Don't let them leave in silence

11th June 2004 at 01:00
Schools are using exit interviews to retain staff, reports Janet Murray

In the world of business, exit interviews are a widely used method of gathering employee feedback. The idea is to acquire no-strings information that may be useful to the company.

In a survey last year by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development into how employers found out why people left their organisations, 80 per cent of the respondents said they relied on exit interviews. But in teaching it is a very different picture.

"Although exit interviews are commonplace in the private sector, they are relatively new to teaching," says Andy Ballard, local branch secretary for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers in Somerset. He believes exit interviews could keep teachers in the profession.

"We often hear that teachers are leaving after three to five years because of excessive workload, but much of this is hearsay. We need more concrete information in order to address recruitment and retention issues," says Mr Ballard.

Paul Patterson, recruitment and retention manager for Bristol education authority, agrees: "If we can gain a better understanding of why people leave, we can work on support structures to help them stay in the profession."

In recent years Mr Patterson has overseen more than 25 exit interviews with teachers. As expected, reasons for leaving often centred on workload, behaviour management or lack of career progression, but an interesting trend also emerged.

"Of those we interviewed who were leaving for these reasons, most were open to the idea of more flexible working opportunities, such as job shares or part-time work," says Mr Patterson.

"Many were fixated with the idea that they could only work full-time. It was invaluable to know that a teacher might have stayed if there were opportunities for flexibility, which had huge implications for us in terms of tackling the retention issue."

The exit interviews conducted in Bristol highlighted the need for LEAs and school leaders to look at ways of helping teachers manage their workload.

They also provided invaluable feedback on the quality of training.

According to Mr Ballard, exit interviews can also help boost staff morale.

"Teachers need to feel valued. Offering the opportunity to talk about issues that affect them can make them feel much more appreciated."

Former teacher Joanne Little believes an exit interview might have dissuaded her from leaving the profession for good. She taught English in Kent, but after just four years she felt she was heading for burnout.

"I loved teaching and in some ways I was the victim of my own success. I was quickly promoted to year manager, which I enjoyed, but I was soon clocking up in excess of 60 hours a week. My personal life was suffering so I decided to take a break. While my head said he was sorry to see me go, he didn't ask about my reasons for leaving.

"I was really angry about it: I'd sweated blood and tears for that job and he knew it. If I'd had the chance to explain why I was leaving, things might have improved for other young teachers. I've been temping for a year now and while I find office work pretty dull, I'm not sure I could return to the thankless task of teaching," she says.

Mr Ballard would like to see exit interviews become standard practice. "For many years, the public sector has lagged behind in personnel management practice. I taught at a school for 22 years and the headteacher only spoke to me on the very last day, to ask me whether I was definitely leaving.

"Some schools offer staff exit interviews because they want to know why they are leaving so they can improve their practice, but they are a minority. This needs to be happening across the board. Schools have to get better at managing people. Teachers are their prime resource and schools need to look after them."

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