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When those old certainties disappear

While ministers hint at changes to teachers' employment contracts Jane MacFarlane looks at recent legal developments

Working in education used to be simple: teachers were employed on full or part-time permanent contracts that only came to an end with a new job at a different school or, ultimately, on retirement.

This stability is a thing of the past. Developments in employment legislation together with changes in education and in the wider employment culture mean that it is no longer possible to provide the flexibility necessary to run a complex organisation like a school by use of fixed-term and temporary contracts and the traditional supply teacher system.

At the same time social and cultural changes mean that employees have very different expectations of work, forcing employers to become much more flexible.

There is already a crisis looming in the supply of teachers (see TES, November 7) and the pattern of teaching jobs may be radically different in a few years' time. Every week another shot is fired against the already crumbling wall of accepted norms. It is no longer unthinkable that some teachers will be paid more than others on the same scale, and school standards minister Stephen Byers has already hinted (TES, January 23) at moves towards individually-negotiated contracts.

There will always be a core of teachers on full-time, permanent contracts. Schools need continuity and stability probably more than most other institutions. However it is feasible to envisage a l,000-pupil school with a core of 20-30 full-time permanently employed teachers, and a further 60 or so employed and supplied, either by an agency or by a pool system run by the local authority, on a flexible basis as and when needed.

The employers' contract with the agency will specify that it provides the required teaching staff (and maybe also non-teaching staff) for one or more of the schools in the area.

The agency will provide the staff to cover the various specified curriculum areas. The teachers will be either self-employed or employees of the agency. They will be able to determine how many hours they will work on an annual, or even termly, basis and will be paid for contact time, with an allowance for preparation and marking as appropriate.

This arrangement is already used in further education colleges and meets the conflicting demands of providing an ever-more specialist curriculum and cutting costs. Though the emergence of lecturer supply agencies in the FE sector has been controversial, one could postulate that the arrangement could improve teachers' status - the most successful teachers being able to choose where they work and for how long and being able to command a premium salary. To ensure quality there would have to be a sophisticated register and the long-argued-for General Teaching Council could be the ideal type of body needed to monitor and oversee it.

Jane MacFarlane is a solicitor specialising in employment law and a former teacher

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