The hair is greyer, the voice a touch fainter, the figure somewhat paunchier, but Kenneth Baker is back. No secretary of state in the last 50 years has left his stamp on education as decisively as Baker during Thatcherism's high noon in the 1980s. He can be credited with – or blamed for, depending on your taste – the national curriculum, tests, league tables, delegation of budgets to heads and governors, parental choice, academies (then called city technology colleges), student loans, expansion of universities to admit a third of the age group, and the whole idea that schools should be "set free" from local authority control.
Rather hubristically, he christened the legislative centrepiece of his programme the Great Education Reform Bill (the sceptics preferred Gerbil), echoing the Great Reform Act of 1832, which set Britain on the road to democracy. He even, like saints, had days named after him: the five annual "Baker days" for in-service teacher training. When he started at the education department, he hit the ground running. For a time, he was a hot tip for prime minister. "I have seen the future and it smirks, " said one wag. Baker in those days always seemed to be smiling. Asked why, he once replied: "I can't help it. It's the shape of my face."
Now 76 and transmuted into Lord Baker of Dorking, he is smiling again as – in his office at 4 Millbank, a few yards from the houses of parliament and with ITN just across the corridor – he outlines his latest vision for English education. He is reviving the long-forgotten technical schools, which were enshrined, alongside grammar schools, in the 1944 Education Act, but which never got off the ground. They will be grandly, if rather confusingly, called university technical colleges (UTCs). One has already opened in Staffordshire – across the road from its sponsor, the big machinery maker JCB – and Baker has government support and funding to set up another 15. But that's just the start. "I want a hundred by 2015, " Baker says. "After about 10 years, there will probably be 200 to 300." At the minimum, the initial costs will be £3m each. To hear Baker talk, you'd think the words "deficit reduction" had never been uttered; his fellow ministers used to say he was never knowingly underbid in public spending rounds. He has no truck with suggestions that the colleges are experimental. "This has become a movement, " he proclaims.