MU column: get it in writing

Chris Walters
Friday, December 1, 2023

A new template teaching agreement created by the Musicians’ Union and the Independent Schools’ Bursars Association could help you clarify your self-employed status in schools. Chris Walters, the MU's National Organiser for Education, tells us more.

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As a visiting music teacher (VMT), one of the most important issues to be clear on is whether you are employed – including worker status, where tax is deducted at source – or self-employed. To clarify the difference, employees receive a range of employment benefits, including paid holiday and pension contributions, but have limited flexibility in how they carry out their roles. Conversely, the self-employed do not receive employment benefits but should enjoy greater flexibility, for example around negotiating pay and the right to use substitutes (deps).

In practice, schools often blur the line between employment and self-employment. Many MU members tell us that although they work as self-employed teachers, schools regularly attempt to set their fees, refuse them the right to use deps, or insist that they offer free trial lessons – all of which are incompatible with self-employment. Schools are understandably keen for music teachers to comply with their preferred ways of working, but excessive or inappropriate control of self-employed teachers is not compliant with employment law.

Alongside working to fix these issues case by case, the MU's role is to improve conditions for our teaching members more broadly. One development in this area is a new template consultancy agreement for visiting music teachers (VMTs), born of an exciting new partnership between the MU and the Independent Schools’ Bursars Association (ISBA). This co-branded agreement is designed to clarify how schools should work with self-employed VMTs, and it should help to circumvent many of the issues described above.

We are delighted to be working with the ISBA, which supports and advises the bursars and senior management of over 1,000 independent schools. As a trade union representing over 34,000 musicians, the majority of whom teach, the MU is pleased that the ISBA is committed to helping its members work with self-employed teachers in a way that is legally compliant.

The new MU-ISBA template consultancy agreement is published on the MU website alongside extensive supporting guidance designed to be of use to both schools and VMTs. As with all MU contract templates, the materials are freely available to all. The MU-ISBA agreement can be amended to suit individual needs or used as a basis for teachers to create their own contracts. While it was created with independent schools in mind, it can be used in any school where it is a fit for the work.

Finding out more about employment status

When teaching members contact us with workplace issues, one of the first questions we ask them is about their employment status, which some are unsure about. This is understandable when you delve into the complexities of employment law, which is much more complex than my brief description of employment and self-employment given above. For this reason, the MU has published a comprehensive guide to employment status for VMTs, which is freely available. 

The new MU-ISBA agreement addresses self-employed teaching, but what if you are an employed teacher? Classroom music teachers are in most cases employed on teachers’ pay and conditions: the national pay scale agreed between the government and the larger teaching unions. MU members sometimes tell us that they are invited by schools to teach classroom music on a freelance basis. While the specifics will vary from case to case, it is our firm belief that music curriculum teaching is not freelance work – you should be employed in this role.

More common among MU members – in particular those engaged by music services and hubs – is worker status. A kind of pared-back employment, this offers certain flexibilities for both employer and worker, but it is often applied in a way that we would see as unfair. A real bugbear here is that worker status should allow the individual to accept or decline work as and when, with the employer also under no obligation to offer work – but, realistically, teachers on worker contracts cannot opt out of teaching pupils whenever they feel like it. In our view, therefore, such teachers should be part-time employees rather than workers, which would confer greater job security. This is an ongoing battle at a political and legal level, and while the current government has shown little interest in addressing zero-hour contracts and other issues of insecure employment, we hope that a different government might.

The MU cannot provide template worker or employed contracts as these are the employer's responsibility, but we can review contracts of all types for our members and help them challenge anything inappropriate. Meanwhile, for the sizeable proportion of self-employed musicians providing instrumental and vocal lessons in schools, I am confident that the new MU-ISBA agreement will improve the support given by schools, both in the independent sector and beyond.