Job references are a crucial part of securing successful employment as a teacher.

GOV.UK explains that employers must give references which are ‘fair and accurate’.

At Edapt, we work on many cases where our subscribers are concerned with receiving a negative job reference or where a job offer has been withdrawn because of a negative reference. 

These are just a selection of our support articles on the topic:

With the importance placed on references as part of the application process there is little research on the effectiveness of the job reference system and whether an alternative system could facilitate the process of moving jobs more easily while safeguarding the employer.

Job references: what is the history?

From colonial America to Victorian England there are documented examples of how character and job references have operated throughout history.

However, these tended to place the balance of power with employers and leave employees in vulnerable situations with no right of recourse. 

Some people might argue that this is still the case today.

The research paper Domestic Workers and Employment Rights (2012) by Lucy Delapp explains how job references worked for servants: 

“The ability of mistresses to withhold references or give a bad ‘character’ was key to keeping the balance of power on the side of employers, making servants reluctant to give any cause for complaint. Even during times of relatively high-demand, servants were well aware that any lack of compliance could lead to the sack. Mistresses had to provide one month’s notice, or wages in lieu of the notice period, but crucially, they were not legally compelled to provide a reference. Few servants could gain another job without this. Jean Rennie, a cook in service in the 1930s, told of being sacked in London without a reference, after having had the nerve to admit to her mistress that she was a writer. Her subsequent destitution, despite her skilled status and high demand for cooks, makes clear the obstacles to those who left an employer on bad terms. Servants and reformers continually demanded changes to the character system, to compel mistresses to give a written reference that was subject to the usual libel laws.”

Job references for teachers in schools

When applying for a job in a school, you will need to go through a range of pre-employment checks. These are outlined in Keeping Children Safe in Education which outlines the steps on safer recruitment.

These include enhanced DBS checks and checking if you have been prohibited from the teaching profession

Referees must disclose any concerns they may have regarding a teacher’s suitability to work with children. This includes any sanctions or warnings that may have been issued previously.

Some schools and Trusts will have set policies and procedures on how references should be formatted.

Apart from the obvious safeguarding concerns, some teachers contact us because they want to move to another school but have ‘fallen out of favour’ with their line manager or headteacher and sometimes feel stuck as they believe they will receive a negative reference. 

Overall, there can be quite a lot of confusion around the topic of references from both employers and employees.

Some school staff contact us because they have been placed on informal capability procedures and do not want to be placed on formal capability as this will be disclosed on future references (more information here).

Some school staff believe the balance of power sits with their employer, as in the majority of cases they are leaving their employment because they are unhappy in their current position. Even though they may want to raise a grievance or express their true feelings in their exit interview they might be apprehensive to do so if they feel it will impact any future reference.

Can job references be reformed?

The format of the job reference has been remarkably unchanged throughout the years.

A short written letter/email including details such as duration of employment, your role and responsibilities, areas of strength and areas for improvement. With technology changing many elements of employment it seems that the system of requesting and providing a reference has been largely unchanged. 

Is there a more technically efficient solution where employees could store references from previous employers on an electronic employment record? 

There could be a standardised technology-based approach for different sectors which would cause less confusion and be more time efficient for both employee and employer. For example, any new references would be uploaded onto a blockchain style employment record. Alternatively, does a regulatory body need to have oversight of references in the education system?

Safeguarding the safety of pupils would be of utmost importance and with a more technically evolved solution there would be less chance of reference fraud or unsuitable candidates re-entering the profession.

It could also readdress the power of balance between employer and employee where a more transparent and easy to understand system would address the issues we currently see.

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