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A school has just lost a case in the Employment Appeal Tribunal because it changed the days a part time teacher was required to work even though

  • this did not result in an increase in her hours
  • it had a good business reason
  • it had consulted the teacher in good time and
  • there were provisions in the teacher’s contract of employment allowing variation.

The school, St Mary’s School in Colchester, changed the timetable so that particular subjects could be taught in the mornings. Mrs Hart, who worked three days a week, was asked to spread her working hours over five days. She was not willing to agree, mainly because she did not want to work on Fridays because of family commitments. After a period of consultation the school enforced the changes with effect from 1st September 2013. Mrs Hart resigned and claimed constructive unfair dismissal.

The school argued that the following provisions in her contract of employment entitled them to require Mrs Hart to change the days on which she worked

  1. “in the case of a Teacher on a part-time contract the fractional part will be notified separately and may be subject to variation depending upon the requirements of the school timetable”
  2. “the Teacher shall work all school hours while the school is in session and at any other time (including school holidays, at weekends and before and after the school’s normal starting and finishing times) as may be necessary in the reasonable opinion of the Principal for the proper performance of her duties.”

The school won in the Employment Tribunal which held that these contractual provisions entitled the school to vary Mrs Hart’s hours. Furthermore, the school had consulted with her in good time and provided her with the business rationale for the changes.

However, Mrs Hart appealed and was successful. The Employment Appeal Tribunal concluded that the school had breached her contract of employment. Although the contract did not state the hours or days that she was required to work, at the time that it was signed the parties had agreed that she would work three days a week. This arrangement had been in place for more than 10 years. If the working days were to be changed then this had to be by agreement. The EAT said that the consequence of Mrs Hart being part time was that she was not required to work all school hours that the school was in session (so that part of her contract did not actually apply to her – see no. 2 above). The EAT said that provision for variation to meet the requirements of the school timetable (see no. 1 above) permitted some variation but did not allow for entirely unilateral variation to the extent that the school had required.

The lessons to be drawn from the decision are that employers may not be able unilaterally to vary terms of employment even when there is a contractual provision allowing variation. However good the consultation with the teacher and the business reasons for changing a teacher’s working hours, and even if there is a contractual provision that working hours can be changed to meet the requirements of the school timetable and there is no increase in the total number of hours, schools may nevertheless find themselves in hot water if they try to impose a change of hours without a teacher’s agreement.

The contents of this article are intended for general information purposes only and shall not be deemed to be, or constitute legal advice. We cannot accept responsibility for any loss as a result of acts or omissions taken in respect of this article.