When teachers have a right to job-share

13th November 1998 at 00:00
In a report commissioned by the Department of Education and published back in 1992, Job Sharing and Other Forms of Flexible Working in Teaching, the education consultant Walter Eyles said there was no reason why two teachers should not share a job, even at the level of deputy headteacher. The advantages of appointing two teachers with complementary skills to one job outweighed any disadvantages, especially in small schools, the report concluded.

These arguments still hold good, according to John Needham, a regional official for the NASUWT, the second biggest teachers' union. He used the report's findings as evidence of the benefits of job sharing in a recent industrial tribunal case brought by Janet Convery, a teacher who resigned from a Kirklees infant school after her application to job share was turned down.

Judging by the arguments Mrs Convery's former employers put forward at the hearing, little has changed since Eyles wrote that "traditional, rigid views on appointment models need to be challenged" if the education service was not to lose valuable staff "to more imaginative employers".

"Managements see it as a hassle to have two people doing one job and they ignore the benefits," says Mr Needham.

Mrs Convery's problems began in December 1996 when she told her headteacher at Rawthorpe school, Huddersfield, that she was pregnant and asked if she could job share when she returned from maternity leave. A colleague employed on a temporary contract at the school was interested in the job share and the two had discussed how they might split the work.

Although the school's governors later denied that Mrs Convery had ever asked for a job share, the tribunal accepted that she had and that she repeated her request shortly before going on maternity leave and again after the birth of her child. While she was still on maternity leave, the school governors did consider her request and turned it down.

Unable to return to full-time work because she could not find a full-time nursery place for her baby near her home and unwilling to subject the child to a long motorway drive to a nursery near the school, Mrs Convery resigned. She had not known until her application was rejected that Kirklees had a job-sharing scheme based on the presumption that "all full-time teaching posts can be made available to job share".

Her headteacher was also unaware of the local education authority's scheme to begin with, but when she found out, failed to tell Mrs Convery about it.

Describing this as "a serious, if inadvertent, omission, striking at the heart of the relationship of trust and confidence implied into all employment contracts", the industrial tribunal ruled that Mrs Convery had been constructively and unfairly dismissed.

The tribunal also found that the governors of Rawthorpe school and Kirklees Metropolitan Council had discriminated against Mrs Convery under the Sex Discrimination Act by requiring her to work full-time. Although this requirement would have applied equally to a man, that a much smaller proportion of women than men were able to comply with it amounted to indirect sex discrimination.

The decision might have been different if the respondents had managed to justify the requirement objectively. But the headteacher's view that a job share would create practical problems and be detrimental to pupils who needed the security of a single teacher was, said the tribunal chairman, subjective.

In a few years time, a European directive will give part-time workers the same rights as full-timers, and make it harder for employers to turn down requests for job shares and other forms of "atypical" work. Meanwhile, MrsConvery's victory may gosome way towards changingtraditional views about working arrangements in schools.

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