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Is it to be “virtual” or “real” or “virtual reality”?

20 Dec

It is confession time.   Until recently, I have been terrified of technology. Now I am just tech non-savvy. 

Members of my immediate family, my partner and our son and daughter look upon me with considerable pity. My grandson, Sami (who is eight years old), knows more about accessing various platforms, especially during the lockdowns (because his school lessons are now on-line) than I will ever know.  When he talks about platforms, I think of train stations.  Say the word, virtual, and I think of nearly and almost.

In the not-so-distant past, when the governors with whom I interacted talked about having meetings virtually, I was stumped – virtually.   Did they mean nearly or almost having the meetings?   In short, family and friends described me as a thoroughbred Luddite, displaying technophobic leanings.

Servicing the meetings of two governing boards since March 2020 has been a sharp learning curve for me.  However, thanks to the sympathetic and painstaking teachings of the headteachers of the two schools I serve – Enid Lewis of Park Lane Primary School in Wembley, and David Syed of Northview Primary School in Neasden, Northwest London – I have (at last) become “comfortable” in using Microsoft Teams and Zoom to interact and support the governors with whom I am contracted to interact and support.   And about time! At any rate, the headteachers and governors have breathed a sigh of relief to learn that the clerk is (at last) up to speed on limited technology.

Heaven knows when it will be safe for governors to meet in person.  But, whenever that time does arrive, what with the advances the scientists are making vis-à-vis the myriad vaccines currently being tried and rolled out around the world, would members of governing boards wish to meet in person? 

By then, governors may well be disinclined to do so for a host of reasons.   First, there is the business of travelling to and from the school/academy.   Attending and participating in meetings take time, organisation and energy.   If governors are parents, they have to arrange childcare.   Where governors live fair distances away from their schools/academies travel could be a problem, especially during winter when (as recently) we have been “holed in” with snow and ice.   Where governors hold demanding jobs, arrangements have to be made to leave work early, instead of at 7.00 p.m. when they are generally at their desks. 

Consequently, holding meetings “virtually” is definitely a huge advantage and, when the lockdown is over, the positives may be lost at a cost.    

However, there is a downside to governors not convening in the same room to discharge their functions.   To start with, many older governors, apart from viewing their images on-line with negativity, have yet to come to terms with the speed with which technology has moved forward.  Just ask Jackie Weaver, who hosted a meeting of Handforth parish council on 10 December 2020. She became an internet sensation of political drama.  Weaver starred in her role as the “clerk” to a meeting attempting to keep a handful of superannuated male councillors in order.  She simply muted those who were “misbehaving”.  However, despite her best efforts, it made for a chaotic virtual meeting, which was recorded and went viral. 

Many governors who are generally vocal in person, tend to go silent on Zoom/Microsoft Teams and those who would hesitate to demur in person, become quite stroppy on the internet.  

There is also something about body language when governors meet at their schools and academies.   While it is possible to signal that one wants to speak on a platform, the fact of the matter is that governors (meeting virtually) lose track of what they should “click” to signal this intention.  Sometimes, the chair loses her/his way too, in picking up such signals.  It so much easier to do so in person.  

Further, something is lost in translation by governors not convening in person.  To start with, many governing boards look forward to refreshing themselves with tea, cakes, sandwiches and sympathy before launching into the meetings.   They engage in the informal chat and gossip before meetings and frequently linger after them to do so.   This is conspicuous by its absence when convening on Zoom or Microsoft Teams.  

While it appears that we have a long, long way to go before governors may be able to convene in person, it is well worth thinking about whether there will be merit it doing so.   May be, governors can compromise and do a mix-and-match – with some meetings held “bodily” and others “virtually”.  However, I would suggest that they don’t waste time having a huge debate about whether they should do so. They would be in danger of emulating the behaviour of the councillor in Handforth, Cheshire and need a meeting or two to decide on how to meet.    

Lockdown: Most Serious Educational Disruption in a Lifetime

13 Apr

I         The Good, Bad and Ugly

Times of crises bring out the best and worst of human nature.   We have seen amazing acts of kindness coming from all quarters.  Neighbours, for instance, have marshalled their resources offering to support the elderly, the sick and the housebound in a range of matters.

