Minutes of Evidence:  22 March 2001



Post-Primary Education in Northern Ireland


(Governing Bodies Association)

Thursday 22 March 2001

Members present:
Mr Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mr Gibson
Mr McElduff
Mr McHugh
Mr K Robinson

Mr H Algeo
Mr F McCallion Governing Bodies Association
Dr R.J Rodgers,
Mr J Miskelly

The Chairperson:

You are welcome to the Committee session. The representatives from the Governing Bodies Association will give a presentation and questions from Committee members will follow.

Mr Algeo:

The Governing Bodies Association (GBA) was pleased to make a presentation to the Review Body on Post-Primary Education, and I thank the Education Committee for the opportunity to present the GBA's views on the review.

Mr Miskelly:

The GBA believes that there should be diversity of quality school provision for all children in the Province and that each school should promote the fullest spiritual, moral and social development of each child committed to its charge. We should aim to promote learning to enrich quality of life and strengthen the community, pursue excellence in all its forms and encourage constructive parental involvement.

The present transfer test is no longer acceptable, but selection is inevitable and must be on merit. Any review of the curriculum must be capable of meeting the needs of all pupils across the range of academic and vocational abilities. An examination of the appropriate structures necessary to deliver the curriculum should follow. The undisputed link between social deprivation and low achievement is not unique to Northern Ireland. A major social initiative is necessary at the earliest possible stage and to promote primary schools.

The present transfer test and the arrangements surrounding it are less than satisfactory and other options must be explored. The concept of continuous assessment is now well embedded in all aspects of education and the workplace. The GBA favours the monitoring and recording of pupils' progress from P1 to P7 in a range of skills, gifts and talents, based on a shared responsibility between teacher, principal, parent and pupil and together with some modification to Key Stage 2 assessment. In a system of academic and vocational schools, admissions should be on merit and reflect pupils' achievements, talents, gifts and aspirations in conjunction with teacher and parental guidance.

The age of transfer should remain as it is. Transfer at age 14 has several disadvantages. The word "selection" has unfortunate connotations; "choice" would be better. Such choice on merit is inevitable, and the right to choose should be extended to all schools. A uniform system of comprehensive schools is not acceptable, nor would it meet the needs of the pupils. The Programme for Government published recently states that the Northern Ireland Executive seek to "provide high quality education to all".

The needs of business and industry will also be considered. The Scottish system was acceptable in that country when introduced, but it is no longer satisfactory. Results in Scotland cannot be properly compared with those in Northern Ireland.

The common curriculum is now generally recognised as inappropriate to a large number of pupils. Many leaders of industry and business testify to pupils' lack of ability in mathematics and English. Some firms now run their own training schemes to ensure that employees attain a reasonable level in basic skills.

The success of the school improvement programme and other such initiatives cannot be denied. There is, however, a better way of recognising the diversity of gifts that young people possess, and the curriculum should be built around their varied abilities. Appropriate changes to the curriculum would help to motivate and engage those who are not motivated to learn.

High academic standards must also be maintained or improved if Northern Ireland is to remain competitive in a changing world. Fashionable subject choices will not provide the bedrock necessary for the twenty-first century, nor will information technology alone. The spiritual dimension must not be lost, although the Department of Education found no place for it in its latest strategic plan. The Governing Bodies Association cannot ignore the heritage passed down from founding trustees, who were originally responsible for providing educational establishments in Ireland.

With regard to social deprivation, there will inevitably be resource implications, whatever decisions are taken following the review. Schools, governors, trustees and employing authorities are continually under pressure from new legislation and consequential increased operating costs. The equality issues emanating from human rights requirements will impinge upon school budgets. Any change that would result in the emergence of an independent grammar or secondary school sector is to be deplored and would only emphasise social division. There is ample evidence to show that where resources are directed to meet particular needs and standards, the esteem in which schools, their pupils and staff are held has been raised. Considerable inroads have been made with a number of initiatives, and those should continue. All pupils have a basic right to an education provision, suitable to their needs, to enable them to mature into employable and responsible young adults.

The review body has not been asked to report on the financial implications, but it is essential to point out that, in any reorganised system, additional resources must be found; a mere redistribution is not the answer. Any outcome which - yet again, for the third time in 30 years - produces winners and losers may create more social problems. Equality of opportunity is essential, as is fair treatment. Equality of provision, however, does not mean equal treatment.

