One of the few upsides of no longer being a Cabinet Minister is that you are free to speak your mind.  And if you have a column in the Times, lots of people will hear you.  So it is that Michael Gove was able to say recently what he presumably thought about Kenneth Baker’s technical education colleges when he was Education Secretary – but didn’t say then because doing so would not have been politic.

The sum of Gove’s view is that seven of Baker’s University Technical Colleges have folded, most have failed or are failing, and that UTCs perform very badly in EBacc rankings.  Baker’s riposte, delivered in the Daily Telegraph a week later, was that Gove is talking “rubbish”: “while the unemployment rate for 18-year-olds is 11.5 per cent, for graduates of UTCs it is 0.5 per cent”.  The to-and-fro is gripping not simply because the two most reforming Education Secretaries of modern times disagree, or because one or the other is demonstrably right about UTCs, but for a wider reason that has bigger implications.

At the heart of the difference are competing views of the age at which school pupils should start to specialise decisively.  For Baker, it is – or can be – 14.  For Gove, it is, when push comes to shove, 16.  His view is also held by Rachel Wolf, David Cameron’s former education adviser at Number Ten, who wrote yesterday on this site: she wants schooling in those most elemental of subjects, English and Maths, to continue post-16, with a GCSE in both becoming a prerequisite for Further and Higher Education.  The implication of Gove’s view is that all pupils should be set and streamed until they are 16 in the academies that he did so much to champion.

Readers will spot a consequence.  If this is so, it follows that if one is too young to specialise at 14, then the same must apply, and in spades, when one is 11: what might that mean for grammar schools?  Gove may be now in the business of calling it as he sees it, but there are limits to his doing so.  He is, after all, still an active politician, and one in whom the fires of ambition may not be extinguished (which is all for the good, in this site’s view at least).  Theresa May wants new selective schools – albeit ones that “contribute meaningfully to raising outcomes for all pupils in every part of the system”, as she has put it.  Gove is not in the business of disagreeing with her.

Who is right?  Gove or Baker?  We admire the work that the latter has put into UTCs.  It is heartening that, amidst a culture that tends to focus on academic rather than technical eduction, a senior Conservative is investing so much time and energy doing the latter, over 25 years since he served as Education Secretary.  We hope it is not ducking the question to say that, as a rule, eleven certainly looks on the young side.  This is effectively conceded even by some of selection’s stoutest supporters.  There are few stouter than Graham Brady but, writing on ConservativeHome, he praised a Welsh Tory proposal which would introduce “a process leading to selection at 14”.

“This method of selection works well in Germany and elsewhere,” he added.  Some would doubtless urge Justine Greening to take a clear-cut view one way or the other, especially given her interest in boosting social mobility.  Baker prayed her in aid in his Telegraph piece.  She is, he said, ” the first Education Secretary who likes UTCs”.  (This was a swipe not only at Gove but also at the Education Secretary who served between the latter and Greening – Nicky Morgan.)  Baker went on to say that “Greening has decided to help UTCs recruit at age 14 – something that has always been difficult for us – by changing the law to require all local authorities to write to parents of 13-year-old children about UTCs that might be attractive to their children”.

But is easy to fall into a trap here – namely, believing that if 14, say, is a good age at which to select (or 11 the wrong one), it follows that the Education Secretary should pronounce and that central government Must Act Now.  On the contrary, localism should have a big part to play in education, and if an area wants a selective school system then that area should be able to have it.  And even if 11 is not the right age at which to select in theory, it ain’t necessarily so in practice.  Few more compelling cases have been made on this site than the one put on it by Mark Morrin and Philip Blond of Respublica, detailing the blight on social justice that are education results in Knowsley.

“The brutal truth is that there is already selection in places like Knowsley,” they wrote. “Those that can select academic education out of the borough, and those that can’t are abandoned to their local fate – a situation made worse by the closure of all sixth forms in the borough.  So no school will be offering A levels next year,” they added.  This is a scandal.  The sum of their case was that the educational condition of Knowsley is so bad that there is no way in which a new grammar school could seriously be held to make it worse.  Respublica’s ideas and May’s proposal sound a lot like what we once called, in a moment of Dominic Raab-style labelling, Meritocracy Schools.

None the less, history suggests that most areas wouldn’t opt for a selective system were they to have the right to do so.  If grammar schools had the deep-held public support that some of their most fervent supporters believe is the case, there would be more or them around today.  The Kents and Buckinghamshires are the exceptions rather than the rule.  In a system is diverse as Britain’s, we can expect more UTC-type experiments.  And good luck to them.  But Wolf is right.  Most secondary schools will be mixed ability in terms of pupil composition.  Which means that, as she said, most techical education will be concentrated on pupils who are 16 or older.