Daniel Kaufman, Senior Fellow, Global Economy and Development, wrote from Washington, D.C. that he ventured out briefly on 18 March 2020 “to the store a block away, estimating that the weekly truck may have come to partly replenish the empty shelves”.  He and his wife needed an item in short supply, a hand sanitizer bottle.  He asked at the counter whether the pharmacy had any.   The staff members replied that the last few bottles had been sold.   A young woman, who was paying at the next counter, turned to him, opened her bag, and quickly handed him a small bottle of hand sanitizer. He resisted at first, telling her that it was truly hers and that she also very much needed to use it. She insisted, saying that she had two more bottles, and emphasized that at a difficult time like this they needed to share.

He thanked her profusely, observing a social distance.  As they were leaving, a man in his eighties, using a cane, came towards Kaufman, “beaming at the sight of the just-gifted little bottle” in his hand.  He asked if many were still left on the shelf and if so, where he could find them.  Kaufman replied that there weren’t any and offered him the one sold to him by the kind, young woman.   She heard the exchange, went towards them, opened her bag again, took out the second bottle and told the elderly gentleman that he could have hers (and not Kaufman’s).  Each one of the three now had one bottle of hand-sanitizer.  Kaufman was touched.

Outside the store, he saw her. They introduced themselves to each other.  He said he was Chilean and enquired whether she was Canadian. She courteously replied that she was a U.S. citizen. She wondered aloud why Kaufman thought she was Canadian. He explained that there was a new term that had been coined in Canada: “It is solidarity and mutual help turned into concrete community action, which quickly spread through Canada.” She appreciated the exchange, and she asked whether Kaufman and his wife needed any help, and likewise he asked her. They parted.

Having emanated from Wuhan in China, Coronavirus has spread like wildfire blown by lusty winds right across the world.  After China, Italy and Spain were hit the hardest.  At the time of writing, citizens of both countries were quarantined.  Italy that invented opera.  In an amateur video, the Italian Air Force flew a single jet, representing the virus, meeting other fighter jets streaming the colours of the Italian flat.  And Pavarotti sang: “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot with the lyrics: “We shall overcome.”

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Coronavirus: what governors need to do now

13 Apr

We are going through testing times, worse than those experienced during the 2008 financial crash, and probably the worst since World War II.  At least, in the last world war, the enemy was visible.  Not so Covid 19, the virus that has ravished the planet.  Governing boards, like the schools and academies they oversee and serve, will have to adapt rapidly to a new way of working, understand what’s expected of the chair and how all governors can support their institutions, during this period of prolonged closure.

The Key, a governors’ organisation, has produced some excellent advice for the chair of the governing board during these testing times. What follows is a synopsis of that advice which has been put together for The Key by Lucinda Bell, a senior lawyer specialising in education law, Jacqueline Baker, an education consultant who specialises in senior leadership recruitment, and Gulshan Kayembe, an independent consultant who has been an inspector.

I      Preamble

Since schools and academies closed for most pupils on 23 March, headteachers and staff members have had to get to grips with a whole new way of working.   Leaders ae running things quite differently and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.  The role of chair of the board of a school/academy board will evolve too.  Meanwhile, what can the chair do best to discharge her/his functions?

(a)     Support the headteacher

What a headteacher considers to be supportive and how much of that s/he needs from the chair will depend on the headteacher on the one hand and the capabilities of the chair on the other.

(b)     Take the lead from the headteacher

The most important thing for the chair is to let her/his headteacher know that s/he is available to the headteacher and ask her/him how frequently both should communicate with and contact each other.  There’s a fine line between support and getting in the way.

(c)      Be the link between the school/academy and the board

The chair should let governors know that all communication with the school/academy should be managed through the chair. Though well-meaning, a flurry of emails will simply burden school leaders.  It is critical to head this off at the outset.

The chair should let governors know that s/he will be communicating with them, possibly on a weekly or fortnightly basis by email.