I am anxious to draw to the Committee's attention the proposal by the Department of Education to go to public consultation on commonality of funding. It seems rather strange that they are proceeding with that when the curriculum changes are to be shelved until 2003, and particularly strange to look at funding as the review body continues its work.

We recognise that poverty must be tackled, but with a greater input from social services and, where appropriate, the community. Diversity of school provision should continue. If a change in structure flows from a local initiative, that should be accommodated with due consideration and consultation. Our universities are not the same, but have different history, ethos and course provision. School provision should be further developed on academic, vocational and technical lines, meeting the real needs of pupils.

From the attendances at public meetings of the review body, it is evident that, in several areas, there is considerable satisfaction with the school system. It is clear from the views expressed at meetings that there is - and will be - a wide divergence of opinion. To take score and attempt to change our education system following public meetings and written submissions will not provide a secure result. There is a need to stop and ponder. We are pleased that the review body has been granted an extension of time to complete its work.

We should not change to meet ideological social demand but, rather, facilitate change as it evolves. In simple terms, we should conserve the best and improve the rest. If our present system is so unacceptable, how have we achieved the highest results in the United Kingdom? There has been little regard to the significant improvement in all types of school. In 1985-86, 19·5% of children left school without any formal qualifications. In 1998-99, the figure was 3·1%. I think that following that, the figure went down to 2·7% and for 2001, it should be down below 2%.

The Chairperson:

You say that we should conserve the best and improve the rest. However, a large number of people who have made representations to us as an Education Committee say that the grammar school system creates elitism and that it is impossible to improve the status of the rest while that system is in place.

Dr Rodgers:

I have a problem with the term "elitism". If, as it has been claimed, 40% of the post-primary population attend grammar schools, that seems to me like rather a large elite. I am first generation grammar school, so my case illustrates the fact that there is no disadvantage to those who come from a lower social category. The statistics prove that even in social categories 3(manual) to 5 Northern Ireland sends markedly more people to university than any of the other countries in the rest of the British Isles. So, there is no disadvantage to children from a different social category. Anyone who knows the grammar school world will know that there is a good representation of all classes. One of the advantages that we claim for our schools is that we do not take account of social class.

Mr Gibson:

People have used various means of getting around selection. They have invented new terms such as "informed choice". As long as we have universities and competition for jobs is there an alternative to grading, selection, parental choice or informed choice? Sometimes, we jump from one argument to another. Public debate has concentrated on structures; no one has looked at education or at what society needs. No one - in this Committee or any other group involved in education - would get off lightly if we do not produce something better at the end of this. How can we do that?

Mr McCallion:

I agree with you. There was an interesting series of articles in 'The Glasgow Herald' during November. The Fabian Society in Scotland proposed that public schools in Scotland should be forbidden to select children on the basis of ability. The public school population is quite significant there: 4% overall in Scotland, 25% in Edinburgh, 15% in Glasgow. Then letters arrived, saying that that would be a mistake and that, instead, the University of Edinburgh should be forced to take 10% of entrants from the lowest socio-economic groups, 3M to 5. If Queen's University decided to take only 10%, it would cut its intake by a factor of two or three. We do that job and meet our requirements very well. Our task is to determine how we can improve the lot of our children, and the grammar school system has been successful in doing that. Not only have the grammar schools been very successful, the secondary schools have, too.

I know how popular the decision not to publish results was; when the Minister made his announcement, everyone said publicly how clever he was. In 1992, 22% of children in Northern Ireland secondary schools got five GCSEs; the figure is now 33%. Judging by the figures for pupils getting five GCSEs, English school results are improving, but they are not as good as ours. Indeed, they are still falling behind. The system in Northern Ireland improved results for all children. People might say that grammar schools wish to keep the present system, but we have almost reached a plateau at about 95%. No doubt we should improve, but there is not much improvement that we can make. The place for improvement is in the secondary schools, which have been doing a great job ever since it became an issue that they should improve.

