the ESF is looking at ways to structure classes for a more inclusive approach.

'We are developing towards a more inclusive model,' said ESF special needs adviser John Barker. 'We are looking at using special educational needs co-ordinators to work more as consultants, working alongside mainstream teachers and narrowing down the children being withdrawn in small groups to the children who really need it.' This includes those students with academic or attention difficulties such as ADHD. An education psychology service continues to be free for parents.

Other international schools vary enormously. Some have very little provision and special needs children are sometimes encouraged politely to go elsewhere. However, others are realising the importance of providing support despite children being admitted according to academic ability. For example, Chinese International School has recently employed two primary special needs teachers, who work both in class and with small withdrawal groups.

The International Christian School offers a counselling service for students and has added a certified full-time special needs teacher to their secondary sector. They have a model of inclusion where the specialist plans and works with mainstream teachers. Children with difficulties are expected to cover the whole curriculum but are allowed a certain level of 'accommodation' if appropriate, such as additional time for tests.

The school has also recently employed a school psychologist from the USA. Principal Ben Norton said: 'Future changes to policies and protocols will be based on his analysis of the current situation.'

Local school provision also varies. Subsidies from the government depend on the number of children identified as having special needs and their severity. Schools are required to write individual learning plans for students and the process is closely monitored by the EMB. There is usually a mixture of class support for less serious difficulties and some pull-out classes, particularly for the key subjects such as Chinese, English and maths. The EMB is trying to implement a special needs training programme for local teachers in issues such as dyslexia in Chinese.

The Watchdog Early Learning and Development Centre in Borrett Road and The Child Development Centre at The Peak continue to be excellent early intervention programmes for English-speaking children, but have only a small number of places for preschoolers.

The Hong Chi Association, an established charity, has 13 schools for students from age six to 18 with learning disabilities, with only a handful of English-speaking children. Classes are small and have a range of multi-sensory equipment. A state-of-the-art solar powered sensory path for those with serious difficulties has recently been installed at their Pinehill school near Tai Po - the first such project in Hong Kong.

Overall, parents with special needs children considering coming to Hong Kong would have to consider the move very carefully as places still cannot be guaranteed and waiting lists are long. Jill Samelson of The Children's Institute believes provision is improving: 'But there still needs to be more provision and it needs to be more diverse.'