(d)     Be a sounding board

The chair could be asked about operational decisions by the headteacher, who should be given the opportunity to run these past her/him.  The chair’s role here is to act as a sounding board, not to hijack the headteacher’s powers and responsibilities. If asked by the headteacher what s/he should do in a specific instance, the chair should offer thoughts and then be prepared to step back. The actual decision sits with the headteacher.

(e)      Show the headteacher and staff some love

The chair could write a letter of support from the whole board to the headteacher and staff to demonstrate appreciation.  This can go a long way to making the headteacher and staff feel supported and valued.

II     Meetings

(a)     Holding remote, ‘virtual’ meetings

The chair should avoid all non-essential contact, and this includes governing board meetings. The DfE is advising boards to use alternative arrangements, like video or teleconferencing, instead of face-to-face meetings. The Key has provided very good guidance about holding meetings “virtually”. This can be accessed here.

On a practical level, the chair must plan for what to do if s/he and the vice chair aren’t available for a meeting or to support the headteacher and maintain contact with the school/academy.

Review succession planning and make sure each governor knows when s/he is expected to step up.

Also plan for the possibility of the clerk being unavailable. One of the governors (but not the headteacher) is allowed to step in to clerk a meeting, if needed.

(b)     Be sensible about agenda items

Meetings should focus on urgenttime-bound decisions. Some examples of items on which to focus are as follows.

  • Approval of the Schools Financial Value Standards document to be submitted to the local authority (maintained schools), if not done so already.
  • Approving the budget
  • Approving pay recommendations
  • Recruiting a headteacher (if relevant)
  • Staff restructures (if relevant)

The governing board would be forgiven if it delayed consideration of the following.

(c)      When to use chair’s action

If something urgent arises and it’s not possible for the board to meet, the chair has the power to act during the emergency such as updating the vital child protection policy or handling an urgent press response.

III    Decide how to handle statutory procedures

There may be some time-bound matters that will have to be delayed, given the extraordinary circumstances.  Here is a sample.

(a)     Grievances and disciplinary appeals

The board can continue these remotely if all parties agree to do so and if it’s practicable (e.g. all witnesses can attend remotely, evidence can still be gathered, etc). If anyone demurs, governors will have to defer these until the school/academy re-opens.

(b)     Exclusions

The government closed schools and academies on 23 March 2020. However, they continue to remain open for a small number of pupils. This has caused some confusion about whether they’re closed for the purposes of statutory timelines for considering exclusions.

The DfE has confirmed to The Key previously that ‘school days’ for the purpose of statutory deadlines like this are the 190 teaching days of the regular school/academy year. Though the DfE hasn’t explicitly said that meetings to consider exclusions should be deferred during this time, it’s difficult to imagine how these would be considered working days. Accordingly, it is justifiable to defer considering exclusion cases until schools and academies re-open.

(c)      Complaints

If the school/academy receives a complaint during the closure, the chair should suggest to the headteacher that s/he could write an initial response to:

  • outline the school’s/academy’s position (e.g. if it’s about a child not getting a place because the school/academy decided the parent wasn’t a ‘critical worker’, the head must explain how the decision was made) and
  • explain that that the current situation means the school/academy can’t follow its usual complaints procedures until it’s re-opened.

IV    Streamline monitoring

Monitoring should focus on essential areas during this period. They are the following.

  • Safeguarding
  • Health and safety
  • Headteacher and staff wellbeing
  • Continuing education

To a lesser extent, the board will also want to monitor how the school/academy is continuing to provide an education for pupils. In line with the government’s guidance on social distancing and self-isolation, board members should not monitor the school/academy in person, or arrange in-person meetings with staff, unless it is necessary.

(a)     Monitoring safeguarding

The chair, or the link governor for safeguarding, special educational needs or the Pupil Premium, should be responsible for this area.   Other governors can feed in as necessary.

The governor with responsibility for safeguarding could arrange a call with the headteacher, designated safeguarding lead (DSL) or special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO) to talk about the following matters.