In 1990, I was principal of a secondary school in the Twinbrook area of Belfast. I remember an awful conversation with a senior teacher. I had been in the school for six weeks when he asked me, "What sort of a joint do you want?" I asked him what he was talking about. He said "Shall we have education for unemployment or leisure or sex or smoking or health?" I let him go on, for I thought that he would run out of subjects. However, when he reached the fifteenth, I had to stop him. I said that I wanted a school that would improve the children's chances. That is the sort of education system that we want. We cannot say that the system in Scotland or the comprehensive system in England or Wales improve the lot of children. When they get as good as us - or start catching up - I shall look at it.

Mr Gibson:

The mistake that secondary schools made was trying to ape grammar schools. Is that not the fundamental mistake of the 60s?

Dr Rodgers:

I agree with what Mr Gibson said earlier. Wherever there are more applications for places than a school can accommodate - whatever the structure - there will have to be some form of selection. "Selection" has acquired an unfortunate image, but there will have to be some "choice". - whatever term is used will be loaded in some way. We have been anxious to find an alternative to the present selection procedure. There are difficulties with the current system, and we are not set to defend it. Over the years, we have asked people to talk to us about finding a better way of selection. An agreed form of selection is certainly preferable to selection by postcode, parish or the will of the individual school. If more people apply for a school than it has places for, there must be some way of determining entry.

If the Committee has not already done so, it would be advantageous for it to invite Dr Hugh Morrison of the post-graduate School of Education at Queen's to talk to it. He is engaged in interesting research on assessment that has the potential not only to improve assessment in the primary and other sectors but to remove from the shoulders of primary teachers and principals the responsibility to make assessments in place of an examination. It would be of great interest and value to the Committee to have Dr Morrison show it the direction of his research; it has great potential.

The Chairperson:

We shall consider that.

Mr McElduff:

What are the disadvantages of transferring at the age of 14?

Dr Rodgers:

I received a letter from a consultant psychiatrist, Dr Arthur Kerr, who wrote to me in my capacity as chairman of a voluntary grammar school. He said
"One area of particular concern which I feel is important is the age of transfer and selection process from primary to secondary education. I feel this should remain at age 11 and not be delayed to the age of 14. Apart from the fact that this may 'offer the best prospect of desirable continuity in all post primary schools' it is a very sensitive age psychologically for teenagers. Fourteen year old adolescents are notoriously preoccupied with anxieties and apprehensions about their future. They harbour ambivalent feelings as regards their home and parents. On the one hand wishing to become independent of the home and striving to do so, and on the other hand being dependent on home for emotional and financial support. In some cases this can lead to arguments and distress to both parents and child. They also have many other anxieties such as concern re their physical appearance, eg, acne and body weight, and secondary sexual characteristics and concern re their acceptance by the opposite sex. They are often also preoccupied with philosophical ideas re life and death, etc. Most adolescents cope reasonably well but several do not, and to impose the selection test, and perhaps a change of school, at this stage could be psychologically damaging and insensitive."

That expands what Mr Miskelly said about our preference for transfer at the age of 11, rather than 14. The other thing that impressed me at review body meetings was the number of parents who said that their children were ready to change school at the age of 11.

Mr K Robinson:

You mentioned the Key Stage 2 assessment and suggested some sort of modification. What sort of modification would be suitable?

Mr McCallion:

We are stuck with the exam. We live with the 11-plus and the transfer system as best we can, and make it work as best we can. We do not have an answer. We know what we want - a defendable examination that is seen to be fit for its purpose and which will have no high jumps. At present, a child sits the 11-plus on one of two days, or one of three days, and cannot repeat it unless he or she is under age. It is almost impossible to repeat it. That is completely out of kilter with other examinations. The only other similar system would be something like final examinations in, for example, medicine, and even in that case students who are sick are allowed to sit them on another occasion.

Examinations such as the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) are carried out internationally and are tested on a selection of children in Northern Ireland every three or four years to provide a comparison with western industrial nations. One of the advantages of a good internationally recognised standard test is that we know what will happen if we put an examination into our system: our teachers are good, our parents are absolutely committed to education, as are our children, who will do better. The problem with examinations in Northern Ireland is that levels of attainment keep rising. Such an examination if it is open to all children and is a good, defendable examination will show that the average level of achievement in English, maths and science in Northern Ireland is rising and will give international recognition to that fact. When we say to the outside world, "Come to Northern Ireland - it is a good idea", we could also say, "In international tests, Northern Ireland gets better results, and we can see it." We shall not have the situation that we had the last time that Bill Clinton was here, when the mayor of Dundalk stood on a podium and said, "Dundalk is a wonderful place in which to invest; we have a fantastic regional technical college and a magnificent education system." What if people looked to Northern Ireland and said "Northern Ireland is actually quite good, and its education system is kind of superb." That would be of advantage to us all.

