TEACHERS in England and Wales covering maternity leave during the summer term could end up with thousands of pounds less in their pay packets.
"I feel as though I've been fleeced," says Mary Cockerill, a primary teacher in Grimsby who has lost more than pound;2,600 in potential holiday pay because the teacher whose job she has covered for two terms is returning to work four days before the end of term.
According to her union, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, since a change in the law in 1999, it has become increasingly common for teachers on maternity leave to return to work a few days before the end of term or shortly after the holiday has started. They are then eligible for pay in August, which means that teachers providing maternity cover on short-term contracts will not be paid during the holiday.
Until the law was changed on the grounds of sex discrimination, headteachers could delay the return to work of teachers on maternity leave by up to a month, so that they were unable to "come back" at the start of a holiday.
"It is causing a lot of problems for people on temporary cover and for schools, who are having to give six weeks' pay to a teacher for doing nothing," says Val Shields, a national officer at the ATL.
A teacher on maternity leave must give 21 days' notice of her intention to return to work. At the end of that period, she will then be classed as "available for work" and therefore must be paid, even in the middle of a holiday.
Val Shields says that some teachers are announcing their intention to return as early as 11 weeks after their babies' birth so that they can be paid during August. She believes that teachers make the most of this loophole because their maternity pay is low compared with many other sectors. Teachers receive only four weeks' maternity leave on full pay, two weeks on 910th and 12 weeks on half-pay, plus statutory maternity pay. If they do not return to work, or fail to work for at least 13 weeks after their return, they forfeit their 12 weeks' half-pay. This is barely above the statutory minimum.
The situation is difficult to resolve because holiday pay for teachers is actually a misconception, believes Mrs Shields. "Teachers aren't entitled to holiday pay. They get equal amounts of holiday pay included in their salaries each month."
Teachers working on temporary contracts should scrutinise the fine print before they take a job, suggests Brian Clegg of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers. He says that in areas of the country where teachers are in huge demand, they may well be able to negotiate better contracts.
The problem does not arise in Scotland as teachers on temporary contracts are paid 1195th of the annual salary per day - a sum that includes holiday pay.
Mary Cockerill knew she would not be paid for August when she accepted a two-term maternity-leave contract at South Parade junior school in Grimsby. What she didn't realise was that she would also miss a third of her pay for July, as the teacher she is covering for is returning to work four days before term ends.
"It seems unjust that I have worked full-time this year, completed assessments, spent 30 hours writing reports, the same as my colleagues, and yet I will be paid pound;2,600 less because of the loss of holiday pay," she said.
"Teachers taking on temporary contracts to cover maternity leave should be entitled to paid holidays, the same as everyone else."
Mrs Cockerill will not accept summer-term maternity-leave contracts in future.
"I feel very naive for making such an expensive mistake," she added.