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References for teachers

Workplace references are essential to getting a job as a teacher in a school or college.

There is usually no obligation on your employer to provide a reference. The employers of school and sixth form college staff are required by statutory guidance to seek references as part of their pre-employment checks. It could be argued that references are essential to getting a job in a school or college. Without references, it is virtually impossible to do so.

Consequently, an employer who exercises a ‘no references’ policy is likely to be acting in breach of their implied duty of trust and confidence (see contracts of employment). It is accepted practice in most schools and colleges that references will be provided if requested, since refusal to do so could result in adverse consequences for the employee.

Contact the NEU AdviceLine if your employer refuses to provide references.

You do not have an automatic right to see references provided in confidence, although some employers work on the basis that it is good practice to share the content of references with employees before sending them. If you make a request for a reference from the supplying employer or the recipient, they can refuse because there is an exemption under data protection legislation in relation to job references. If your employer will not provide you with a copy of the reference, you may request a copy from the organisation to which the reference was sent.

You must make your request in writing and provide enough information to allow the recipient to identify you. Your request should receive a reply within 20 working days.

If you have asked for a copy of the reference from both your employer and prospective employer and you have been denied access, contact the AdviceLine.

Provided you bring the matter to their attention, your employer must rectify the error before submitting the reference. If the reference has been submitted already but the error is trivial, e.g. your name is misspelt, you can inform the recipient yourself.

If the reference has been submitted already and the error is likely to cause prejudice, for example, you are said to have had more sick days than you did, your head teacher or the referee should write to notify the recipient of the true position.

Your employer owes a duty of care to the prospective employer, and to you, as the subject of the reference. A reference must be true, accurate and fair. It must not contain an unfair or misleading impression overall, even if any discrete components are factually correct. An inaccurate or unfair reference may be challenged by you or your prospective employer.

In most cases, there is very little you can do other than consider using another referee. It must be accepted that a reference is not always going to be a glowing testimonial. It is the opinion of the referee, but it should be reasonably objective.

Contact the AdviceLine if you believe the author has given you a bad reference out of spite. You will need to prove that what has been said about you is both false and motivated by malice. It must be obvious to someone who knows neither of you that the author wrote the reference maliciously.

A bland reference is not necessarily a poor reference, but it may require the prospective employer to do some investigating. They may ask for specific details or for a reference from another referee.

Principles and requirements of references

A prospective employer may seek a reference when you are shortlisted for interview, so that they may raise any concerns at the first interview. You may object to your current employer being contacted at this stage, but it is likely the prospective employer will prefer to see a reference before conducting interviews. If the prospective employer agrees not to ask for references until your appointment, you will be offered a conditional offer of employment, i.e. conditional on receipt of a satisfactory reference.

Your reference will normally be written by your line manager or head teacher as they have the most direct experience of your abilities, skills and work. The referee may also be someone other than your most immediate manager if the prospective employer is requesting confirmation of an area of specialisation. If you are a leadership teacher in a local authority controlled school, it may be necessary for the local authority to provide a reference as well.

You will usually have to provide two referees. One referee should be able to comment on your teacher training experience and the other should be able to comment on your academic ability and your teaching performance.

You may also wish to name a head teacher, teacher or head of faculty from one of your placement schools. You should ask potential referees for their permission before providing their details and inform them each time you are applying for a post.

The referee will usually have to state:

  • the nature of their relationship with you
  • your job title and salary
  • current job description
  • length of service in current post, the local authority and/or school
  • reason for leaving
  • whether you have the ability and suitability for the prospective post
  • whether you meet the person specification
  • whether you are suitable to work with children
  • they must provide specific details of their concerns (if any)
  • the number of days absent from work through ill health - reasons for absence or a description of ill health or disability issues are categorised as ‘special category data’ under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and cannot be disclosed without your express consent.

A reference may also include more detailed information such as: your knowledge of the national curriculum; staff management and development; use of ICT and new resources; your involvement and interaction with colleagues, pupils, governors and parents; and your educational vision.

A referee may indicate whether they believe you need development in a particular area, as long as you are aware of this need. A referee is not obliged to comment on areas upon which they cannot, or do not wish to, comment. 

Not if the allegation was proved to be false, unsubstantiated, unfounded or malicious. False, unsubstantiated, unfounded and even malicious allegations may be disclosed in the ‘Other relevant information’ section of an enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) certificate if the allegation forms part of local police records and the chief constable reasonably believes that the allegation is relevant to the DBS application and ought to be disclosed.

For more information about how to challenge the disclosure of allegations on your DBS certificate, see: DBS checks.

Your employer is obliged by statutory guidance to continue with the process of investigation and reach a decision about whether an allegation can be substantiated on the evidence available, even if you resign before all the evidence can be gathered and/or a disciplinary hearing can be arranged. You should note that an adverse finding by your employer may have a continuing impact on your employment prospects even if you subsequently seek employment outside the education sector (i.e., substantiated allegations may be referred to in references).

It may be in your interests to co-operate with any arrangements adopted by your employer to try to resolve the allegation(s) against you. Statutory guidance provides that, wherever possible, you “should be given a full opportunity to answer the allegation and make representations about it”. Contact the AdviceLine, if this does not happen in your case.

If you work in a maintained school (e.g. a community school) in England and apply at some future date to work at a different maintained school or in an academy, your school will be under a legal obligation - if asked to do so - to tell your prospective employer if you have been the subject of capability proceedings in the past two years. Your school will also be required to provide written details of:

  • the concerns which gave rise to the capability proceedings
  • the duration of the proceedings
  • the outcome.

Even if you currently work in a non-maintained school (e.g. an academy, free school or sixth form college), your school may disclose matters relating to your capability in references, although they must be careful not to breach confidentiality or data protection principles when doing so.

Both parties (employer and employee) are bound by the terms of the settlement agreement and this includes the wording of an agreed reference. If you have evidence that the employer has provided a reference at odds with the one agreed, contact the AdviceLine for guidance.

A selection decision will not rest entirely on the content of a reference. References are obtained once the application process has got underway, so there may be more than one interview and other opportunities to explain the content of the reference.

If you are concerned about receiving a bad reference, speak to the person you intend to use as a referee and ask them to provide you with a copy of the reference before it is sent to the recipient.

The prospective employer may contact the referee for more detailed answers or clarification. It is best practice for questions and answers to be written, as verbal communication increases the risk of misunderstanding or misinterpretation. What might have been a positive reference may be tarnished with comments that are made verbally and ‘off the record’. The reference will be compared against your application form and, if there are discrepancies, these may be taken up with you.

Usually starting with the phrase “to whom it may concern”, open references are often the product of a settlement agreement and are unlikely to include any adverse comments.

It is preferable that references derived from settlement agreements do not contain wording such as “to whom it may concern” or “agreed reference” as some employers do not like receiving such references.

A personal reference is often written from a friend’s perspective rather than an employer’s. It should not be written on a department or school’s headed notepaper. Usually complimentary, they are not always effective in a selection process.

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Contract of employment

Guidance for teachers in England that sets out the items that must be covered in your employment contract (or statement of particulars).

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