TO staff and pupils alike Peter Mullen, head teacher of Holyrood

Secondary School in Glasgow, is ''The Big Man''. Appropriately he has

guided for 17 years the fortunes of Scotland's biggest school --

Loading article content

Holyrood has 2000 pupils and its roll would be much higher if it had the


His depute, Michael McGrath, recounts the story of The Big Man's

recent trip across the city to Garthamlock, accompanying one of

Holyrood's football teams. Local youths were patrolling with dogs of

varying size and ferocity. One approached Peter Mullen and asked, ''Is

it true you're the heidie of the biggest school in Scotland, big man?''

No doubt flattered that his nickname was known in unlikely places, he

replied, ''It is.''

''Fancy buying a fridge-freezer, then?''

Now he is about to retire at 60 and no fewer than nine serving heads

have applied to succeed The Big Man with the high profile and colourful

career. Yet Peter Mullen had lowly beginnings. Brought up in ''a

single-end in Cambuslang with an outside toilet'', he had

difficulty in gaining admittance

to Our Lady's High School in Motherwell.

''It was,'' he recalls, ''the only senior secondary in Lanarkshire

available to Roman Catholic boys. It set its own entrance exam and I got

in by the skin of my teeth. The rector lined us up and said, 'There will

be five classes. The following very intelligent boys will go into 1A.' I

got into 1E.''

1E or not, he fared well academically. An MA at Glasgow University in

1955 was followed in 1962 by an external BA Honours from London

University. In the meantime he had completed his National Service,

having first been turned down by the Royal Scots because he was colour

blind, and taken up a teaching post at St Patrick's High School in

Coatbridge under a renowned head teacher of the era, James Breen.

''That man taught me so much,'' he remembers gratefully. ''From him I

learned professional rigour -- the need for well-prepared lessons,

careful planning, a structured approach. He also taught me never to

confuse popularity with respect.''

Moving to St Margaret Mary's Secondary in Castlemilk in 1963 as

principal teacher of history, Peter Mullen was already acknowledged as

an innovative teacher, employing such devices as drama and role-playing.

''History has to come alive,'' he says. ''Pupils don't need to absorb

the entire body of knowledge. I knew I was right when a traditional

teacher said to me in disbelief, 'You mean, they don't need to know

about the Secret Treaty of Dover and the Constitutions of Clarendon?'.''

Tom Loughran, head teacher of Holy Cross High in Hamilton, endorses

this. ''Peter's credibility as a classroom teacher was exceptional,'' he

says. ''His in-service work with teachers won him wide respect. My young

sister nominated him as one of the best teachers she ever had. Can you

imagine enthusing a class of second-year girls with a lesson on the

Crimean War? That's what he did.''

Wider recognition came when he was invited to write the first

alternative O-grade history paper in 1969 and the Higher history paper

the following year. He was appointed head teacher of Bellarmine

Secondary in 1973, moving to the prestigious headship of Holyrood four

years later.

Important offices came his way. He chaired the board of governors of

Dunfermline College of Physical Education and the secondary committee of

the BBC Educational Broadcasting Council. The numerous other bodies on

which he has served include the Scottish central committees on social

subjects and PE, and the convocations of the universities of Strathclyde

and Stirling.

As a new head teacher 20 years ago he quickly entered the debate about

techniques of management. ''One day Her Majesty's Inspectors interviewed

me for five-and-a-half hours on my management style,'' he recalls. ''I

couldn't do it nowadays. Schools are too complex. Heads know the general

picture but on issues like budgeting I would have to bring in my senior


He feels it essential for head teachers to be ''visible and

peripatetic. When you are seen regularly about the school, it sets a

tone and gives staff confidence to go about their own business.''

Holyrood, he believes, is not too big. ''You need tight administrative

and procedural structures. The rules have to be clearly understood. You

must have good order and discipline which, in the words of Napoleon,

'precede liberty in historical sequence'. You must afford all your

pupils equality of worth and value.''

He considers himself fortunate in three respects. ''Doing something I

liked has helped me to reach the top of what Disraeli called 'my

particular greasy pole'. My wife Margaret and my four daughters have

given me stability in my home life. I have enjoyed values and a faith

which have always been my shelter.''