The exam should be not just for grammar and secondary schools but for society. It is in everyone's interest that our children read better and do better at maths and science.

Mr K Robinson:

You mentioned that 40% of our children are now in grammar schools. Is it right that 40% of the next generation is in that form of education? Can all those children cope with the work in a grammar school? I ask that because I suspect that if education authorities go on putting pupils with Cs and Ds into grammar schools in certain areas, they will bring about comprehensive education anyway.

Mr McCallion:

The disadvantage of being successful is that one has to live with one's success. We must live with the fact that parents perceive certain schools as good and want their children to go to them. Also, when 94-95% of children fulfil the criteria, people are inclined to say "Well, that is good. Why would you want to draw back?" Probably we should never have been made the offer, but 20 years ago we were given quotas to fill. I know of principals in grammar schools who have asked their board to draw back 10-20 places, because they could not find the numbers.

As principal of Aquinas Grammar School, which was a brand new school with a quota of 110, I sat in terror of my intake in the first year. I got 20 As, 40 Bs and 40 Cs, and I had to live with that. I had to get the grades at the other end, and I was pleased with the outcome, but in many ways we are stuck with what we have.

We are aware that the number of pupils in the system is going down. The Belfast Education and Library Board is especially aware of that. We do not know what we should do. It would be easier to discuss were we not also discussing our future in the review of education. We are aware of the problem, and we shall have to discuss it.

Mr McHugh:

If we are dealing with lower numbers and, consequently, bringing more C-grades into academic schools, we will end up - as is sometimes the case elsewhere - with a large number of pupils who are unable to compete. I am also against the present situation because of the number of pupils who are deemed to be failures. You support some sort of test, but that continues the idea that people will fail.

You say you have been trying to achieve a new selection system, but how hard have you been trying? I should not have thought that the academic schools had tremendous interest in finding a solution that would remove them from the top of the perch.

Dr Rodgers:

Mr Robinson might well have been sitting in on a number of meetings of the executive of the GBA to have asked the questions that he did. If he had, he would have heard at least one of its members - and I am too modest to mention who that member was - say repeatedly, not recently but over the years, that it was wrong for us to have taken the blandishments of the offer that Mr McCallion has referred to. My view is that selection and the academic school cater better for a more rigorously selective group of children.

As to there being a sense of failure, my whole life has been in education, and I am concerned that every child should savour success of some kind. That is the motivation behind our suggestion that there should be an alternative to an academic track. There is certainly a place for the academic track, and I do not think that anyone is suggesting that there is no place for it. The report on which the review body is operating mentioned specifically some of the benefits of what it calls the "grammar school effect", but I take the view that we ought not to be seeking to increase the number of children attending grammar school. I would be content to see the number reduced, but we should be looking at those who are capable of benefiting from an academic education.

We want a system in which every child will be choosing the school, or parents will be helping the child to choose the post-primary school where his or her abilities will most be represented. Children could, therefore go to the academic school having failed to persuade the non-academic school that that suited their abilities.

You touched on a very sensitive point, and we are with you on that. I want to remove the sense of failure that children have, and the best way to do that is to work towards some kind of parity of esteem where different kinds of school are specialising in what we call "dual school system". We see that as the best means of removing any stigma of imagined failure on the part of any child.

Mr K Robinson:

We are talking about different systems of schooling at secondary level. The word "vocational" education has been flung around this room and bounced off the walls and ceiling. What do you understand as a vocational type of education?

Mr Algeo:

I think you have all been sitting in all our meetings.

Dr Rodgers:

Yes. It depends on whose answer you want. Mr Robinson will have noticed that I did not use the term "vocational." I used the term "non-academic" as a specialism for the simple reason that there is no universally-approved definition of what "vocational" is. There is vocational/technical.

Mr McCallion and I recently sat in the consultative forum of the review body of which we are both members and heard one definition of "vocational" which took in every aspect of education. No aspect was not vocational, and from one point of view that is possible.

