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During tough fiscal times, New Zealand schools appear to be refining their budgets by hiring increasing numbers of teachers on short-term contracts.
Figures on the Ministry of Education's Education Counts website show the number of full-time equivalent staff working in New Zealand schools has dropped by 181 from 47,692 in April 2010 to 47,511 in April 2011.
The drop in numbers is the first recorded in about a decade.
The trend was similar in the Otago region, with a drop of 18 teachers between April 2010 and April 2011.
A Ministry of Education spokeswoman said the drop was not due to a decision by the ministry to cut teacher numbers.
Rather, the number of teaching staff funded by the ministry was determined by a formula that specified teacher/pupil ratios by year level in each school.
Although the teacher/pupil ratios had not changed in recent years, she confirmed there had been a "small decrease" in the total roll between 2010 and 2011.
"A difference of 18 [full-time equivalent teachers in Otago] as counted in the tables over approximately 150 schools is very small, and may reflect the hiring practices of the schools at the time."
Carisbrook School principal Ben Sincock was not surprised by the decrease in full-time equivalent staff in New Zealand schools.
He said fluctuating rolls during tough fiscal times meant principals were not keen to hire full-time staff in case their school's roll dropped significantly the following year.
When that happened, principals were stuck with too many staff, he said.
So it was becoming increasingly common for principals to hire staff on short-term contracts.
"It's a trend that could continue," he said. "Some rolls have fluctuated dramatically in the last five years in Dunedin schools.
"For the principals of those schools, they may be scared to make the call on hiring someone full-time."
Otago Primary Principals Association chairman Brent Caldwell said while there were fewer full-time teachers working in schools, it did not mean there were fewer teachers in classrooms.
He said some schools employed teachers in excess of their allocated staffing, as self-managing schools and some boards of trustees funded extra teachers out of their own reserves.
"For example, a small rural school may employ a part-time teacher to support the sole-teaching principal.
"Larger schools may use their own funds for special projects or to top up partial FTTE teachers and make it a full-time job."
Staffing levels changed constantly as enrolments increased or decreased from year to year, he said.
"The picture can change quite quickly, as we saw in Central Otago after the 2011 earthquake, for example.
"Schools, like any other organisation, must run efficiently, and school principals know that the prudent use of their greatest resource - teachers - is paramount to the success of their teaching and learning programmes."