Accentuate the positive. Nick Morrison tells how a reference can make, or break, a job application. Illustration by Rose Barton Applying for a new job is generally a question of knowns. You know what experience you have; you know what happened in the interview, and you know, even though you might wish you didn't, how the observed lesson went.
But there is one part of the process which often remains unknown, and which can have a pivotal effect on success: the reference.
A strong showing at interview can be undermined by a lukewarm reference. A borderline candidate meanwhile can be bolstered by a glowing headteacher's report. References may not form the basis of a decision, but they can tip a candidate over the edge, to either failure or success.
Rachel - not her real name - started applying for jobs towards the end of her teacher training course but did not get a single interview and when she tried to register with a supply agency she was turned down as well.
She only discovered the reason why by accident.
Looking through a bundle of forms sent by her college, she saw her tutor's reference had been included by mistake. As she read it, everything clicked into place.
Rachel, 26, had suffered from gallstones during her course and had to have an operation. She missed two days of her placement, but in the reference this had somehow become inflated.
"It said I had major health issues and had barely finished the course, but that was completely untrue," she says. "It was misleading. It was almost like he was writing about a different person."
The supply agency confirmed that it was the reference that had persuaded them not to run the risk of taking her on, even though a health check gave her the all-clear.
The law over seeing your reference is a murky area. The Information Commissioner has taken the view that references are excluded from data protection legislation, and you have no right to see it, although this has yet to be tested in the courts. But if the reference goes into your file, you do have a right to see it. Headteachers may therefore be wise to destroy references once the position has been filled.
Teachers who are unhappy with their reference may have grounds for a legal case, but would have to show that it was misleading or maliciously unfair, according to Richard Bird, legal consultant to the Association of School and College Leaders.
"It would have to be where something was either grossly omitted or fundamentally misrepresented, and more than just a matter of judgment," he says.
The law around references is a grey area and largely untested, but courts have been keen to uphold freedom of speech. "Our judges are reluctant to inhibit the honest expression of opinion," says Richard.
Where courts have taken a dim view is where references have failed to divulge information that could have stopped the candidate from being employed, such as issues involving child protection. Schools that have employed someone based on a misleading reference may have a legal case against the referee.
"The time may well come when one school will take action against another because they have been landed with a teacher on a false prospectus, and, as I see it, the law takes that much more seriously," says Richard.
John Morgan, head of Conyers, a specialist maths and computing school in Yarm, Stockton-on-Tees, says schools will often ask specific questions when requesting references. "It is important to verify that what is on the application form is true, and if a reference comes back and has obvious gaps, that would immediately prompt a phone call," he says. "What you want to hear is whether they're happy about this person working with children and having the necessary skills."
He says he shows teachers references he has written about them. "Nowadays, schools have much more information on staff: we monitor, we observe, and performance management is well embedded, so nothing in the reference should come as a surprise," he adds.
After discovering her tutor's reference, Rachel nominated a different referee. She subsequently got a permanent job, although she is still considering taking legal action against the south Yorkshire university where she did her training.
"I missed out on half a term of supply work and now I'm pound;2,000 in debt," she says. "I spent a year doing teacher training and then I felt I had been shafted. It did make me feel incredibly dispirited."
Between the lines
"They used to say that the last sentence hid 1,000 lies," says John Morgan, headteacher of Conyers School in Yarm, Stockton-on-Tees. although I think it is becoming less prevalent."
While "recommend without hesitation" was straightforward enough, "recommend as worthy of serious consideration" was less effusive. "Please contact me if you would like to discuss this further" practically screamed something too dark to commit to paper.
If a reference fails to provide information that has been specifically requested, such as relationships with students or behaviour management, this can indicate there is a problem.
Similarly, not supplying details of sickness absence or attendance record can be an invitation to request further details by phone.