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Avoiding the Pitfalls of Pupil References - Tips and Guidance

on Wednesday, 20 June 2018.

We are seeing a rise in the number of complaints and claims arising from pupil references. Do schools have to provide references? What does your school risk if you get it wrong? We share some guidance to deal with these.

An Increasing Number of Complaints

On most occasions references are provided without incident. However, providing pupil references is not without risk and you may be surprised to hear that you could face legal action from disgruntled pupils and/or their parents, or even from the organisation that receives the reference.

In most instances, there is no formal or legal obligation for you to provide a reference. But refusing to do so can often lead to tension which can result in complaints and disputes.

The law on providing references for staff applies to pupils too - where a school provides a pupil reference it is under a duty to take reasonable care to ensure that the information it contains is true, accurate and fair and that overall it does not give a misleading impression. It must also not be discriminatory. As a rule of thumb you should not write anything that you cannot back up and would not be prepared to stand by.

8 Things to Consider to Strike the Right Balance

  1. Prepare some rules and guidelines for staff who are asked to provide references.

  2. Ensure that the most appropriate person prepares the reference, preferably someone with personal knowledge of the pupil.

  3. If the reference is provided on behalf of the school, make sure that it is clear that this is the case. It may be sensible for the requests to be signed off centrally by the Head or a member of the senior management team. Even where staff believe that they are providing a 'personal' reference, the school could still be held liable for the content depending on the facts.

  4. Ensure that the reference is factually accurate and can be backed up by your records.

  5. If you are expressing an opinion, make sure that it is clear that that is the case, so it is not confused with a statement of fact.

  6. Avoid oral or telephone references where possible. Oral references are much more open to misunderstanding and misinterpretation. If you provide an oral reference, follow it up in writing.

  7. Avoid unsolicited and 'to whom it may concern' references where possible. Targeted references are best.

  8. Seek appropriate advice where you are concerned about the content of the requested reference and/or how it may be received (see difficult cases below).

What About Complex Cases? KCSIE Guidance

Drafting a reference is more challenging where there are issues with a pupil's academic performance or behaviour (especially if it has resulted in a required withdrawal or exclusion), or where there are have been safeguarding allegations.

The latest draft of KCSIE provides that where safeguarding allegations made against a member of staff are false, unsubstantiated or malicious, they should not be referred to in an employer reference.  There is no equivalent provision for allegations against pupils.

We would recommend that where possible, you reach your own determination of the outcome of safeguarding allegations using the KCSIE staff classifications. You should also consider carefully whether or not to refer to such allegations in a pupil reference (by the use of reference to an unsubstantiated allegation having been made, for example), in the knowledge that a safeguarding file and further information will follow in any event. In such cases, care also needs to be taken in relation to the content of the safeguarding file to be transferred.

We advise that you liaise with police and/or Children's Services about the relevant content of references and files in such cases, as there may well be restrictions on what can and cannot be included within the reference.

The latest draft of KCSIE explains that schools should share information with receiving schools to facilitate the pupil's transfer and effective support, which suggests that at least some discussions should be made about such issues at an early stage.

Where you intend to include information which could be perceived as negative in references, it may also be appropriate to refer to contextual circumstances and mitigating factors to support the pupil and help with planning for their onward acre and support. It can be helpful to seek to agree the content of such a reference in advance with the pupil and/or their parents to try and head off challenges about the content further down the line.


If you would like assistance in dealing with a reference request or in drafting guidelines for providing pupil references, please contact Natalie Wargent, in our Education team, on 0117 314 5433.

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