The deputy prime minister has urged schools to bid for #163;40 billion in government-backed loans to kick-start their stalled rebuilding and refurbishment projects.
The money is in the form of Treasury guarantees, which were originally billed as being on offer only to significant infrastructure projects such as major new roads or utilities schemes. But Nick Clegg has called on schools and local authorities to apply if they have stalled capital projects that require extra funding.
"An impression has been given that those #163;40 billion worth of guarantees are only available for huge, whopping great big transport infrastructure projects of national significance," Mr Clegg told TES. "Let me be very clear, we are being much more flexible than that and we are open to ideas.
"There is real potential for people in the education sector who are looking for capital, who maybe have a capital project and are nearly over the line but for whom just lowering the financing costs would make a big difference, to apply to the Treasury."
In an exclusive interview with TES, the Liberal Democrat leader acknowledged the difficulty schools are facing when it comes to capital. Schools have been forced to bear the brunt of government cuts to their capital budgets, with 60 per cent of the Department for Education's overall capital budget cut in 2010 - something Mr Clegg described as "regrettable" but unavoidable.
His comments come as the government's new Priority School Building Programme is struggling to get off the ground due to a lack of private investment needed to fund the 219 schools earmarked to be rebuilt and refurbished.
The UK guarantees policy was announced by Chancellor George Osborne last summer, who said the programme was only feasible because of the government's fiscal credibility "earned through (its approach to) tackling the deficit". Although the Treasury has said that projects must be of "national significance" to be successful, the government will acknowledge "exceptional projects" on a case-by-case basis.
While capital spending was hit in an emergency budget in 2010, Mr Clegg was at pains to point out that he had "intervened very forcefully" to protect per-pupil spending. Schools will be hoping he can do the same after fresh calls this week for the DfE to shoulder some of the burden as Mr Osborne looks to save a further #163;10 billion.
Stephen Twigg, Labour's shadow education secretary, described Mr Clegg's move over the #163;40bn fund as "pretty desperate stuff".
"The government has given schools a terrible deal: nearly 60 per cent cut to capital spend, more than twice the Whitehall average," Mr Twigg said. "Labour had an effective school rebuilding programme ... which Michael Gove axed."
Mr Clegg spoke to TES during his visit to Lillington Primary School in Leamington Spa, West Midlands. He was at the school to see how it is using its pupil premium money. The premium, an additional #163;600 for every child in receipt of free school meals in the past six years, is a policy very close to the deputy prime minister's heart: he championed it while in opposition and fought for its inclusion when forging a coalition partnership with the Conservatives.
Mr Clegg has created the Pupil Premium Awards, in conjunction with TES, to recognise and reward those schools that are most effectively using the money to narrow the gap between the poorest and richest students (see panel, left).
The amount of money is expected to rise to #163;900 per child by the next academic year, but concerns are growing among headteachers that the government could become more prescriptive over how it is spent. Mr Clegg dismissed the fears, however, stating that the government was committed to giving schools freedom over where the money goes, but that heads should expect accountability in return.
"I think there is a limit on how much you can creatively explain that fixing a leak on a roof is helping with the attainment gap, and that is not what we as a government expect, it's not what parents expect and it's not what taxpayers expect," he said. "It's a huge item of additional expenditure, #163;2.5 billion by the end of the Parliament, and with the freedom of using the money comes a very clear expectation that it is used for the purpose it was intended."
The deputy prime minister has launched a competition to find the schools that are most effectively using the pupil premium to narrow the attainment gap between the wealthiest and poorest children.
In collaboration with TES, Nick Clegg has created the Pupil Premium Awards, which will offer prizes of up to #163;10,000. Mr Clegg said he hoped the awards would "reward and celebrate" those schools that have made best use of the pupil premium money.
A collection of regional winners will be announced on 17 May. The overall winners will be revealed at a prize-giving ceremony in Westminster in June.
The closing date for entries is 17 April. For more information and to enter the competition, visit www.pupilpremiumawards.co.uk.