SCHOOLS and local authorities risk legal action if they employ teachers on fixed-term or temporary contracts without a legitimate reason, following a landmark High Court ruling last week.
The Court of Appeal decided that Oxfordshire County Council and school governors were guilty of sex discrimination against modern languages teacher Karen Whiffen by making her redundant after keeping her on fixed-term contracts for more than five years, between April 1991 and August 1996.
When curriculum changes and financial pressures forced Milham Ford girls' in Oxford to make staff cuts in 1996, Ms Whiffen, 39, was selected for redundancy because she was not a permanent employee.
An employment tribunal in July 1998 and a subsequent appeal said that the decision was justifiable.
But the National Union of Teachers successfully argued in the High Court that keeping staff on fixed-term contracts because there might be future funding cuts amounted to sex discrimination as women are far more likely to be on these contracts as a result of career breaks.
Ms Whiffen, who was not in court to hear the ruling, will now apply for compensation.
Doug McAvoy, NUT general secretary, said: "We have established finally the poential unlawfulness on sex discrimination grounds of the use of fixed-term contracts for compulsory redundancy selection.
"There has been a significant growth in the use of fixed-term contracts to facilitate redundancy and this has a greater impact on women than men in teaching and creates insecurity. This ruling is a major advance."
Jane Phillips, vice-chair of the National Association of Governors and Managers, confirmed that schools should only use fixed-term contracts in special circumstances.
She said: "It is incumbent on governors to act as good employers so the use of fixed-term contracts should be for a legitimate reason. For instance, in times of staff shortages, it is often difficult to get exactly the right person so fixed-term contracts are used legitimately as a stop-gap."
Russell Clarke, deputy general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, predicted a decline in the use of fixed-term contracts as a result of last week's ruling and the implementation of European law affording equal employment rights to temporary staff and those on contracts.
A spokeswoman for Oxfordshire said the council was puzzled by the decision and was waiting for explanation in the full judgment.