ALEX WALLACE, a former secondary head teacher who became Glasgow's

divisional education officer before retiring, rates him a highly

competent manager. ''Peter was always under pressure because of

tightness of accommodation and the demand for places,'' he says, ''yet

he maintained high standards and a wide curricular choice. He had a

talent for personal relations. There was no culture of fear in the

school, rather a family atmosphere to which pupils responded.''

Holyrood continues to be bombarded with placing requests.

''Interestingly they don't come primarily from academic high-flyers,''

says Peter Mullen. ''Applications from non-Catholic families,

particularly the Asian community, have grown apace. In addition, pupils

who are zoned to Annette Street, Victoria, and Pollokshields primary

schools live in our catchment area and can be admitted without placing


This has, he points out, an effect on Catholic children who want to

attend Holyrood. This session about 20 were refused admission by placing

request. ''I'm not opposed to the legislation,'' he insists, ''but I

would like to see a new criterion added -- is the request on behalf of a

Catholic child wanting to attend a Catholic school?''

He remains a passionate advocate of RC education, stressing that ''in

this secular world, Catholic schools have an honoured place in a

democratic pluralist society. Some people see them as socially divisive.

I respect their views -- why will they not respect mine? Catholicism

offers traditional Christian values. We present them to our young people

-- they take out of them what they will.''

Surely such a ''visible'' head teacher must have had his approach and

personality criticised at times? ''Of course,'' he admits. ''Some people

seem to think of me as a real hard bastard. If so, it's because of what

I learned from James Breen. And if some teachers have considered me a

big bully, why did they not apply to leave my school?''

Is he arrogant? For example, when Jim Wallace, leader of the Scottish

Liberal Democrats, spoke to the recent conference of the Association of

Catholic Head Teachers, the first question came from Peter Mullen. He

was followed by John Oates, head teacher of St Modan's High in Stirling,

who began ''I am going to introduce myself, unlike the previous

questioner, who assumes that everybody knows him.''

''It was said in humour,'' Peter Mullen maintains. ''John and I are

good friends. I'm not arrogant. I'm self-confident and at ease with

myself. My style is direct if you like me, confrontational if you


Does this confirm his reputation for a blunt attitude -- even, on

occasions, towards those in authority? ''I have only ever spoken my

mind, with no intention to cause personal offence. It's not my business

to give the powers that be an easy time. I once told them that a

regional policy was educationally unsound, ruinously expensive, and

couldn't be delivered. I was right.''

He has been told that he talks a good game and his attitude to staff

consultation has been questioned. ''The only time I took big decisions

on my own,'' he insists, ''was when I came here and abandoned single-sex

schools and streaming. Of course, cynics will say it just takes me

longer nowadays to get my own way.''

His brother Eddie, head teacher at the same St Patrick's High where

Peter started his career, reminisces that ''Big Peter's ability to

produce an apt quotation at will dates back to the rote learning of the

post-war years. For instance, when the pressures of the job get to him,

out come these lines from Milton's Lycidas:

Were it not better done, as others use,

To sport with Amaryllis in the shade,

Or with the tangles of Neaera's hair?

He is also tied into the music and environment of the Singing

Detective era. As a singer, his favourite party piece is Ramona,

followed by such intellectual offerings as The Rich Maharajah of


Peter Mullen praises many recent developments in education -- the

programme for five to 14 year olds, evaluation of teacher performance, a

professional approach to staff development, more informal staff-pupil

relationships. The report of the Howie Committee on upper secondary

education was ''a superb analysis'', the Scottish Office's response to

Howie -- Higher Still -- ''a skeleton of a document''.

The main danger now is that ''schools could lose their sense of

community. Developments such as opting-out and regarding parents as

customers risk losing sight of the school as a dynamic, organic entity

within its own community''. He quotes in support of this his brother

Eddie's phrase: ''We're not in the business of shelling peas.''

The parting advice of The Big Man is to his fellow professionals.

''The worst teachers are those who are frightened to say -- 'I'm just a

person like you'. The more you give of yourself to a child, the more you

get back.''