The Scottish Conservatives' education conference in Edinburgh on Tuesday presented a remarkable sight. Sundry members of the Scottish educational establishment, who would not have been seen dead in such company a few years ago, were supping with the heirs of Michael Forsyth (and not a long spoon in sight) animatedly discussing school reform.
The fact it was taking place at all reflected the point that the participants were themselves reformed characters - and not just the Scottish Tories. It was surreal to hear former scourge of national testing Fred Forrester, late of the EIS, intoning how essential it was for P7 pupils, or the champion of comprehensive schools, Lindsay Paterson, beginning to question their effectiveness, or the Tories being passionate in the cause of combating disadvantage. People move on, it seems, but not everybody. It was amusing, and not a little ironic, to read Labour charges that the Tories were living in a "time warp".
There are not a lot of things going right for the SNP Government - some of their making, some not. But what is clear is that pupil attainment in Scottish schools began to slide - or at least stagnate - before the current crop of ministers came to power in 2007. While international studies can exercise an undue influence, the relative worsening of Scotland's position which they reveal cannot be airily dismissed. As Professor Paterson suggested, to do so would be "simply irrational".
But to parade statistics of decline is one thing, to point to reasons and solutions quite another. It is commonplace for researchers to call for more research, but John McLaren was right to do so to avoid policy formulation based on "evidence-light prejudices". In such an endeavour, other political parties would do well to follow the Scottish Conservatives' lead and engage with the educational community. "Thinking the unthinkable" is often a good start.