16th June 1995 at 01:00
Q. You say that no one can be compelled to provide a reference (Helpline, May 26). Are headteachers not bound by their conditions of service to provide "information about the work and performance of the staff employed at the school where this is relevant to their future employment"?

A. Although I am not aware of the matter having been tested in a court, I believe that there is a clear distinction to be drawn between providing information and writing a confidential reference.

You are quite right that the School Teachers' Pay and Conditions of Service Document imposes the duty to provide information, but this can be provided in an open document, available to the person about whom it is written.

A head could, it seems to me, satisfy the requirement by writing something on the lines of, "Mr A has been employed at this school as a teacher of B since l9xx. He has taught classes from Years X to Y and his performance has been generally satisfactory."

Such a bald statement would offer little to a potential employer and do nothing to enhance the chances of the applicant.

On the other hand, where a prospective employer asks specific questions, a head should answer them honestly, although, even here, these answers could be confined to matters of record relating to work and performance, and need not be written in confidence.

A head is entitled to inform a teacher who asks for a reference that only such information as is on the teacher's file will be provided and that it will not be written in confidence.

Q. Does a teacher have any redress if a head supplies a reference which is false or unfair?

A. Possibly. In an important judgment given in the House of Lords in 1994, it was held that an employer had a duty of care in providing a reference (Spring v Guardian Assurance and others).

The case, which had nothing to do with teaching, concerned an employee in the insurance industry who was given a reference which the trial court judge had described as "so strikingly bad as to amount to...the 'kiss of death' to his career".

The plaintiff was able to establish that there were serious inaccuracies in the reference and the House of Lords held that he was entitled to rely on the employer to exercise due care in its preparation, because of the special knowledge gained in the employer-employee relationship.

This judgment should not be interpreted to mean that any unfavourable reference is open to challenge, but it is a warning to all employers who write references that they must exercise due care to ensure that whatever they write is truthful and capable of substantiation.

Q. On a recent school trip to France, the teacher in charge became concerned about the standard of driving of the coach, due, she thought, to the fact that the driver was overtired. She took no action. Do you think she was right?

A. Without more detailed information, it is impossible to say. I can only offer some general observations.

The first duty of a teacher is the care and safety of the pupils and, if this teacher had decided that the driver's performance was such as to place the pupils at risk, she should have ordered him to stop and to rest until she felt it was safe to continue.

If he had refused to accept that order, she should have contacted the owners of the coach at the first opportunity.

Drivers of coaches are subject to strict regulations covering the length of time they are allowed to drive without rest and, if there was reason to believe that these regulations were being broken, the teacher should have reported her suspicions to the police, either at the time or on their return home. All coaches are obliged to carry tachographs, which enable checks to be made.

In any event, the fact that the teacher was unhappy with the standard of driving should have been reported to the coach company.

One can well understand that the teacher did not wish to appear foolish by making an unnecessary fuss, but it is far better to do that than to have to live with the knowledge that one failed to act to avert a potentially serious accident.

Questions should be sent to Helpline, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY.

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