Interest in the purpose and function of district offices has grown extensively in research on educational change over the past decade. The emphasis on educational performance and under-performance has shifted from schools and school principals to district offices and district officials.
The study outlines the nature of the organizational culture (OC) as found in two differently-performing (low and high performing) district offices. The case studies explored the reasons for such culture differences from a leadership and management viewpoint to understand why some district offices perform better than others. This mixed methods methodology used face-to-face interviews, two different questionnaires, and observations recorded in a researcher’s journal. Arguing from the perspective of the theory of Alternation to better understanding OC as it appears in district offices, leaders and managers are perceived to be able to determine the status of OC and alter management and leadership styles and strategies thus creating a culture of educational performance.
The interpretive approach of the study views the OC in the district office as observed through policies, laws, education acts and observable phenomena in district offices, provincial education offices and the Department of Basic Education. The analysis of the core education policies, acts, documents and provincial circulars together with observations made during site visits was used to understand the current purpose and usefulness of OC using a mixed methods approach.
The response to the main question of the study: ‘What is the organizational culture in education district offices like?’ states that district offices as mandated organizations have a peculiar OC that is either geared towards education performance or merely maintaining the status quo. It was also determined that the OC in district offices is not clearly defined, leading to multiple misconceptions of the purpose of the district office and the mismanagement of resources to uphold the current presentations thereof.
During the analysis of data it was found that district one highlighted the OC concepts mission, values, goals, desired outcomes, and complexities amidst chaos. This places the district in the behavioural stage amongst the five developmental stages of OC theories. District two was stronger on different people’s views about the organization, what motivates values, what motivates beliefs and shared behaviour, placing the district in the initiation stage of OC theory. The OC in a district office is the composite presentation of all the employees, their commitment and aspirations to provide the service of education.
The working assumptions in the study were affirmed that:
OC is a determinant of whether a district office becomes a low or high performing district
There is a correlation between the nature and quality of leadership and management in a district office, OC and the performance of the district.
It was argued in the study that the National Senior Certificate (NSC) examination plays a decisive role in the benchmarking of performance and achievement of education in South Africa. When this was rationalized within the context of the study, four problematic practices were identified:
1. There is a disparity in results of learners in a particular socio-economic context within the South African system.
2. That the key policy objects for the new democratic South Africa are providing free, basic, equal and common education to every child especially in schools from previously disadvantaged areas.
3. The education format envisages a uniform system for the organization, governance and funding of schools to counter a legacy of past inequalities and segregation and a thread to achieving democracy.
4. The performance of education district office as service centres is suspected of not having consistent aims and prioritised needs resulting in a lack of support to schools, and disempowered officials.
The blurred directions given to officials have an impact on the overall performance of the district. The research on the purpose and role of OC, and the link between OC and district performance, identified that the challenge to provide a common uniform education system is ever growing. This study about the OC in two differently performing districts recommends the following improvement of practices namely that:
• The relationship between Provincial Education Department (PED) mandates and forms of power in district offices be reconsidered making heads of districts accountable for the kind of OC and performance in the entire district.
• Policy implementation and accountability of mediation or compliance in district offices should remain with the district management team.
• District officials should acquire the ability to negotiate the differences between policy compliance and policy mediation.
• All employees in the district office should be aware of the ability of OC to influence educational performance.
The study found that poor education leadership and management creates a gap where poor performance is classified and supported with more polices that target underperformance. This research on OC in district offices established possible intervention strategies to support district officials in ensuring the development of a positive OC in the district office. The recommendations intend to influence the perceptions of district officials about the usefulness of OC on performance in district offices.