Theresa May is to enable the creation of a new wave of grammar schools, the selective schools beloved of educational traditionalists and those whose lives were transformed by being selected aged 11 to attend such an institution.

Cue wailing not only from left-wingers and many Labour MPs who hate anything which contravenes the comprehensive idea, but also from those Tory education reformers who became convinced more than a decade ago that the pursuit of more grammar schools was a dead end. The latter group concluded that the way to improve schooling for the many was a radical reformation of comprehensives, in the form of extending the Blairite academy programme, freeing up headteachers and changing the ethos. There is a lot in that.

This was the approach adopted by Michael Gove, inherited from David Willetts in the Tory education brief before a row about grammar schools did for Willetts in 2007. Willetts had said in a speech that “academic selection entrenches advantages, it does not spread it.” In office, the Tory modernisers stuck with this position and put everything into the academy programme and launching so-called “free schools”, which are outside local authority control.

One problem with the Tory moderniser line was that it involved public school boys – such as David Cameron – who had benefitted from going to elite schools, lecturing those of us who went to comprehensives. Cameron called those seeking the reintroduction of some grammar schools in inner city areas in particular – to get bright poor kids an elite education – “delusional.”

Now, almost a decade later, a Tory leader is to allow more grammar schools in England. This is not about a wholesale return to selection, it seems, but rather about a willingness to allow them to open where there is a demand. Academies will remain the key component in the system. May clearly wants to let “a thousand flowers bloom,” and why not. After the riots of 2011, for example the Cameron government should have tried a few new grammar schools in the worst hit inner cities, alongside new vocational colleges. That opportunity was missed.

And that brings me to the good news. Another exciting change – often unheralded – has taken place in English education in recent years. It may turn out in time to be as important as the academy programme. I am referring to the UTC (University Technical College) movement established by Lord Baker, Kenneth Baker, the former education secretary. There are 39 in operation already, and by 2018 there will be more than 50.

What are they?

University technical colleges are government-funded schools that offer 14–19 year olds a great deal more than traditional schools. They teach students technical and scientific subjects in a whole new way and are educating the inventors, engineers, scientists and technicians of tomorrow.”

In essence, Baker has been trying to fix the biggest part of the problem with the old system, namely that grammar schools were excessively exalted and the British looked down on technical and vocational education, dumping too many children in failing schools. This being Britain, we scrapped the part of the system that did its job well – grammar schools – and fetishised the part that was not good enough.

Instead, why not recognise that some children will thrive in an environment that combines high standards with hands on experience of engineering, design, invention, software development and business skills? That is what UTCs aim to do. It helps too that UTCs tend to be small compared to the vast comprehensives like wot I went to.

One of the key Baker insights is that 11 – the age at which traditional selection took place – is simply the wrong age to choose or be chosen. It is far too early for pupils and the teachers who teach them. Public schools – private schools – have known this for ages, which is why they make the switch at 13.

If the May government is adventurous enough, one can see the possibility opening up of for the creation of new types of grammar schools. If the number of UTCs can be increased dramatically, and it can be, then why not in tandem create equivalents that are mini-grammar schools, focussed on the humanities or science, taking in pupils at 13-14?

They would supplement and compete with academies. Scotland – which has not even digested the bold education reforms undertaken by both major parties in England in the last thirty years – can sit this one out, as ever.

In England it is a terrific opportunity to get out of the sterile old debate about grammars v secondary moderns. For decades politicians and teachers have been arguing about how best to improve technical education and boost manufacturing, while giving bright kids from poorer background maximum academic opportunity. The answer is to accept different children have different requirements, and to create a more diverse system that values technical education as highly as academic schooling. Following the successes of the Blair/Cameron/Gove reforms, and with a new Prime Minister willing to embrace fresh thinking, there is now a serious chance.