  • How the school/academy is making sure vulnerable pupils are kept safe (including those who are at home, rather than at the school/academy), and whether these plans are working well.
  • How the school/academy is working with the local authority (LA) to safeguard vulnerable pupils.
  • How the school/academy is checking on all pupils who are staying at home.
  • How pupils, especially vulnerable pupils who are still coming into the school/academy, are coping.
  • Whether staff have concerns about any pupils who aren’t technically categorised as ‘vulnerable’ by the DfE, and what the school/academy is doing for these pupils.
  • How the school/academy is supporting pupils who are eligible for free school meals, and whether pupils are accessing this provision.
  • If the school/academy is delivering remote lessons and what safeguarding arrangements are in place to keep pupils safe.
  • The arrangements that the LA may have made to create ‘hub’ schools/academies, and what impact they could have on safeguarding arrangements.
  • Any support that staff members need from the chair.

Vulnerable children means children who are supported by social care and those with safeguarding and welfare needs, including the following.

  • Pupils with child-in-need plans
  • Pupils on child protection plans
  • Looked-after children
  • Young carers
  • Disabled children
  • Pupils with education, health and care plans (EHCPs).

School leaders will work closely with social workers and parents to decide on arrangements for specific pupils.

School leaders must work with the LA to set reasonable safeguarding procedures (for instance, around ID checks for parents they don’t know) in the “hub” schools/academies.

(b)     Monitoring health and safety

The health and safety link governor (if there is one) should monitor health and safety.  In the absence of this person, the responsibility falls to the chair.

The responsible governor should arrange a call with the headteacher or school/academy business manager to talk about the following.

  • The arrangements the school/academy has in place to maintain social distancing for staff and pupils on site
  • Wider health and safety arrangements (such as having a first aider on site, an increased cleaning rota or locking down certain parts of the school/academy building)
  • The continued safety of the school/academy building, including any previously raised premises issues
  • Any support that staff need

(c)      Monitoring headteacher and staff well-being

Responsibility for monitoring the well-being of the headteacher and staff falls to the designated governor or in her/his absence, the chair.

The designated governor should raise the following matters with the headteacher.

  • Any support s/he and/or their staff need
  • How staff members are adapting to remote working, or working with a skeletal number of staff members
  • Whether all staff members have the resources they need to work from home
  • Any illness among staff

In these exceptional circumstances, the headteacher will be bombarded with considerable information and several demands (from the LA, the DfE, unions and anxious parents – to name a few). The most important thing is to be the headteacher’s ally.

Staff members who are working remotely, especially if they have their own children at home, are probably going to take some time to adjust. It’s important that the school/academy doesn’t overburden them heavy workloads to compensate for not being on site.

(d)     How to monitor continuing education

The chair should assume responsibility for continuing education.  Other designated governors for the different areas of the curriculum should cede to her/him to enable the headteacher to keep in contact with the minimum number of governors.  The chair should lean on link governors to feed into any conversations about remote learning.

The chair should talk to the headteacher about the following.

  • The school’s/academy’s approach to remote learning and addressing the following.
    • Is the school/academy sending resource packs home? Are teachers recording video lessons?
    • How much work does the headteacher and staff expect pupils to do?
  • Any guidance or support the school/academy has given to parents about helping their children’s learning at home.
  • The balance of learning activities for pupils who are still attending the school/academy.

School/academy leaders will need to navigate a lot of challenges around remote learning, including the following.

  • Access to technology at home.
  • The fact that pupils may not be in a very effective learning environment (for instance, if they’re sharing small spaces with siblings, or have parents balancing childcare with working from home).
  • How capable parents are of supporting their children’s learning (many school/academy leaders are emphasising embedding existing learning, because teaching pupils new things remotely can be difficult).
  • How equipped the school/academy is to take on more tech-led types of remote teaching.

The Department for Education (DfE) doesn’t have any expectations about what remote teaching should look like.  All the DfE wants is for schools/academies to plan engaging activities that encourage children to log on.

(e)      Sharing information with fellow governors

Chairs, or whoever carries out the monitoring activities above, should report back to the full governing board regularly. You can do this via email.  This will ensure all governors are up-to-date or can step in to help monitor the school/academy or support the headteacher if the chair or another governor isn’t available.  Regular updates will also help the board start to think about the impact of the closure on issues related to governors’ link roles or committees.

For instance, if the school/academy can’t run after-school/after-academy clubs, this may impact the school’s/academy’s budget.