In my experience - and I am sure that Mr Robinson has wider experience with a different age group - there are children who are more gifted academically than others. What has been wrong, which Mr Gibson pointed out, is that we have tended to think that there is only one criterion of success, and that is the academic. We are trying to get away from that. We are trying to recognise the abilities that hitherto have not been recognised as they ought to have been in children who do not possess the academic abilities. There is some evidence, which Mr McCallion referred to, that they have been succeeding in the public examinations. However, we want them to succeed in the areas in which they are strong. That is not a direct answer, but it is an honest one.

The Chairperson:

I appreciate that.

Mr McCallion:

Our education system always reminds me of the motorway along the lough shore. The academic part of it is the five-lane highway. Everybody knows where it is; everyone has been on it.

If you are lost, it is simple as there are many signs. Can someone show me the sign that says "Vocational Education"?

Mr K Robinson:

It is beside the sign that says "Newtownabbey" - it is not there.

Mr McCallion:

It must be a tiny road somewhere in Northern Ireland. For around 20 years we have talked about vocational education but we have not demonstrated it. That can be seen if you look at what further education colleges were in the 1970s, and then look at who they want to attract today - they want children who are doing A levels or are repeating their A levels. I suspect they will want a lot of those who will be doing foundation degree courses. Why do they not want children for training in the skills that we are desperately in need of? At the review meeting in Lisburn, Jeffrey Donaldson said that the next day he was going to meet an employer who had 100 jobs and who was going to leave the Lisburn area because he could not find anyone to employ. It makes you wonder what is wrong. We have thrown away the knowledge of that skill basis. Look at Shorts,, and Harland and Wolff. You think of them as they were and how they took their place anywhere in the world. Where is our equivalent? Where is our honouring of the equivalent? We do not do that as a society.

The Chairperson:

You will understand that there is a strong lobby for comprehensive education and for such a system to be introduced. In spite of your strong advocacy, if it were to be accepted, how do you see the future? We will not engage in speculation, but what effect would they have on grammar schools?

Mr Algeo:

It depends how it develops, to what extent "comprehensivisation" takes place and how that would take place. Let us take the example we have seen in England. If it is anything like that - and we have seen what has been happening in Northern Ireland - then we do not have to answer your question. We just have to direct you to look at the facts.

Mr Miskelly brought the facts to our attention earlier. Northern Ireland has the best outcomes in three areas - and in many other areas also - for all the children. We have the lowest number of children leaving school with no qualifications - it is below 3%. It is 5% in Wales, 7% in England and about 4% in Scotland. We have significantly better results right across the board at GCSE and A level. We have the highest number of youngsters from the most disadvantaged areas going to university. Do we want to throw all that away to repeat an experiment that has clearly failed in England? Even in the last few months, we have seen the Government in England tacitly admitting that it had been a mistake.

Mr Gibson:

"Bog standard".

Mr Algeo:

Yes, "bog standard" schools - a terrible indictment. We can improve on what we have but it is already significantly better than the alternative being proposed. We have seen that in England and Wales. We find it incomprehensible that the Assembly would go back down that route and not give a political lead to the people of Northern Ireland, point out the advantages of what we have and let us try to improve upon that further.

Mr K Robinson:

One group that is causing us - and the whole of society - concern is that tail at the end. I know that Mr McCallion has experience of it in Belfast. How would you Gentlemen, coming from the grammar school background, help us to address that tail?

Mr Miskelly:

I would like to tell you about an experience I have had. I believe that the curriculum has been wrong for many children. What do you do with the young person of 13 years of age who wants to spend their time at woodwork? It is regarded as old-fashioned to say that. What do you do with the young person who wants to be a grave digger? My son wanted to be a motor mechanic and he became one - he is a Peugeot-trained mechanic. He has never felt a sense of failure, is married with a family and is an upright citizen.

He was given the opportunity at the age of 16 to go and do an apprenticeship, and he was successful in that. When his class was asked "What do you want to do for work experience?", one boy said that he wanted to dig graves. That lad had a very poor attendance record at school. He was not at school because that was exactly what he was doing. Today he is a grave digger. He is a well-balanced citizen and a successful grave digger. I am only illustrating a point.

The Chairperson:

I am loath to encourage grave digging as a career.

Mr Gibson:

He has a guaranteed supply of customers.

