‘Our recruitment system is clear as mud – references are not worth the paper they’re written on’

We’ve reached the point in the recruitment crisis where fiendishly unpleasant references are written just to keep teachers in post. There has to be a better way to retain teachers, writes one celebrated head

Teachers decide to move schools for a variety of reasons: to further their careers, to leave the school they are in because they are unhappy, or perhaps simply as a genuine move out of the area with their loved ones.

There are also a whole plethora of reasons for choosing the school we then decide to join. We apply for a new post, we look around the school, we study the school’s website and ask colleagues about its reputation. Having decided it’s the one for us we take the interview, have an observed lesson and the rest…

And then the worst bit: the dreaded reference.

This week I was asked by a colleague to look at the two references she had received for a teaching post at her school. She is a new head and wanted my opinion.

The first painted a picture of a difficult individual hell-bent on destruction of the school, with few teaching skills and no love of the job; the other talked of a caring, hard-working individual who was a vital member of the staff team – parents and children loved her and they were sad to lose her.

Simple, you would think. But the truth is, we have reached a situation where references are now not worth the paper they are written on. Do they actually help a teacher get a job? Emphatically no. But they do stop their appointment going through.

I’m not alone in believing that some fiendishly unpleasant references are only written as a way of keeping the teacher in post – such is the recruitment crisis. And as for the ‘off the record’ phone call references, or the ‘agreed references’ to enable staff to leave amicably, it certainly appears a minefield.

Referential treatment

Undoubtedly, references are badly abused in our recruitment system. One bad reference and you may never teach again. And what redress have you got? Pretty much nothing.

The system is as clear as mud.

There must be a better way, especially as we can ill afford to lose any teachers at the moment. Perhaps the answer lies with the teacher standards. It surely wouldn’t be difficult to establish a system whereby the reference is success against the standards, perhaps in an online system.

This evidence might then include images of the classroom, what impact was made in the school and probably the most important references: from parents, children, governors and colleagues. Of course, senior staff would have input too – but not in the life or death fashion you see now.

This system could be open to abuse like the present one, but it has to be an improvement on what we have now.

Colin Harris led a school in a deprived area of Portsmouth for more than two decades. His last two Ofsted reports were ‘outstanding’ across all categories.