Can I see my references?

11th August 2013 at 01:00

Can I see the reference my Head has written?



So, you have not had an easy relationship with your Headteacher and you’re worried because you didn’t get shortlisted for a job recently – can you ask to see your reference to see if that was why?


The first question that I would ask here is: do you know that your Head actually wrote a reference for this job?


I ask because usually, although not always, references are taken up after the decision is made about who to shortlist, so in most cases they won’t actually have read her/his reference until after they have sent you the invitation to come to interview.


In most cases, therefore, if you aren’t shortlisted, your Head hasn’t had a chance to stick his/her oar in and write a reference. The decision not to shortlist you was based solely on your application, compared to the others.


However, some schools have a system of long-listing 12 or 15 candidates, asking for references for all of them, and then deciding on the final shortlist based on the overall picture: application form, letter and references. It doesn't mean that your references were not supportive, just that overall, your application was not as strong as others.


Moral: you need to improve your application.  See all the other articles with advice about applications, especially:


How to get shortlisted for a teaching job  *** The basic advice***


If your other referee told you that they had received a reference request, there probably was a long-listing where you did not get through to short-listing. Then why not ask the Headteacher if you can see what was written about you? Many schools and Local Authorities have an “open references” policy, where what is written about you is open for you to see. So ask, and you may well get to see it.


On the other hand if there is no such policy, your Head may say “No”, and in most cases in England and Wales you have no right to insist on him showing you.


Some people believe that the Freedom of Information Act allows you to see it. No, it doesn’t – references about you are not covered under the Act. On the other hand, there is the Data Protection Act, which does cover references. Sort of. Read on!


The Data Protection Act makes a specific exception for references when saying that you have a right to see documents relating to you. At least, it makes an exception for a reference held by the person who wrote it. So you cannot insist that the head shows it to you. But curiously, the DPA allows you to ask the person who received it to show it to you. Mad, isn’t it? However, there are so many caveats surrounding this right that many schools will not show it to you anyway. Frankly, the whole thing is a mess. The DPA people didn't get their ideas straight when they wrote the regulations.


To sum up: the person who wrote the reference is not obliged to show it to you. So the DPA people thought references should be exempt. But then, they said that the person who receives it should show it on request. Contradictory!  But ...


But, they should "redact" it as I understand the in-vogue word is. There are some rather complex and a bit silly rules for what they can show you from the reference, not the whole reference in most cases.


So, although I am by no means a legal expert on the Data Protection Act, I’ll try to answer the issues:


Q1 Can you see the reference that your Head writes, i.e. can s/he show it to you?

Yes, if s/he wants to. And in some local authorities, open references are common practice. In Scotland I believe that this is universally so (but what I believe is not guaranteed truth ever!)


However, your Head does NOT have to show it to you if s/he doesn’t want to, as references written by an employer are specifically excluded from the Data Protection Act. Legally, therefore, the Head can refuse to show you, and in fact this may be to your advantage as some schools ask the referee if you have seen it, and give greater weight to one that you haven't seen. If you have not set eyes on it, and it's got nothing negative at all, then clearly that is very reliable, they feel.


So the DPA specifically names an employment reference as something that you do not have a right to request from the person who writes it. In view of that, let's look at the next question:


Q2 Can you get the person who receives the reference to show it to you?

This is where the DPA has really got its knickers totally in a twist. They clearly didn't want people to see references, as they excluded them in one part of the Act. But - you have a right to make a DPA request to see a reference that is held by a potential employer!


Don't get too excited, though. They can only show it to you if certain restrictions apply.


These include:


a)  They believe that the person writing it didn't mind you seeing it. So if it says "Confidential" at the top . . .


b)  The person who wrote it cannot be identified by releasing the reference to you. So if it says "Ms Theo Griff has been a teacher of mathematics in my school for 2 years", it gives you a pretty good idea who wrote it.


c) It gives factual points, not opinions. "Ms Griff has been a teacher of mathematics in my school for 2 years" is a fact, that's OK. "I consider her to be the best teacher ever seen" is an opinion, as is "I think that she is pretty lousy in a classroom". So neither of these two opinions, neither the negative one or the positive one, can be shown to you.


d) The recipient has to weigh up the rights of the reference writer not to have his reference revealed, against the rights of the teacher to have fair treatment.


So it's all very complicated. But generally, if the school is at all worried about the DPA, you are likely either to get a refusal if you ask, or to get a summary/redacted version with identifying bits, and opinions, blanked out.


It is all a big mess, people spend a lot of money on lawyers to tell them what they should do, so thank you to the Information Commissioner for that! 



If your Head won’t show you the reference, you could try asking the other school anyway. You might well get lucky and they send it to you in full (because they haven't read or understood the regulations).  But do not believe those who assure you that you have an absolute right to see your reference.



Best wishes