Why a School Family Quits

Why does a family quit your school? Is it something you have done; or not done? Is there some dissatisfaction that you should know about? Has another school won them over? A family exit survey can uncover honest answers.

A school makes a huge investment in each student over a number of years so it comes as a disappointment - even a shock, when a family tells you they are leaving. Apart from the emotional loss, a departure diminishes your market share, impacts on class size, can affect staff allocation, and, for fee-paying schools, reduces income.

Therefore, it is essential to find out why a family decides to leave; but often it is difficult to get honest answers. Some parents are too polite to tell you the real reason. Others may not wish to disclose personal information or make accusations. 

A well-constructed survey provides an effective marketing tool to gather data that will help you understand the reasons behind a family’s decision to withdraw. 

A School exodus crisis

Some years ago, towards the close of Term 4, I received a distressed phone call from an enrolment officer announcing a crisis that faces many schools at the end of the year when they count up the number of families who have handed in their resignations. 

The school had tallied the non-returning families and the enrolment picture was frightening. The School Council was calling for an explanation for the haemorrhage. Everybody was ducking for cover, denying they were to blame. The Council was questioning why classroom teachers had not alerted the school to parents’ complaints. Why had discontent been covered up until now when it was too late to take remedial action? 

The Council was demanding hard data, but measurement tools and statistical analysis were non-existent. In its place were guesses to account for the exodus, opinions and supposition. 

The school needed to rapidly undertake market research, so we set about designing an instrument to gather accurate feedback. 

Exit Survey - Why Families Leave

There are always a variety of reasons a family leaves a school.  They can include but are not limited to:

Pulling power of other schools 
Poor results 
Discipline problems 
Subject choices 
Leaving area 

Developing a measurement tool

It can be awkward to ask a family a series of confronting questions at the time they hand in a resignation. Usually the family wants to depart with a minimum of fuss, so you need to broach the subject with sensitivity. Also, you don’t want ugly criticism from a disgruntled parent to threaten other members of the school, or the school’s reputation, yet you need factual data on which to base management decisions. 

These were some of the considerations that guided me in the design of a sensitive yet searching instrument to measure reasons for departure. 

An exit survey was developed that contained 35 easy multiple-choice questions, some short answer questions and a section of questions with a range of options on possible reasons why a family may decide to withdraw from a school. 

The survey is short and succinct and designed to be completed in 10 minutes. 

From a marketing perspective, it is also insightful to know the new school the family has selected, and to look at patterns about school choice, so data gathering of this nature is sought. Is another school targeting your population? 

Administering the School Exit survey

It can be difficult to obtain information from a family who is leaving as they have lost their commitment to the institution and often do not want to invest more time; therefore a well worded letter and a simple, short survey that is easy to administer and retrieve works best. 

Anonymity and confidentiality encourage a much higher response rate and more honest answers. 

Families leave at any time of the year and it is wise to have an exit survey in your top drawer that can be sent to them as soon as you receive their notice. 

Why school families leave

Centre for Marketing Schools has conducted many exit surveys for a range of schools and can detect a pattern as to why parents withdraw from a school. 

Frequently I see that the findings from the surveys do not match the assumed reasons given by the school for the exodus they are experiencing. 

For example, a common assumption/ excuse for withdrawal given by schools is that the families who are leaving the school are leaving the district. 

Results indicate that relocation is not a dominant reason. School performance holds a much stronger position. 

Fee-paying schools commonly equate a withdrawal with a failure in the financial capacity of the departing family to pay the fees. 

In Centre for Marketing Schools surveys this does not appear to be a dominant reason, as parents frequently reveal that their newly selected school demands equal or higher financial contributions. The feedback does show that financial considerations are clearly on the minds of discerning parents who shop around and compare schools. 

So what are the most frequent reasons for leaving? 

The three that come out on top are: 
* Staff don’t understand and appreciate my child’s best qualities
* Our concerns/ complaints have not been properly addressed
* The school has not lived up to our expectations. 

Other reasons of lesser statistical significance relate to academic rigour, lax discipline, bullying and subject choices. 

In the written-response section parents are able to add further comments, and here it is possible to pick up on personal issues that apply to a particular family, and deep feelings that have led them to a decision to move. 

Putting the survey findings to work

The findings from this survey provide valuable data that can be used to show: 

Areas for improvement
Feedback can be a catalyst for the school to question how things are being done, if needs are being satisfied, if service delivery could be better, and if the outcomes are as desirable as the school would wish. 

A window into the respondent’s mind
Departing parents are likely to be vocal ‘authorities’ about your school, so it is imperative to know their opinion of your school’s performance – the good and the bad; what they wanted from the school and what they will say about the school to the outside world. 

The pulling power of your competition
Information provided about the schools that students will be attending once they leave your school gives important data for your Competitor Analysis. 

Benchmark for further research
Market research should prompt change. Ongoing research from year to year can indicate a changing pattern of perceptions which can be an effective method of evaluation to see if the changes that have been introduced are having the desired effect. 

About the author 
Dr Linda Vining was the founder of the Centre for Marketing School (CMS). The Family Exit Survey is available from the Centre for Marketing Schools, in both an online or paper format. It is suitable to give to a departing family at any stage of the education process, in any English speaking school.
A complete menu of CMS Surveys, designed especially for schools, can be seen at www.centreformarketingschools.com.au