The lunch bell has sounded at Tanbridge House secondary school, and headteacher Jules White is brandishing a five-foot catapult in the doorway of his office.
Teamed with his blue M&S suit, burgundy tie and black square specs, it’s an apt look for a man known as the rebel headmaster.
Rather than an unorthodox discipline measure, though, the stick belongs to a pupil with Asperger Syndrome who whittled it from a tree branch: one of the more unusual items confiscated from the 1,600-strong pupil population of this large comprehensive school in Horsham, West Sussex.
Headteacher here since January 2008, White, 51, has been teaching for 25 years. But it was only four years ago that he began to make a name for himself as more than a quietly competent local head.
While driving home from school one Friday evening at around 6pm in 2015, White heard a local radio interview with a government figure insisting schools were receiving “more money than ever before” – a line still parroted by the Department for Education today.
“It had been a really tough day, we were really up against it financially, and I was thinking headship had never felt so hard,” he recalls over a cup of tea at the boardroom table in his office, which looks out onto a wooded area beyond the school grounds.
“Days were feeling longer and longer, we were below the breadline, we were doing more social care for our pupils, and without the money to pay for counsellors it was hand to mouth.”
White was so exercised he called the station. The following Monday he was on air, revealing the budget pressures his school was under – despite being rated “Outstanding”.
From that moment, White banded together with other secondary school heads in West Sussex – then the fourth-worst funded area in England for education – to take action.
Their first move was to send a joint open letter to a local paper, warning of “potentially catastrophic” funding pressures.
“It was like we were signing off the Treaty of Versailles,” he laughs. “Let’s change this comma here, and this semi-colon there. Just send the bloody letter!”
When they clicked send, the Worth Less? campaign against school cuts was born.
It was a big moment. Headteachers are not the rebellious kind, preferring to preserve the reputation of their schools and focus on the demanding day job.
“As a breed, we are small-c conservatives. There’s this idea that we’re just those nice people with chalky fingernails and elbow patches – no, we run the engines of our economy,” says White.
“We are powerful because heads have never spoken out before. We’ve reached a point where we’ve got to effect some change; parents aren’t put off when I go on TV and say we only had one art teacher – they say ‘thanks for sticking up for us’.”
With spending per pupil down by 8 per cent in real terms since 2010, plus pressures from council services being cut by more than half in the same period, others are following his lead.
Worth Less? now has around 7,000 headteachers across nearly half of England’s local education authorities onside.
Its most recent mass letter earlier this month, warning parents about the funding crisis, reached 3.5 million families. White now gets invited to speak on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, and his campaign has opened up a resource of formerly media-shy headteachers for journalists to quiz.
He believes his campaign contributed to the former education secretary Justine Greening diverting £1.3bn to core school funding at Conservative party conference in 2017. This announcement followed Theresa May losing her majority at the snap election that June – partly, it came out afterwards, because school funding cuts rose up the political agenda.
Yet despite this attention, White wishes to remain “relentlessly reasonable” – a mantra that he repeats during our interview.
“We’re not going to be maverick,” he insists. “This isn’t just about having a random pop. We’re respectful and reasonable – we’re not saying everything is doom.”
White has never been a member of a political party, and Worth Less? is separate from other teaching pressure groups and unions. Even so, he finds that “people think I’m going to be this raving militant” before they meet him.
“The whole problem has been political involvement in education from both sides,” he tells me. “This is genuinely not about politics – it’s for better education policy-making… It’s not just about improving funding – it’s improving the system. Education has been absolutely hamstrung by ideological input.”
White includes the academy programme, a Blair-era move to take schools out of local authority control, as an example of ideology-driven education. “There are great academies and great maintained schools and weaker ones of both models too,” he says. “[But] the idea that all our issues will be solved by mass academisation is bollocks. Excellent schools all require the fundamentals of enough money, quality staff and leadership. No governance model will overcome the problems we are all facing.”
White himself scraped some average O Levels and A Levels at a secondary modern in Salisbury, near the village where he grew up. He never took the 11 Plus, an entrance exam to select for grammar schools, but said he “would have failed it”.
He went on to study Government & Politics at the University of Essex, trained as a teacher in Stoke, and taught all sorts of subjects at a variety of schools in outer London suburbia before moving down to Horsham at 39 to start a family.
Pictures of his daughters, now 16 and 18, as young children line his office noticeboard; his partner also teaches.
White has missed a lot of family time over the years to attend school plays, sports matches and “looking after other people’s kids”, he says.
While bounding around the school, he introduces me to pupils who in particular require a tailored approach to their learning. One boy who has been causing trouble in lessons works quietly on his English classwork at a solitary desk outside White’s office. Another, who has some learning and physical difficulties, tells him about a meeting with a local police officer, which White helped him set up to avoid getting into trouble.
Girls poring over books in “The Bridge”, a room off the library where pupils with behavioural problems are given more focused learning time, greet White when he walks in and hovers over their table. He is less confident when poking his nose into a Year 10 top set maths class on quadratic equations. “Would you like to solve some with us, sir?” the teacher grins. “I’ll take my leave,” says White. “Ah, you’re busy today.”
Tanbridge House pupils achieve well above average grades, but White is concerned about meeting the more pressing needs of some. He only has two specialist SEND (special educational needs and disability) teachers – half the number he requires – and 19 teaching assistants.
Around 22 of his children are on special care plans that legally oblige schools to give them extra help, which can include one-on-one support in the classroom. These are called Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs). Accessing these can require parents to fight, as they are provided by cash-strapped councils even as special needs diagnoses are rising.
Then there are domestic problems, mental health difficulties and other conditions that don’t qualify for special provision. “We are struggling to give kids with legal requirements the one-on-one support. And what about the others?” asks White.
“Everything is squeezed, and that’s a game-changer because of where we are with austerity. Welfare officers, social workers, mental health services, counsellors – it sometimes feels like they’re non-existent,” he says. “Schools are the safe place where the doors are always open. We’re the constant: services of last resort, plugging the gap, if not the fourth emergency service.”
A shortfall in funding for local public services has a “ripple effect” on the school. Indeed, there was a £536m high needs funding gap calculated by the Local Government Association in 2018 alone. The government’s recent announcement of an additional £350m worth of high needs funding for councils, split over two years until 2019/20, goes nowhere near filling that hole.
Similarly, the Chancellor Philip Hammond’s £400m for schools announced in last year’s Budget is small fry. It’s in capital funding, which means it cannot be spent on the “little extras” patronisingly signalled by Hammond because capital spending is only for maintenance and investment purchases like equipment, not revenue outlays.
White calls the additional funding in recent years “piecemeal”, and would rather sit down with education ministers to build a compelling “social, educational and economic case” for a ten-year education funding plan to present at the next spending review.
As children fill the central schoolyard and tear open their sandwiches and crisps at brightly-painted picnic benches, White looks around him, telling one boy to put his hood down. He still often does break duty, lunch duty and the after-school walk around the premises to ensure pupils aren’t acting up outside school. Until recently, he was teaching a business studies GCSE class and was down as first cover for lessons when his colleagues were off.
His alarm goes off at 5.30am, he leaves at 6pm, and works evenings and weekends, too.
“Nothing can prepare you for what it’s like – not the hours, the responsibility,” he says. Responsibilities that mount as other services vanish around Tanbridge House school and beyond.