The mysterious world of references needs to be more accountable, says Nigel Gann. Those responsible for job references would do well to take note of the recent University of Glamorgan settlement over a disparaging reference. The university agreed, seven years on, to pay Pounds 25,000 to a former student whose job offer had been withdrawn on the strength of a tutor's confidential comments. The payment was partial compensation for lost earnings, after Monmouth Borough Council withdrew an offer three days before she was due to start work.
Closed references still play a significant part in some school appointments, despite the scope they offer for abuse. Is it really very efficient to make significant decisions about an appointment on the opinion of someone you've never met, working in an institution you know nothing about, and who knows nothing about your school? And even this limited value rests entirely on the honesty of the response.
How many times have you heard rumours of employers who give bad references to treasured staff just to hold on to them, or glowing references to offload incompetent teachers? Somewhere among the 24,000 schools in the country, this may be happening. If it is in only one school, it discredits, and invalidates, the entire system.
I once worked in a school where the head was, by mere chance, discovered writing false references. The problem lay in discovering it, and then proving it. When this was done, the governors suspended the head, and he never returned to work.
However, it led to months and years of suspicion; of lost opportunities, of blighted careers, and insidious rumour, which harmed the school and those working in it.
What is the alternative? Good equal opportunities practice - as well as the code of most of the professional associations - requires that any professional who writes about another should show them what has been written before it is sent on to anyone else. This at least allows, as a matter of natural justice, the potential interviewee to defend him or herself - first to the referee and then, if necessary, to the interviewer. Referees should add a note to all such references stating that it is the school's practice for them to be open.
When appointing, references should only be requested on short-listed candidates. Once the appointing panel has made its decision, following whatever selection strategies have been used, the references of the successful candidate can be checked, to see that there are no discrepancies. Should there be any, the candidate might be invited to discuss them, or a provisional offer made dependent upon satisfactory resolution of the issues.
Such good practice in the appointing school - written into a formal procedure or code of conduct - should be mirrored by a similar code of good practice for professional development within the school, a major element of which will be the appraisal system. The appraisal system is designed to allow staff to explore their own performance, and to discuss it with their manager, in a non-judgmental way. It is therefore an ideal foundation for an open referencing system.
How can schools ensure that they will not be open to the type of action taken against the University of Glamorgan? First, they should have clear procedures for appointments to and from the school which have been formally agreed by the governors. These should require discussion of references with the member of staff concerned, and a system of appeals for dissatisfied staff. The procedures should make it clear to all staff that no reference will be given by anyone in their professional capacity within the school, whether for a member of staff or a student, without the reference being shared with its subject.
The closed reference is a remnant of an archaic system, where schools - and the staff in them - were largely unaccountable. This is no longer the case. Staff are accountable to their governing bodies, and governing bodies are accountable to the parents, to get the best possible staff regardless of hidden prejudices. Governing bodies are accountable within the law because fair appointments procedures are the foundation of good employment practice.
In addition to a clear code of practice on writing references they should ensure the appraisal system is being followed, by receiving regular reports from staff on its conduct and outcomes.
They should also keep as close an eye on staff departures from an institution as they do on their students' destinations after leaving secondary school. If there seems to be little promotion out of the school, if staff only leave by retiring, or by moving sideways, or even by leaving the profession - they need to find out why.
Nigel Gann is an education consultant and chair of governors