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.
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.