Mr McCallion:

I want to make a point about England, on which one needs to be careful. England adopted a comprehensive system. There are 130 or 140 local education authorities (LEAs) in England. All of them have the same problems. What happens when you take a grammar school and turn it into a comprehensive? If you look at the research in England, the schools are not doing as well as they did when they were grammar schools and they are more socially divisive now than they have ever been. For example, we will consider Methodist College, which is situated on the Malone Road. Do you want to live near that school or St Colm's in Twinbrook? They reply would be "I would rather have the Malone Road, especially if I can afford it". What will that do to the house prices in that part of the Malone Road? They will rise. You will have a form of selection there. That applies in large sections of England and even in areas where you find that comprehensive schools appear to be successful.

Comprehensives are socially very divided. If you go to the Wirral in Cheshire or to the Isles of Scilly, there are not many labourers' children at the local high status comprehensive - they tend to attend another comprehensive school. We cannot do away with the history that we have in Northern Ireland. We have our history and we will live with it.

The Scottish model is different. They have a simple solution. You draw a line and you tell people what school they are going to. You draw a line down the middle of the motorway or down the middle of a road and you say that all the people on the left will go to one school, and all the people on the right will go to another. There will be no single-sex schools. Why not? You cannot have single-sex schools in a system like that because people are divided according to the left side of the road and the right side of the road. Unless all the people on the left are boys and all the ones on the right are girls, it is "goodbye" to single-sex schools. Co-education schools are a very good idea. I worked most of my teaching life in them. However, in Northern Ireland a significant number of parents have strong opinions on the subject, which they are entitled to.

I do not see the Scottish model working in Northern Ireland because you know what it would be like. Parents would be coming to you and saying "I know I live on the right hand side of the road but I want my children to go to the school on the left hand side of the road". There would be so many arrangements. If you live on the right hand side of the road what can you do? You can apply to the school. If the school is oversubscribed, your child will not get in. If the school is not oversubscribed then an officer in the education and library board - or the local education authority - looks at your child's application and decides, in his or her wisdom, that your child is getting into the school. The fact that a child has a brother or a sister there already is not good grounds for sending the child there. The question of families is important. You understand the important issue - the left hand side of the road and the right hand side of the road. That is how the system works in Scotland.

The difficulty with wonderful linear models such as comprehensive education is that the theory is fantastic but when you get down to the details it is "You are number 57? That is tough. If you had been 56, we could have sorted your problem out". That is the difficulty we will have. Our system is messy, but it has the advantage that it works, quite well. Could it get better? Certainly, that would not be a problem.

Dr Rodgers:

There is another aspect to your question. We did not come here to advocate that every post-primary school in the Province should be a grammar school. Whatever merits we believe grammar schools to possess, we are not suggesting that every school should be one. Equally, it would be wrong to suggest that every school should be the same whatever it is called - a comprehensive school, a two-tier school or a junior or senior high school. There is no reason why a monolithic system should exist across Northern Ireland. That will not happen so long as we have controlled and maintained schools. There will not be exactly the same thing.

For example, the Craigavon system is sometimes held up to us as though it were a single type of school. There is not similarly a mosaic of structure across the Province. Why can it not be like that across the Province? There may be areas in which a comprehensive system of education is approved by the local community and which includes the principles that we all want to see, such as parity of esteem, equality of opportunity and flexibility of exchange. What is wrong with having a different system in Strabane, Armagh, Craigavon or Greater Belfast? What is wrong with a mosaic, so long as the important principles that all of us recognise and accept are recognised within it?

As I have said, we are not suggesting that every school should be a grammar school. We are emphatically saying that not every school should be a comprehensive school, but not that there are no areas in which a comprehensive system, approved by the local community and including the basic principles, should not exist.

The Chairperson:

Unfortunately, time has beaten us and our 45 minutes is almost up. It has been a very useful exchange, and I hope that you share that view. Apologies for the long delay that you had to endure. We appreciate your presentation and your interest. We may have another opportunity to met as this enormously important debate progresses. Thank you very much.

Mr Algeo:

We would like the opportunity at some stage to discuss other issues of education with the Committee, because the process goes on and we feel that some of it could be lost in the spotlight of this review.

The Chairperson:

Absolutely, we will remain open to that. Thank you very much.

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