Howie Committee - proposals and reactions

The Howie Committee was set up in 1990 under the chairmanship of John Howie, Regius Professor of Mathematics at the University of St Andrews. The remit of the Committee was to review the aims of assessment and certification of upper secondary education in Scotland and to recommend proposals which would best allow these aims to be met. Although the system of assessment in Scottish secondary schools had been modified over the years, nevertheless it remained basically the Scottish Leaving Certificate which had been put in place in 1888 largely in a form recommended by George Chrystal. By coincidence, George Chrystal had also been Regius Professor of Mathematics at the University of St Andrews, holding this position in 1877-79, although he had moved to Edinburgh before undertaking the feasibility study for the Scottish Leaving Certificate. There were two levels of examinations, originally called Highers and Lowers, but although the name Highers had been retained, Lowers had been renamed Standard Grade around 1960.

The Howie Committee undertook a though investigation of the problem by seeking submissions from 120 organisations and from a smaller number of individuals. They visited twelve secondary schools and, because they were interested in the transition between secondary and tertiary education, they also visited two universities and four higher education colleges. In an effort to learn about the best practices in education in other countries, the Committee made visits to educational establishments in France, Germany and Denmark. All three of these countries had, Howie believed, school systems superior to that in Scotland but his favourite was the Danish system. In these countries pupils took examinations of a higher standard than the Scottish Highers, and the claim that the Scottish system excelled because of its breadth simply didn't hold good - the average number of Higher passes achieved by Scottish fifth year pupils was less than two. Howie saw many serious problems in the existing Scottish system and, even while the Committee was considering the position, he said:-

It is hard to resist the conclusion that the experience for fifth year pupils at the bottom of the pile is an experience of failure, humiliation and frustration. It says a great deal for their determination and for the ambitions of their parents that they come at all.

When the Howie Committee's report Upper Secondary Education in Scotland was published on 5 March 1992 it had strong words of criticism for system then in operation:-

While the Scottish system prides itself on curricular breadth, this is not reflected in actual student attainments. Substantial numbers of S5/6 pupils obtain only one or two Highers or none at all. Many thousands leave school without marketable qualifications. Even the more able pupils display less breadth of attainment than their European counterparts. There are few opportunities for study in depth. The Higher courses are too rushed and represent too steep an incline of difficulty when superimposed on Standard Grade. Many students do not develop effective learning and study skills and are ill-prepared for higher education. Coherent programmes of vocational education are not generally available in S5 and S6. Vocational education still suffers from a lack of esteem and there is an unnecessary academic-vocational divide. Overall, the arrangements are excessively flexible, leading to arbitrary choices preventing coherent course planning and causing an inefficient use of resources. We conclude that, when measured against the characteristics which high quality upper school secondary education should display, our system is seriously wanting in many respects. ... The Higher Grade has had an unbroken and distinguished history since its introduction in 1888, but the changes which have occurred around it have thrown into relief a number of its features which need to be examined.

The Committee saw the way forward as requiring radical reform rather than modifying the existing system with minor tinkering. It proposed setting up two new qualifications, the Scottish Certificate (SCOTCERT) and the Scottish Baccalaureate (SCOTBAC). The reaction to the report led John Howie to believe that the choice of the name 'Baccalaureate' was the greatest mistake that the Committee made. It suggested to many people who looked at the report without fully thinking through its findings, that what was being proposed was 'foreign' and not genuine 'Scottish education'. Another reason that the report received much less consideration than it deserved was that the Committee, realising that although they had only been given a remit to make proposals for two years (years 5 and 6 of secondary school), only a 3-year course would meet their aims. They therefore went beyond their remit and made proposals for all six years of secondary school. Let us look briefly at what the Howie Committee proposed.

The Howie report stated that, beginning in year 4, "instead of a haphazard conglomeration of subjects and modules" pupils needed "clear educational pathways" which would give everyone "the opportunity to undertake a coherent programme of study which matches his or her interests and aspirations, is capable of successful completion given appropriate effort, and leads to a range of desired destinations in terms of employment or progression to further or higher education." These would be met with two paths, one leading to the SCOTCERT qualification consisting of vocationally-oriented courses, the other leading to the more academically-oriented SCOTBAC qualification. The two paths would be rather different in their approach. For the SCOTCERT qualification, there would be a wide selection of modules. There would also be modules to test that the pupils could make practical use the variety of skills and knowledge being taught. The SCOTBAC qualification would not use a modular approach since the Committee believed that allowing pupils to build their own courses from modules in academic subjects led to "fragmentation and trivialisation of learning". Instead there would be "systematic grouping of subjects with a set menu rather than the offering of an undifferentiated cafeteria-like provision."

John Howie believed that the Howie Committee's proposals would lead to:-

... a new, stable, unified system of academic and vocational education which will meet the needs of the twenty-first century. Pupils, parents, employers, colleges and universities will all benefit. Without such radical reforms Scottish education will experience a prolongation of piecemeal reform, experimentation and short-lived vocational training programmes.

Although the Howie Committee's criticisms of the existing system were largely accepted, nobody seemed interested in the Committee's proposed new system. In March 1994 the government published its booklet Higher Still, opportunity for all. Of course 'Higher Still' had a double meaning - Scotland retains the Highers, there will be no Baccalaureate! The document set out what its authors believed was a way of addressing the problems identified by the Howie Committee without radical reforms. The 'Higher Still' option was implemented and it is a matter of opinion as to how successful it has been in addressing the very real problems identified by the Howie Committee.


JOC/EFR January 2012

The URL of this page is:
http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Extras/Howie_comm.html