Should a school be likened to a power station or a ballet company? Should teachers be like air traffic controllers, following precise procedures at all times, or like artists, using their own creativity and imagination?
These questions were at the heart of the latest seminar on educational leadership organised by Keele University's Improving Schools Network and sponsored by The TES.
Professor David Reynolds, of Newcastle University, the guest speaker, favoured the idea of the "highly reliable school" in which teachers would be technicians working to exacting methodologies. Air traffic controllers or telephone companies are not allowed to fail, he argued, because the consequences are too serious. But for too long teachers in Britain have been allowed to fail their children. The time has come for schools to learn from research into "highly reliable organisations".
Schools should be more like those in Taiwan where every child is expected to reach a certain standard. Less attention is paid there to individuals being pushed as far as they can go, Professor Reynolds suggested.
"It's not enough to know that we're good at teaching children," he said. "We need all schools to be able to do what the best schools do. Schools have to aim for the eradication of failure."
In Britain, he said, we have concentrated on what schools do and not enough on what goes on in the classroom. Teachers need a methodology they can follow which has been proved to work. In the past they have been expected to concentrate on developing their own ways of working.
Highly reliable organisations, Professor Reynolds said, have a small number of clear goals and recognised "bodies of knowledge" everyone is expected to be familiar with. They pay attention to performance evaluation. They use large amounts of data, they have high quality training, and they introduce methods of working that everyone can understand and use.
British schools have traditionally been "unreliable organisations," and in the past 10 years, Professor Reynolds argued, devolution of power to schools has made them even more so, despite the national curriculum.
But the image of teachers as white-coated technicians working with off-the-shelf classroom strategies - or "instructional methodologies" - did not appeal to many at the seminar.
None of the analogies used by Professor Reynolds was "people-based", said Mike Webber, head of Cheadle high school in Stoke-on-Trent. "I suspect that dealing with a Year 9 youngster from a troubled background is far more unpredictable than dealing with a nuclear accident," he said.
Margaret Maden, professor of education at Keele, also advised caution. "The analogies you have chosen would not apply to the England football team or the New York City Ballet where a different set of variables and driving forces operate in terms of high standards," she said.
Professor Reynolds explained that he was not against artistry, but against a system built "only on the interests of the artist".
Others suggested that recruitment of teachers might prove even more difficult if they were told they were not allowed to fail. Not a problem, said Professor Reynolds. People will be more attracted to teaching if they know they will be given a precise set of methods that have been proven to work.
But judging by reactions to his vision, there is a long way to go before all the human foibles of teachers and children are ironed out and schools become "highly reliable". This is a mechanistic vision, some protested, which takes no account of reality.
"Schools are not knowledge factories," said one head after the seminar, reflecting, one suspects, the feelings of many teachers. "They are citadels of wisdom and culture."
THE TES-KEELE SEMINARS: The Keele Improving Schools Network seminar programme
September 15: Tim Brighouse on Managing to Lead
October 14: Dame Pat Collarbone on Leading Leadership Centres
Contact Dorothy Tyson on 01782 583126