The EC Fixed Term Work Directive, which comes into effect on July 11, covers all employees other than agency supply staff and applies to every maintained and independent school in the UK.
It states that fixed-term contract employees must be treated no less favourably than permanent staff, unless the employer can show a clear, objective reason for the difference.
The new law gives them the same rights to training, promotion, performance reviews and sickness benefits. And it says their salaries should be "reasonably" proportionate to a permanent employee's pay. None of this should pose insurmountable problems, but new measures to discourage employers from issuing a succession of fixed-term contracts may force some schools to overhaul their practices.
Headteachers have been used to filling up the last periods in the following year's timetable with one-year contracts of a few hours here and there - which had a habit of changing year on year. Such flexibility was very useful to the school, but often a pain for the teacher.
In future, schools will have to remember that a fixed-term employee who has been engaged for four years on either a single contract or series of continuous contracts will be entitled to become a permanent member of staff. Any fixed-term teacher who has had contracts totalling more than a year may also be entitled to the redundancy benefits of permanent staff.
The widespread use of contractual clauses waiving the right to claim statutory redundancy pay has finally been curtailed. Therefore, teachers might also be eligible for redundancy compensation if they lose their job, or their hours are lowered in a subsequent contract.
However, neither of these two provisions is retrospective. For schools the introduction of the provisions effectively starts from the beginning of the autumn term.
None of this prevents schools from appointing fixed-term staff for specific purposes, such as covering for maternity leave, or working alongside a special educational needs pupil for a specified period, where, for example, the school has received an earmarked grant. These periods of time will, however, count towards the four-year total.
To avoid any misunderstanding, heads would be well advised to ensure that halfway through the contract the colleague is reminded of the end date. They should also be invited to discuss with the head the possibilities for further employment after the current contract expires. The directive brings fixed-term employment into line with new part-time contract regulations, implemented in 2000. The upshot is that all such staff must be treated as considerately as full-time staff.
* See Fixed Term Employees (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2002 and Part-Time Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2000.
Chris Lowe is the honorary legal consultant for the Secondary Heads Association and editor of Croners School Governors Manual