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A reference that can leave you in limbo

When a successful head had to have extended time off, he found it hard to step back on the career ladder

There's a shortage of headteachers. Is this partly because the system prevents some successful leaders from returning to work following difficulties of various sorts?

So far, I have successfully obtained five substantive headteacher posts.

This is not something I would recommend in such high doses. I am writing in the hope that my experience might be of use to colleagues.

Difficult home circumstances meant I was unable to face up to a difficulty in my school life during my fourth headship, and I went off with "stress".

I was off for six months and then resigned with a "compromise agreement"

and an "agreed reference". This seemed to put me into a shady netherworld of "untouchable" former professionals - "damaged goods" - the sort with whom nice people would not want to associate.

I remember thinking, years ago, that I would never employ somebody with a history of time off for "stress" because there would always be the risk of a recurrence. Last year, my prejudice came back to haunt me. My "agreed reference" did not say anything negative other than that I had had a period of absence, but it felt as though it said far worse.

I applied for dozens of posts and was often shortlisted for interview. For nine months I was unsuccessful and always asked for feedback. Sometimes, but not always, it felt as though the feedback was valid. Often it seemed as if there was another, undisclosed reason for my lack of success - as if the personnel service at my former employer had a link to other authorities' personnel services and an informal network could keep people like me out of headships. I should state that I have no firm evidence whatsoever that this was the case.

My references have never said: "I recommend this person unreservedly."

Someone told me that if the phrase is omitted, then it is not a good reference. I have since heard anecdotally that some people do indeed subscribe to this view. It could be the cause of some of my failed applications, but again I have no proof.

I now have my career back on track, so I felt safe to attempt to research what happened to me. Here are a couple of facts which I unearthed.

First, in the case of a compromise agreement, two types of reference can be agreed. One is defined exactly and is quoted verbatim each time it is requested. The other is one where there is agreement to state the same - in different forms, as required. I had the fixed type. Unfortunately for me, schools are moving towards questionnaire-type and role-specific requests for references, so the responses to them should be tailored to the purpose (exactly as supporting statements for headship applications must be tailored to fit the person specification), otherwise they look poor.

Second, references are increasingly only examined when the selection process is over, when the panel know whom they wish to appoint - and they offer the post "subject to Criminal Records Bureau check, health questionnaire and references". Only then are the references scrutinised. In this way - and fortunately for me, it is becoming less and less likely that a good reference will get you a job - it is your performance at interview that counts.

Uncomplicated headship applicants will not have to face the issues of a compromise agreement and agreed reference. My recent experience was caused by my being off work for an extended period and resigning at an unusual time. If there are any human resources staff who are reading this and feel able to shed any light on the situation, to explain what happens to those of us who may become temporarily derailed from our career track, I for one would be extremely grateful for any illumination they can offer.

The writer, who wishes to remain anonymous, has taken up a new headship this term

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