Where do I start?
When a prospective school applies for a reference, am I entitled to see it and can I dispute its contents?
According to the Data Protection Act, you are allowed access to information held on you by an organisation, but employment references are excluded from this as they are usually sent in confidence. However, you are entitled to see any existing references held on file.
References must be true, accurate and fair, and not misleading. A reference is protected by what is known as "qualified privilege", which means the information between the parties is not subject to legal scrutiny, so you can't dispute its contents as long as the referee believes it to be correct and gives it without malice.
Putting the legal aspect to one side, I would suggest you ask your referees if you can see a copy of their references. They are not obliged to show you as references are confidential, but in practice I'm sure they would, as they will have written something true, accurate and fair.
They would want to know why you want to see them, so ask only if you have a good reason. If you aren't getting the jobs you apply for, you need to consider why. The problem may be a weak reference, but in my experience this is unlikely. Most schools ask for references only when they have shortlisted, and some don 't read them until they've made a job offer, which seems a bit mad to me.
Even when references are read before the interview, they will only contribute to a heap of other information about you. They are unlikely to play a significant part in a headteacher's decision. What matters most is what you write on your application form, what you say at interview, and how you present yourself.
Remember to get your referees' permission before putting their names down.
It is common politeness and gives the referee the option of refusing, which most will do if they can't write positively. It also gives you a chance to discuss what ground to cover in the reference, and to send them the job specification and your application so they can emphasise any point you've played down or omitted.
I sometimes get asked to write references for people I haven't seen or heard of four or five years after they trained with me - and I usually refuse on the grounds that I don't know what they're like now. So choose your referees with care and keep in touch with them.
Are you a student or newly qualified teacher? Email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Sara Bubb's A Newly Qualified Teacher's Manual: how to meet the induction standards is published by David Fulton, pound;16