When I heard news that Nick Clegg has borrowed David Blunkett's 1997 summer school idea to give himself something to say in his conference speech, I wondered where the money was coming from. After all, the coalition has been busy axing Labour agencies and initiatives to disguise its cuts to the general school budget and to pay for the much-vaunted pupil premium. And a principle of the premium has been that it is up to heads, not central or national government, to decide how to spend it.
Now don't get me wrong. Summer schools are not a bad idea, though their impact in the late nineties was not as strong over time as we hoped. I have also long seen a role for earmarked spending when you want to focus on a particular programme or goal. Blunkett used the Standards Fund both to direct a degree of spending on key programmes and to lever in additional resources. A big weakness in the pupil premium has been its lack of leverage or conditionality. But this has not -until now - been the view of the coalition.
So, the summer schools will take £50m from the £1.25 bn pupil premium pot for next year. They will do it by penalising schools that don't set up summer schools, which is the same as earmarking the funds. That may not be a huge amount - £50 from each pupil on free school meals, perhaps - but a principle has been broken. As ministers want something else new to announce, the pupil premium pot can again be raided in the same way, especially as its value increases year-on-year (all paid for by cuts in other school funding). At the same time, the funding consultation - lauded by Clegg in his recent education speech where he hailed resurgent local authorities - proposes to continue to allow local authorities a significant say over the distribution of school resources, moving away from a national funding formula.
With an increasing straitjacket also being imposed on the curriculum through measures like the English Baccalaureate, is it any wonder that a growing number of school and academy leaders are wondering whether all the coalition rhetoric about greater freedom for schools is increasingly feeling like so much hot air?
This post also appears at Public Finance and has been highlighted by Polly Curtis on her Guardian Reality Check blog.