Every system of this kind has to have some kind of justification, to make it intelligible and acceptable to people generally and to parents with children in the schools in particular. This was provided, at that time, by the theory of 'intelligence', it will be enough, therefore, to remind ourselves here that it was the received view that children are born with a given amount of 'intelligence', inherited from their parents; that this endowment is fixed and unchangeable (whatever their educational or life experiences) and that it is easily and accurately measured by an intelligence test. Tests of this kind formed the main component of the selective examination at eleven-plus. Early streaming and later 'selection' for different types of secondary school were, therefore, claimed to be not only scientifically based, but also fair and just. These procedures, it was further argued, were actually in the best interests of the children, since they ensured that in all cases the level of education provided was 'appropriate' to each individual child's level of intelligence.
While the old class teaching method may still occasionally be used it is certainly no longer the main approach. Far greater reliance is now placed on group, and in particular individual, work techniques which bring their own problems, but problems of a new kind. Again, abolition of the eleven-plus has relieved teachers of the need to concentrate their main endeavors more or less exclusively on the restricted syllabus this imposed. New areas of activity and of learning have entered the junior school: science, a modern language, music, drama, artistic and other creative activities, while the teaching of the 'basic' subjects, language and number, has been put on a new basis and greatly broadened in scope and in educational value. Nor is there any evidence that these new approaches have reduced standards of attainment; they have certainly broadened them while, under the old conditions, satisfactory levels of literacy were far from universal.
To enter a well-organized but reasonably typical junior school classroom today can be an impressive experience. The children are in groups arranged informally around the classroom, often engaged in different individual activities or projects; articulate (if asked) in explaining the tasks for which they now take a clear responsibility themselves. A certain amount of quiet talk goes on between those engaged in group work, as well as some movement about the classroom in search of materials needed. The teacher may be at her desk with a group of pupils, or circulating unobtrusively among the class monitoring activities, helping one child, encouraging another, perhaps reproving someone as occasion may demand. His main concern, it seems, is not to maintain a level of equilibrium, including usually some degree of talk and movement a 'busy hum' which betokens to his expert eye and ear that all is well, that the conditions for learning are being maintained.
There has clearly been a considerable change, one, most people would agree, very much for the better. What are the educational reasons for this? Why has it come about?
The shift to new approaches and new methods is based fundamentally on a new understanding of the nature of child development and of learning. Of course there are contributory reasons, notably improved conditions in the schools, smaller classes, more space in new buildings, while the abolition of the selection examination at eleven has been quite crucial in freeing primary schools from the practice of fitting children into the 'crystallized structure' of a divided school system. All this has allowed teachers to begin to put into practice forms of teaching and learning, of classroom organization, according at last with modern knowledge about the nature of child development.
Here the key point has been the rejection - by teachers, psychologists, administrators - of the theory and practice which legitimated the old system, intelligence testing.
None the less there are problems, both theoretical and practical, which need consideration.
First, there is theoretical confusion about the nature and process of education and of child development and this naturally affects practice. An extreme view is based on the theories originally elaborated by Friedrich Froebel, the brilliant German teacher and educator of the last century whose ideas greatly influenced infant schools and, through them, the junior schools of today. Put briefly, it is held that the child inner potentialities and abilities develop spontaneously, on their own, given a rich environment; that they unfold, as it were, like a flower and that any interference by the teacher in this process is likely to damage 'natural' growth. Children should be left to develop independently, choose their own activities quite freely, above all should not be guided, let alone pressurized, in any way or in any particular direction.
On the other hand modem study of the learning process in children, of the way they use language and form concepts, indicate how important it is to intellectual development that children should go through certain experiences, or engage in forms of activity in a systematic way, if the key concepts are to be acquired. In early education the most important aspects are language and number, both symbolic systems underlying conceptual forms, or ways of thinking. But these are not acquired by mere drilling in mental arithmetic, or spelling, or by mere concentration on reading, although this is a skill of key importance. So also is talking, which may be much more conducive to a grasp of language in such a way that it contributes to developing thought. This is why the junior allow for the development of specific skills and abilities within the framework of covering wide areas of experience and knowledge.