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It pays to be wary in the longer term

Temporary contracts are on the increase, so be aware of what you're getting, writes Jill Parkin.

Here's a paradox: teachers are in short supply, yet many have to put up with short-term contracts. Heads arecautious and often won't offer contracts that could kick-start a career or a mortgage.

Authorities that filled vacancies last September issued a lot of short-term contracts. But many of the teachers appointed then are now unhappy. Some have found that plans for their subject mean there won't be a job next year. Others have found they are expected to move on. A short-term contract means just that, even though it has often been a route to a permanent job.

And there are other complaints: not feeling part of the team; low pay; or not teaching the timetable that was originally agreed.

But schools have their reasons. It's a form of insurance against hiring the wrong person; a way to cover curriculum changes; of getting by if a school has budgetary problems; or to cover maternity or sickness leave. It may also be that some aspect of a subject is being phased out and that a temporary post is all that's needed. Or perhaps an acting head needs cover in her or his own class until a new head arrives at the school.

Such approaches are perfectly legitimate, but can be tough on a teacher who thought that a term of good teaching would produce a job offer. The brutal truth is that most short-term contracts go to NQTs keen to get a start but not worldly-wise enough to find out why it's a temporary post.

James Lee is a secondary teacher on his third one-year contract. "This latest contract has a notice period of a whole term rather than a half term. I teach a timetable which looks nothing like what I expected, and I cover unknown subjects and work all over the school. They've also given me a lot of Year 7 work, which is pastorally heavy."

For others, short contracts are a way of life. Stuart Ferguson sees them as a halfway house between supply and a permanent post.

"They're convenient now that I'm doing a postgrad law degree - they offer stability, yet you can walk away," he says.

You should find out why a post isn't permanent. If the idea is to try you out, you need to decide whether to take it on those terms. But remember that short-term contracts are becoming increasingly common for new teachers.

Read the school development plan. No matter how good you are, if your subject is being downgraded, you may have to move on. Ask at your interview what the chances are of getting a permanent job, and make sure the head knows that you're interested. You should also be very wary of signing waiver clauses.

Go through your contract with a union rep - or at least read the advice on your union's website. And if you do take the job, push to be included for inservice training and staff meetings. You'll feel more like part of the team, and it will be useful experience. And don't accept random timetable changes without protest.

Changes in employment law may soon clamp down on the excessive use of fixed-term contracts, but in the meantime you should watch what you sign.

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