Professor John Howie

13th January 2012 at 00:00
A respected mathematician and author of a report on upper secondary education

Professor John Howie, renowned in education circles for his 1992 report on upper secondary education, has died in St Andrews aged 75.

Born in Chryston, North Lanarkshire, and educated at Robert Gordon's College, Aberdeen, he became regius professor at the University of St Andrews in 1970 at the age of 34 and gained an international reputation as a mathematician.

The radical elements in the Howie report included its advocacy of a "twin-track" approach: a three-year Scotbac programme, effectively an academic baccalaureate, and a two-year vocational Scotcert counterpart; group certificates; compulsory subjects in both programmes (notably maths and modern languages); and the inclusion of vocational options in both.

The report set out a trenchant analysis of the weakness of the prevailing arrangements: the ideal of curricular breadth was not reflected in most pupils' attainments; substantial numbers of S5-6 pupils obtained only one or two Highers or none at all; thousands of pupils failed to obtain marketable qualifications; the ablest pupils displayed less breadth of attainment than their European counterparts; Highers were too rushed and too difficult for many pupils; there were no coherent programmes of vocational education; and "an unnecessary academicvocational divide".

Howie based his analysis on evidence from statistics, research, inspection, foreign visits and the outcome of a consultation exercise.

He modelled the Scotbac model on Denmark, where excellent upper secondary education ran in parallel with high-quality vocational education which led to employment. The school programmes produced more time-on-task than Scottish equivalents (over S4-6), higher standards in key subjects; and reconciled breadth and depth of study.

The Howie report was initially received positively, but over time doubts grew and in the end it was not implemented. It was seen as too radical, too demanding for an educational community suffering from innovation fatigue. Some called it divisive; it would be expensive; it would pose a threat to the four-year honours degree.

John Howie was inevitably disappointed. He was realistic enough to know that acceptance was no foregone conclusion, but was doubtless hurt by the failure of some critics to grapple with the argument. There seemed almost a wilful misunderstanding of the committee's position on vocational education.

Unusually for a rejected report, its influence and that of its chairman survived. In effect he had issued a challenge to the Scottish system on such issues as the academicvocational education nexus and the comparability of Scottish pupil performance with that of their counterparts in (say) the Nordic countries. It is not clear that these challenges have been faced.

Donald Mack served as the Scottish Office Education Department's assessor to the Howie committee.

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