While ministers hint at changes to teachers' employment contracts Jane MacFarlane looks at recent legal developments
Quite often part-time contracts overlap with either temporary or flexible hours contracts. Part-time employees have played an important role in all types of educational establishment for many years, and while this will continue, the pattern and method by which the flexibility is achieved is set to change.
Until 1995 an employee had to work more than 16 hours per week for a period of two years in order to gain the statutory employment rights. A landmark decision in the House of Lords in 1994 involving the Equal Opportunities Commission effectively abolished the different qualifying periods based on the number of hours worked per week. The Law Lords decided that such differences were incompatible with the Treaty of Rome and European Community equal pay and equal treatment directives, due to the fact that the majority of employees who work for less than 16 hours per week are female. Thus any part-time worker who has more than two years' continuous service gains all the employment rights enjoyed by full-time workers.
In addition it has been suggested that an employer's refusal to allow a woman returner to work part-time is indirect sexual discrimination. While there have been several publicised cases over the past year or so none of these has given rise to an authoritative judgment that clarifies the law. The majority of claims have been backed by the Equal Opportunities Commission and have been settled out of court. However it is already clear that an employer must consider all such requests with an open mind and must objectively justify any refusal based on business need. They must also show that these needs outweigh the fact that the individual cannot comply with the full-time work pattern.