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The Big Man's parting shot

TO staff and pupils alike Peter Mullen, head teacher of Holyrood Secondary School in Glasgow, is ''The Big Man''.

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Appropriately he has guided for 17 years the fortunes of Scotland's biggest school -- Holyrood has 2000 pupils and its roll would be much higher if it had the space.

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 colleagues.''

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 requests.''

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 don't.''

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 Magador.''

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.''

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