Fixing loopholes in special needs student policies

November 05, 2018 11:53
Among the new initiatives related to special needs students, Hong Kong government has proposed to revamp the existing three subsidization modes for schools. Photo: CNSA

The 2018 Policy Address, delivered by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor last month, devoted quite a lot of pages on how the government aims to improve its integrated education policy, and enhance support for school children with special education needs, or SEN students, and related stakeholders.

Among the new initiatives, the administration has proposed to revamp the existing three subsidization modes for schools, namely the Learning Support Grant (LSG), the Intensive Remedial Teaching Programme (the so-called enhanced classes) in Primary Schools, as well as the Integrated Education Programme.

To a considerable extent, I would say that the general direction of these new policy initiatives has lived up to the expectations of the various stakeholders.

As far as restructuring the support model for SEN students is concerned, the Policy Address has vowed to provide schools with additional manpower to take care of SEN students.

In the meantime, the amount of learning support grant for tier-3 support will be increased from the current HK$28,000 to HK$60,000, and the amount will be granted according to the number of SEN students.

Under the current mechanism, the “3-Tier Support Model” is adopted by the Education Bureau (EDB) when it comes to providing support for SEN students:

Tier-1 support refers to “quality teaching in the regular classroom” for students having “transient or mild learning difficulties”; Tier-2 support refers to “‘add-on’ intervention for students assessed to have persistent learning difficulties”, while Tier-3 support refers to “intensive individualized support for students with severe learning difficulties and SEN”.

Nevertheless, once the accumulated amount of learning support grant which a school has received reaches HK$600,000, it will have to deduct HK$360,000 from the grant in order to stay eligible for the allocation of extra teachers.

Besides, the annual total of the learning support grant for SEN students received by each school is still subject to a cap.

In other words, due to the mandatory deduction and the annual cap, schools will be forced to spend a significant portion of their learning support grant for SEN students on hiring teachers, thereby severely restricting the areas of application and flexibility of the grant.

The cap imposed by the government on the support grant would cut down resources for not only each SEN student but also those schools which excel in the area of integrated education.

At present, schools have to formulate individualized learning programs for tier-3 SEN students. And the power to decide which tier a particular SEN student should fall into rests entirely with schools.

However, due to various limitations, many students who should have been categorized as tier-3, i.e. those suffering from severe learning difficulties and SEN, have actually been classified as tier-2 instead, i.e. those having persistent learning difficulties.

The number of students in different SEN support tiers cannot be changed and thus it wouldn’t make much difference to the overall support to the situation of SEN students, even if the government is substantially increasing the amount of financial support for tier-3 SEN students.

In order to address the issue, I believe the EDB should abolish the cap on LSG as soon as possible.

Also, it should formulate a clear set of guidelines and criteria for assessing and classifying SEN students under the 3-Tier Support Mode so as to allow frontline teachers to evaluate the severity of their students’ learning difficulties more accurately.

In particular, classification of SEN students should be based on the degree of their actual learning disabilities rather than their academic performance.

And in the long run, the EDB should establish a mechanism under which only designated school staffers would have the power to decide which tier a SEN student should fall into.

The Bureau should also provide more training and support for teachers and other frontline staff to help them get a better grasp of the 3-tier system in order to ensure that no SEN student would ever fall into the wrong tier due to inaccurate assessment.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov 1

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Legco member representing the Legal functional constituency (2016-2020) and a founding member of Civic Party