Fixed-term contracts

Please note: the ATL website is no longer being updated and will be taken down soon.

Visit the new NEU website

Rights and conditions
02 November 2016
This page sets out advice and information for members working on fixed-term contracts.

A fixed-term contract of employment is defined as a contract of employment which:

  • has a definite start and end date, or
  • terminates automatically when a particular task is completed, or
  • terminates after a specific event (other than retirement or summary dismissal).

ATL's view

ATL believes that fixed-term or other short-term contracts should only be used for transparent and objective reasons where there is a genuine fixed-term or temporary need. In these circumstances, both parties (employer and employee) should agree that the contract is to be fixed-term before it begins.

Examples of 'genuine fixed-term or temporary need' might include:

  • work of a specialist short-term nature
  • cover for an absent employee, such as maternity leave
  • work externally funded by a single source for a fixed period of time.

If work continues beyond the fixed-term or temporary need, ATL believes schools and colleges should review their staffing requirements related to that work with a view to minimising the use of fixed-term or temporary contracts. The employee concerned should request this review.

Your rights

The Fixed term (Prevention of less favourable treatment) Employees Regulations (2002) protect both those working under standard fixed term contracts with a stated termination date and those on 'specific task' contracts. However, they do not protect agency staff.

The regulations entitle fixed-term workers to claim equality of treatment with permanent colleagues in the same establishment. This applies to terms and conditions of employment, including pay and pensions, as well as training and development.

They also give fixed-term employees a range of rights and protections, including:

  • a right to call for a written statement from the employer of the reasons for any less favourable treatment
  • an entitlement to be informed by the employer of available vacancies in the establishment
  • a prohibition on the use of 'redundancy waiver clauses', which in the past allowed employers to require staff on fixed-term appointments of two years or more to sign away their right to claim a redundancy payment if the contract is not renewed.

Conversion to permanent status

The regulations also give fixed-term workers a right to conversion to permanent status once they have served on successive fixed-term contracts for four years continuously, unless the employer can objectively justify refusal of this. However, no right of conversion to permanency arises where the employee has a single fixed-term contract lasting four years or more (as opposed to a series of contracts).

If you meet the criteria for being given permanent status, you can write to your employer and ask for a written statement confirming permanent status. This statement - or a refusal - must be provided within 21 days of receipt of letter.

Redundancy and unfair dismissal

For the right to claim a redundancy payment, an employee needs to have had two years of continuous uninterrupted service with the same employer.

After the statutory term of one year - now increased to two years for anyone whose job started on or after 6 April 2012 - employees engaged by the same employer on a series of continuous fixed-term contracts have the right to pursue a claim for unfair dismissal if their contracts are not renewed.

Where employees who were taken on temporarily to cover for colleagues who are absent (eg for sickness or maternity reasons) are later dismissed when the colleague returns, their dismissal may be considered fair. However, this is not automatically so, as an employment tribunal would still need to be satisfied that the employer acted 'reasonably'.

Further education agreements

ATL and the national employers' body (the Association of Colleges) have agreed a national guideline agreement which establishes recommended minimum standards for colleges and FE institutions on the treatment of fixed-term employees.

See also