Obituary: Professor John Howie, academic who helped reform Scottish education

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Born: 23 May, 1936, in Chryston, Lanarkshire. Died: 26 December, 2011, in St Andrews, Fife, aged 75.

AS A pioneering mathematician John Howie’s influence was global. As a man his personal legacy to generations of students, passed on through his own knowledge and his vision of a progressive secondary education system, was immeasurable.

He helped to found the branch of modern mathematics known as semigroup theory and, as author of the Howie Report into upper secondary education in Scotland, his radical ideas, though not adopted, included the essential principles that provided the motivation for later reform.

He had recommended a new, twin-pronged approach of academic and vocational education, fit for the 21st century, which would replace Highers with a Baccalaureate while offering vocational qualifications for less academically-gifted children who wanted to stay on after 16.

It proved too much of a departure and the ideas were rejected. But his balanced and thoughtful take on the difficult subject ultimately helped to shape secondary education in Scotland’s schools, providing a platform for the Higher Still initiative.

And his wide-ranging contribution to education as a lecturer, college governor, Dean of Faculty, external examiner and president of the Edinburgh Mathematical Society, saw him honoured as a CBE, followed by an honorary doctorate from the Open University.

His stellar career, which spanned more than four decades and as many continents, began after an education at Robert Gordon’s College in Aberdeen.

Though born in Lanarkshire he spent his early years in Banffshire after his parents, Church of Scotland minister David Howie and his wife Janet, moved to Keith before settling in the Granite City.

Howie, already displaying an impressive intellect and a desire to study either maths or physics, was Dux of his school in 1954. Four years later he graduated MA with first-class honours in mathematics and natural philosophy from Aberdeen University, having won the Simpson Prize and Rennet gold medal in maths and the Lyon Prize as the most distinguished arts graduate.

From there began a meteoric rise. He spent a year as an assistant in maths at Aberdeen University before going to Balliol College, Oxford, where he completed his doctorate with his thesis Some Problems in the Theory of Semigroups. The subject matter involved the study of irreversible operations and processes and formed the nucleus of his academic research.

He wrote the influential book, An Introduction to Semigroup Theory, in 1976, and it remains a classic text. In retirement he wrote a further three books and in total was the author of more than 70 research articles.

Having married Dorothy in Aberdeen in 1960 during his Oxford days, the couple moved to Glasgow in 1961 where he spent two years as an assistant, followed by a year at Tulane University in New Orleans, before becoming a lecturer in maths at Glasgow until 1967. That was the year he took the opportunity to become a founding member of staff, as a senior lecturer, at the University of Stirling.

In 1970 he was appointed regius professor of maths at St Andrews where he remained for the rest of his career, becoming Dean of the Faculty of Science in 1976 and emeritus professor on his retirement in 1997. During this period of his working life he became hugely influential in education in Scotland and the UK while also sharing his expertise worldwide.

Convener of the Scottish Examination Board’s mathematics panel from 1970, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1971 and president of the Edinburgh Mathematical Society in 1973, later serving twice as vice president of the London Mathematical Society.

He also sat on numerous committees, including the Dunning Committee, whose review of schools exams led to the introduction of Standard Grades, and was a external examiner for universities including those in Edinburgh, Glasgow, York and Belfast as well as abroad.

Among his other public duties was chairmanship of Dundee College of Education governors, the Scottish Mathematical Council and the International Centre for Mathematical Sciences’ steering group.

Yet he still managed to pursue outside interests most notably his passion for music.

He had played the piano as a child and began as a church organist at 16. Taught at St Ninian’s Church in Aberdeen, he later played in Glasgow before serving as organist and choir director at Hope Parish Church, St Andrews for more than 30 years.

An accomplished soloist, he was a base baritone and founder member and past president of the St Andrews Chorus. He also sang with the town’s University Renaissance Group and the St Rule Singers. He once admitted: “I am addicted to singing”, explaining that his repertoire varied from German Lieder to Victorian parlour songs to Noel Coward.

Honoured with a CBE for services to education in 1993, he retired four years later but continued to be an active mathematician, regarded as an outstanding educator and a man of great insight.

But superseding all of his accomplishments was his devotion to his family of whom he was immensely proud. Pre- deceased by his younger daughter Kathy, he is survived by Dorothy, his wife of more than 50 years, daughter Anne and granddaughters Catriona, Sarah, Karen and Fiona.