Why we need to get better at exit interviews

Exit interviews can be a valuable way to improve school culture, but often we don't make the most of them, says Clare Owen

Clare Owen

Exit sign

The summer term almost always means saying goodbye and good luck to some of our colleagues.

Many will have secured promotion. Others will just want a change of scene. And there will be some who are leaving the profession altogether for a whole variety of reasons, especially after the year we’ve just had. 

Having some colleagues move on to another school or pastures beyond education is inevitable. As long as it’s not a whole slew of staff leaving, adding to the already fraught situation of recruitment and retention, it’s nothing to worry about – it’s more a chance to celebrate the contribution our colleagues have made and ready a welcome for those who will join us. 

But it’s important to learn why those colleagues have decided to leave. Even if the reasons seem obvious, it’s always worth finding out if there’s something that we, as a school, might have dealt with better. Too many assumptions are made in education, and if we want to help our whole community make positive progress, having a frank and productive conversation during the exit interview is vital.

Exit interviews: make it clear why you’re leaving

The problem is that we’re not particularly good at it. Someone leaving a school often seems less worth the investment of time than someone joining. And that means important issues can be swept under the carpet, even if not intentionally.

But if someone is leaving on account of something avoidable, we’re missing a crucial opportunity to make things better for the future. 

If you’re the member of staff leaving, it’s important you have the opportunity to share your experiences and thoughts with the senior leadership team. If you’re leaving for positive reasons, it might seem more straightforward to respond to questions at the exit interview than if you’re so ground down by your time there that you feel you’ve had to look elsewhere. 

But, either way, it’s in the school’s best interest for you to be clear about why you’re leaving. You may be lucky enough to have been appointed to your dream job, but you may only have looked in the first place because your options for career progression were limited, senior staff were unsympathetic about childcare arrangements or you’d felt pressured to work beyond your directed time

Leaving might mean you that don’t have to deal with these issues any more, but those colleagues who remain no doubt will. So it’s helpful to them if you take the time to honestly respond to questions rather than running out of the door as quickly as possible. 

If you’re less enthused about your new job but just want to get out of your current school, try not to see the exit interview as an opportunity to make your grievances personal. It may feel like you have nothing left to lose but it’s important that you’re constructive in your criticism.

Ensuring an atmosphere of professionalism and respect puts you in a stronger light when it comes to potential references further down the line. And, again, your comments could enlighten the SLT and help make the school a better place for those who’ll work there in the future.

An opportunity to understand what works – and what doesn’t

For SLT, too, getting the exit process right is absolutely vital. We’re all more affected by what we can see and experience and, for SLT members who are largely away from the classroom, it can be tricky to really understand how policies and procedures are affecting classroom staff. 

When staff leave, the SLT has a valuable opportunity to ask questions that someone moving on to another position might feel more comfortable answering than those staff who remain and feel less inclined to raise their head above the parapet. 

The process itself doesn’t have to be an interview per se. Surveys can be less stressful for staff, who might genuinely have something to say that they fear SLT won’t want to hear – and who are concerned about the reaction they might get. Offering a survey option can be helpful in valuing experiences and gathering the information required to make improvements. What’s key is making it clear what the objectives are and nurturing an atmosphere in which staff feel they can be honest in their feedback. 

Confidentiality is also crucial. Again, it should go without saying, but schools aren’t always fantastic environments for sharing the right information. A willingness to reflect on the comments made by the person leaving is similarly essential. If staff think their observations will fall upon deaf ears, there seems little point in being forthcoming – it’s a waste of everyone’s time. 

Leaders and managers have to a duty to listen to points that might be uncomfortable for them, especially if they’ve been so busy that they’ve failed to notice how staff have been dealing with issues around school. 

People leave to go to other jobs every year, and we manage it whether or not the exit process is careful and considered. But, this year, we’ve all experienced the difficulty of just managing. If we take a little time to build up a clearer picture of everyone’s experience, leaders can be more strategic in their deployment of staff and execution of policy in the future. 

This summer in particular, let’s ensure we’re constructive and take the opportunity to learn, thanking the colleagues to whom we’re saying goodbye with as much care as we’ll show when welcoming those who join us in September.

Clare Owen is a secondary teacher in South London

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