Policy implementation and street-level bureaucrats' discretion, autonomy and coping mechanisms : a case study of national curriculum statements at a school in Pietermaritzburg.
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The link between public policies and their desired outcomes has remained an important subject among scholars and policy makers. Public policies made at the ‘top’ will have to be implemented at local level by street-level bureaucrats who enjoy a considerable degree of autonomy and discretion in the execution of their duties. The implementation of the National Curriculum Statement (NCS) by teachers (street-level bureaucrats) is one such case. Using Lipsky’s streetlevel bureaucracy as a theoretical framework, this study sought to explore the levels of discretion, autonomy and coping mechanisms employed by school teachers at a private Christian school in Pietermaritzburg in the implementation of the NCS. The study sought to discover if the exercise of autonomy and discretion enhanced the implementation of NCS. Both qualitative and quantitative data were collected by the insider participant using interviews with school teachers and observational methods. Analyses revealed that school teachers have considerable discretion in determining the kind of task they assign their learners. However, there were no significant relationships according to the level of discretion and teaching experience or level of professional qualifications. Furthermore, the study shows that most teachers made discretional choices to advance the goals of the Department of Education and to enhance the understating of learners. Factors which forced these teachers to use their discretion are due to poorly defined goals, inadequate resources and excessive workloads. In the face of challenges associated with their work, the teachers employ coping mechanisms which include ‘creaming’, private goal definition, modification of the conception of work, ‘rubber stamping’, referrals and real or psychological withdrawal. The findings of this study also show that school management through routine supervision and the Department of Education’s Common Tasks Assessments (CTAs) as well as national examinations curtail the autonomy and discretion of teachers in the implementation of NCS. The research reveals that the combination of individual decisions made by each street-level bureaucrat in effect constitute the policy of NCS through its implementation at school. The findings also underscore the need for management at all levels to find ways of harnessing the discretion of street-level bureaucrats which enhance the Department of Education’s goals and curb those which hamper policy implementation.