V      Keep details on GIAS up to date

Make sure you know who to get in touch with to keep contact information updated on Get information About Schools.  The government will use this to communicate with governors, and some of that information may require quick and decisive action.

Now, perhaps more than ever, it’s important to avoid mixed messages. Should parents approach the chair and/or other governors directly with questions or complaints about the school/academy, refer them:

  • directly to the headteacher, or
  • to the school’s/academy’s complaints procedures. However, dealing with formal complaints is likely to be deferred until schools/academies re-open.

New report on the state of Children’s Mental Health Services

13 Apr

On 30 January 2020, Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, released a report on ‘The state of children’s mental health services’. She mentioned that the National Health Service (NHS) improved provision for children’s mental health services.  However, it is still very much the Cinderella of the NHS – meeting the needs of only 12.8% of children in England, who have mental health problems.  While Longfield welcomed the progress that the Children and Young people’s Mental Health Services (CYPMHS), she warned of the chasm between children’s needs and the availability of services.

With the extra £60 million invested in special mental health services, an additional 53,000 children began treatment.  There was an improvement in tackling eating disorders, where the number of youngsters accessing services increased by nearly 50% since 2016/17.  However, much more needed to be done.  Only 3% of children were referred to the services – which was one in four with a diagnosable mental health condition.

The headline data in Anne Longfield’s report were as follows.

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Government favours decent rise in teachers’ salaries

13 Apr

On 18 September 2019, Secretary of State, Gavin Williamson, wrote to Dr Patricia Rice, the Chair of the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB), signalling the need to support the recruitment and retention of teachers and ensure that the substantial increase in school/academy funding announced by the government is invested as effectively as possible.  This was to include a significant uplift in the starting salary of classroom teachers.

Following on from this, it set out the government’s intention to increase starting salaries to £30,000 nationally by September 2022. The letter made a strong case for schools and academies to move “towards a less steep pay progression structure compared to what is currently typical in the early years of a teacher’s career, with lower average percentage increases between each pay point on the main pay range, alongside significantly higher starting and early career salaries”.

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Young People Say the Funniest Things

31 Dec

Teachers regularly have unusual exchanges and encounters with their pupils, a key reason why they become who and what they are professionally.  Below are some pithy descriptions of these encounters. 

(1)        Teacher: Why can’t freshwater fish live in salt water?  Student: The salt would give them high blood pressure.

(2)        Teacher: Mira went to the library at 5:15 and left at 6:45. How long was Mira at the library? Student: Not long.

(3)        Teacher: What do we call a group of stars that makes an imaginary picture in the sky? Student: A consternation.

(4)        The headteacher was walking through the hallways at his middle school, when he saw a new substitute teacher standing outside his classroom with his forehead against a locker. He heard him mutter, “How did you get yourself into this?”

Knowing he was assigned to a difficult class, the headteacher tried to offer moral support. “Are you okay?” he asked. “Can I help?”

He lifted his head and replied, “I’ll be fine as soon as I get this kid out of his locker.”

(5)        Student: I don’t understand why my grade was so low. How did I do on my research paper?  Teacher: Actually, you didn’t turn in a research paper. You turned in a random assemblage of sentences. In fact, the sentences you apparently kidnapped in the dead of night and forced into this violent and arbitrary plan of yours clearly seemed to be placed on the pages against their will. Reading your paper was like watching unfamiliar, uncomfortable people interacting at a cocktail party that no one wanted to attend in the first place. You didn’t submit a research paper. You submitted a hostage situation.

(6)        In an exam, a student once wrote: “Drake circumcised the globe.”

(7)        Teacher:         What is the capital of England

Pupil:               E

Realising the potential of pupils with special needs

12 Aug

In the animal kingdom, the fittest survive whenever the chips are down.   We humans like to think that we are cut above them. However, as reductions in the funding of education have bitten deeper and deeper, the vulnerable – i.e. those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) – appear to be suffering more than most.

