Education: Was she the one with dark hair?

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The Independent Online
One of the joys of university teaching is the constant flow of demands for references from former students. If you can call it a joy.

Chris Barton finds it is often more of a creative challenge.

My last day at work promises many treats. They mainly involve an excess of the actualite, like this reference for a former student:

"Thank you for your letter dated the 2nd ult which arrived here today. I do indeed recommend Jane Smith to you `at my earliest convenience', particularly as her interview is apparently scheduled for this morning, hence this voice mail. Thank you also for thanking me `in advance'."

"Yes, I can confirm that she left here with an upper second. (You don't ask, so I won't tell you, that 40 per cent of her cohort were similarly blessed.) I do sympathise with your need to confirm her qualifications; that daft scroll we give them always reminds me of Basil Rathbone reading out Errol Flynn's death sentence. I hope, as no doubt you do, that our graduates will one day receive a detailed account of all their results, together with the average marks obtained by their classmates. Why put about 90 per cent of them into two groups, particularly when they - the results, not just the students - have names as bizarre as the scoring system in tennis?

"At least her degree's a factual matter that I'm hardly going to lie about, even though we both know that `referee' is something of a misnomer, given that she chose me on the basis that I'd speak well of her. You ask about her `personal and social skills'. Well I don't know whether she passes the joint to the left or not - perhaps you could ask her yourself, as you're thinking of employing her - but she organised her Tesco shifts and her childminder well enough to get to most of my tutorials, which is a lot more management experience than you and I had when we left university. A lot more classes than we attended, too, I shouldn't wonder.

"So `a sense of humour and an ability to work with other people are essential', eh? You make it sound like a comedians' cooperative rather than a, a - hang on, oh yes - a housing benefit office. Anyway, how should I know? They don't get to say anything in lectures, tutorials are competitive, so are exams, this isn't Oxbridge and we don't all live together in a floating sherry party. Perhaps you should have her getting the interview panel to haul a log over a stream, or fumigating a squat. Or something. Just joshing there. Sorry.

"Thanks for letting me continue on another side `if necessary'. I wonder if you've seen the Law Society's 10-second pro forma reference for would- be solicitors? Tick one box to say she'll go straight to heaven; another to confirm that her treason convictions are spent; an even smaller space to say `anything for or against the applicant'; and I can stop worrying whether she was, in fact, the one with the long black hair."

References waste everyone's time. The applicant has to find up to three people prepared to dissemble for her gratis by yesterday. The referee dissembles for her gratis by yesterday, and then risks subsequent legal action from one side (defamation) or the other (deceit/ negligent misstatement). The would-be employer, knowing all this, attaches the appropriate weight to the ensuing perorations. Next time - for it is all his fault - he starts the sequence all over again.

"I hope this has been of assistance, but please do not hesitate to contact me if I can be of any further help."

Chris Barton is professor of family law at Staffordshire University. He doesn't know about the unsolicited testimonial, safely hidden away in his personal file, which describes him as `torpid and complacent'.