Unsuitable, reading between the sheets

18th September 1998 at 01:00
Every day hundreds of teachers put on their best Laura Ashleys and take long train journeys or car rides, or joggle about on the underground to get to an interview. They shouldn't have bothered. A confidential reference has gone before.

The pig of it is these people don't know. They know so-and-so has supplied them with a reference, but they don't know what's in it. And the referee has probably told them: "I've recommended you unreservedly."

What the so-and-so doesn't mention is the small print. I was on an interview panel recently. One candidate's reference savaged his teaching of a certain age group. But, the referee conceded: "for the age group you have in mind I recommend him unreservedly". Like heck! In a world of squeaky clean references the slightly soiled one stands out.

Another time, a colleague whispered: "Have you seen that reference?" as we began an interview session. He didn't mean any of the good ones, that glowed like luminous watches. He meant the bad one, that almost said for God's sake don't employ him. Did that candidate know? No. Had the referee told him: "Sorry old son, I can't find anything good to say about you." No.

There's something immoral there. And wouldn't it be immoral not to caution the person. To say look, you gave a good interview, but never use that referee again? Well you can't, not professionally. You undermine the value of the confidential reference system. It has its uses after all. But it is quaintly anachronistic. Quaintly libellous too.

Take this: "She's like a large unmade bed - but very good." That was said on the telephone. Actually she got the job. But. If only she knew.

So what's the answer? Obvious. Ask to see your reference. But people don't. There's a quaint, old-fashioned reason for that, too. Most references are good. But most of us are bad at taking praise.

My uncle recently retired from the QE2. Before going ashore the captain showed him his reference. "Sir," said my uncle, "you'd better send for the carpenter. " (That's quaint too. on steel ships they still call the odd job man the carpenter.) "Why? Are we sinking?" "No sir, it's just that now I've seen this my head's so big it won't fit through the door."

Few of us can take praise quite as graciously and simply as this. Most of us deserve it though. We should remember that.

Richard Daubney teaches in Farnham, Surrey.

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