A report by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR), a think tank, reported in April 2019 on the outcomes of research in the area. The report mentioned that funding for pupils with SEND had fallen by 17% since 2015.  Northern areas, where the reduction was 22%, had suffered more than the rest of the country.  The funding had not only not kept pace with rising demands, said the research, but also been cut back.  The neglect of pupils with SEND from the incipient stages meant that, if these children had received the right support at the outset, they would not, by now, have such complex needs.

It is not all doom and gloom, however. Jack Hunter, the report’s author, said that since 2015, funding had increased by 11% but demand had gone up by 35%.  In North England, funding increased by 8% but those in need of support by 39%.  IPPR North called on government to view support for SEND pupils as an “investment in our collective well-being and a just economy”.  Hunter wrote about the paucity of support: “This is a moral failure, but it is also a failure to recognise the economic benefits of upfront investment in young people’s futures. For example, supporting one person with a learning disability into employment could increase their (sic) income by between 55% and 95%, and reduce lifetime costs to the taxpayer by at least £170,000.”

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What Gavin Williamson’s promotion will mean for schools

12 Aug

On 24 July 2019, Gavin Williamson CBE, the former Defence Secretary of State, was appointed Education Secretary replacing Damian Hinds, sacked by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, following the night of the long knives.

On 30 April 2019, former Prime Minister Theresa May dismissed Williamson from his position as Defence Secretary following allegations that he leaked the news from a top-level National Security Council meeting that the Chinese business giant Huawei was to be granted limited access to help build UK’s new 5G network.  Williamson was reported to have been opposed to this move.  He strenuously denied leaking the information.  Sir Mark Sedwill, Mrs May’s Cabinet Secretary, was asked to investigate the leak after The Daily Telegraph reported her plan for Huawei to have a role.   His report pointed the finger at Williamson.

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How will inspectors assess governors as leaders?

12 Aug

From September 2019, Ofsted’s new inspection model takes effect.   There will not be a separate judgement for governors. Rather, inspectors will include a section on governance in their report subsuming governance practice into leadership and giving leadership a grade.   What does this mean?

I           The areas that will come under the microscope

Gulshan Kayembe, one of The Key’s associate experts who has experience of inspecting schools and academies, has described what the inspectors will be scrutinising when judging governance. Set out below are the key questions they will ask themselves prior to making judgements. For instance, do governors

  • understand their role and carry it out effectively;
  • ensure the school/academy has a clear vision, ethos, and strategic direction;
  • ensure resources are well managed;
  • hold executive leaders – the headteacher or the Chief Education Officer (CEO), for example – to account for educational performance and the performance management of staff;
  • oversee the financial performance of the school/academy, and ensure money is well spent (including the pupil premium);
  • hold leaders to account for the quality of education and staff training;
  • ensure the provider fulfils its statutory duties (complying with provisions of the Equality Act 2010, implementing the Prevent Strategyand abiding by the advice contained in Keeping Children Safe in Education);
  • promote the welfare of learners; and
  • ensure that the education the school/academy provided has a positive impact on all its pupils?

The full judgement on leadership covers a wide range of matters for which the school/academy leaders are responsible.

You can read a full description of the judgements vis-à-vis governance on pages 66 to 67 (paragraphs 233 to 241) of the inspection handbook.

In maintained schools, those responsible for governance are governors. In a single academy trust, it’s the trustees. In Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs), it may be local governors or trustees depending on the scheme of delegation.

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Relationships, Sex and Health Education

12 Aug

Relationships, sex and health education becomes compulsory in secondary schools and academies from September 2020.  For primary schools the requirement will be to teach relationships and health education.   While academies do not have to follow the national curriculum, they must pay due regard to the advice of the Department for Education.

(1)       What is compulsory for schools

Schools will be required to teach the subject matter at different stages.  However, when and how the subject is taught will be left to governors, headteachers and teachers.

All schools (whether primary or secondary) must have written policies on how they plan to teach relationship and sex education. They must consult parents when developing the policies, make copies available to members of the public who request them and display the policies on their websites.

Schools must take account of the religious backgrounds of all pupils when planning the teaching.  They have to comply with the Equalities Act 2010 and must not discriminate against anyone on the basis of age, sex, race, disability, religion/belief, gender reassignment, pregnancy/maternity, marriage/civil partnership or sexual orientation.

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