The Tories Say They Support Education – So Let Them Start Doing What is Necessary

Education minister at Sprites Primary
Image by Regional Cabinet via Flickr

More evidence of Britain’s poor performance at Maths.

The Sutton Trust has produced a report that compares a number of countries on the basis of a common international test.

Only 1.7% of British pupils reached the highest level, compared with an OECD average of 3.1%.

Some countries were way ahead of Britain. Switzerland and Korea, the figure was 7.8%.

This matters. Maths is the foundation for excellence in most things – from engineering to economics.

The problem is partly cultural. We have this ridiculous attitude in Britain that Maths is “much too hard”, and people tell each other proudly, “Oh, no, I was never any good at Maths! My teachers were in despair.”

Being rubbish at Maths is nothing to be proud of. It is just as shameful as being rubbish at your own language, which is English for most of us in the UK.

We do have to change that national attitude and start valuing Maths. Kids who are good at it need to be encouraged – but not told they are somehow special just because they are good at Maths rather than anything else.

“Oh, wow, you got an “A” in Maths! That’s incredible! I was never any good at Maths,” is not the right thing to say to a kid. Maths, at least basic Maths, is simply a fundamental part of a decent education.

It is not just cultural though. It is part of a wider breakdown in our education system.

The report argues that England is falling down international tables because of successive failures to help the most able pupils.

It calls for bright children to be identified at the end of primary school, with their achievements and progress tracked from then on.

That used to happen of course. “Identifying bright children” used to be done by the 11+ exam. And their achievements and progress were boosted by grammar schools from that point on.

Look at this from the BBC’s report:

Brighter pupils are more likely to go to private or grammar schools rather than other state schools.

Er – wrong. Brighter pupils who go to private or grammar schools are more likely to excel. Or put it another way – brighter pupils who go to our State comprehensives are more likely to stop doing well.

The government’s response to the report? It’s all Labour’s fault:

Education Secretary Michael Gove added: “We already knew that under Labour we plummeted down the international league tables in maths.

“Now we see further evidence that they betrayed bright children from poor backgrounds.”

Well yes. So why are you continuing with that betrayal, Mr Gove?

Labour’s answer? Everything was rosy under Labour:

Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg said: “Results for all pupils, including the brightest, improved under Labour.

“While there are always improvements that could be made, gifted and talented pupils were stretched through a National Academy, targeted scholarships and a new A* grade at A-level.

“While we want to see bright pupils stretched, this can’t be at the expense of leaving some behind.”

Hard to know where to start with that one. How can a bright pupil be stretched without leaving less bright ones behind I wonder?

The NASUWT teaching union produced an even less self-aware response:

Nasuwt teaching union head Chris Keates said the tests used to draw the comparisons, and the way children prepare for them, differed between countries.

“Their conclusions raise more questions than they answer. They are not comparing like with like.

“The education systems are different…

Well, yes, Chris. The education systems in other countries aren’t run by your members.

So which of these actually supports identifying the brightest pupils at age 11 and stretching them? In other words, which supports the reintroduction of grammar schools?

Labour? You must be joking. They abolished them in the first place and remain committed to keeping them out.

The NASUWT? Don’t make me laugh.

The Conservatives maybe? Nope. They support the present law that makes it actually illegal to open new grammar schools. If your local council wants to reintroduce selective education in response to local wishes, you can forget any support for that from Mr Gove. And if you think his new Free Schools are going to be allowed to be selective, think again.

David Cameron himself called the supporters of grammar schools “ideologically self-indulgent”. I’m not sure what that means – perhaps it means thinking for yourself as opposed to following orders from Mr Cameron.

Or perhaps it means supporting UKIP, who are now the only big party that support new grammar schools.

Just Another Brick in the Wall

Michael Gove at Conservative Party Conference
Michael Gove – image by conservativeparty via Flickr

The last government announced that the school leaving age was to be raised to 18.

Well, not quite. It was going to be compulsory to be in education or training up to that age. Employers were to have a legal duty to check that 16-18 year-olds were getting training before employing them. Needless to say, that was likely to cause employers to avoid employing 16-18 year olds in the first place.

The Coalition government, when it came into office, had ample time to reverse the policy – it wasn’t due to start implementation until 2013. Instead they continued to support the whole policy of the outgoing Labour administration.

The BBC explains the reasoning behind the change thus:

Under the proposals, the process of raising the compulsory age for education and training to 18 will be completed in 2015.

It will address the high drop-out rate at the age of 16 – a measure in which England’s school system has lagged behind many other industrial countries.

In other words, instead of addressing the reasons why children drop out at 16, they are tackling it by simply making it illegal to drop out at 16.

Now Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has announced that pupils who fail to get “a good grade” in maths and English at age 16, will be forced to continue with those subjects until they do. Or until they finally escape aged 18. (Nobody seems quite sure what “a good grade” means – presumably a “C” at GCSE.)

This whole affair is quite depressing. One of the positive things for children entering sixth forms was that everyone in the class would actually want to learn.

Indeed, the teachers at my children’s school were telling the kids who were keen to go into “A” levels that the sixth form would be completely different. All the disruptive kids who had no interest in working would have left, leaving the sixth formers (and their teachers) to work in peace.

Up to age 16, the teachers would spend three quarters of their time trying to keep order in the class. After 16, suddenly they could spend near 100% actually teaching.

And the kids who actually wanted to drop out of school at 16 could go to work. Some of them would find that at work, their motivation would improve so much that they would make quite a success of their careers. Terry Leahy, who recently retired as Chief Executive of Tesco, famously started his career as a shelf-stacker. John Major, British Prime Minister in the first half of the 1990s, left school at 16.

Michael Gove probably thinks he is showing a passion for education. He is not. Our education system is in a complete mess. The root causes of that need to be tackled. So far he does done precious little.

Our schools need to be sorted out properly – which means destroying the whole stifling bureaucracy that has grown up around them. Mr Gove’s department is part of the problem, not part of the solution – which is why his Free Schools, responsible to central government rather than Local Authorities, won’t help.

The Tories have turned their backs on the foundation of new grammar schools. And all the main parties have point-blank refused to even consider the use of “education vouchers”, under which parents would be able to use State funding to help send their kids to private schools.

Our education has been undermined by successive governments for half a century. Our entire Establishment has had the strongest possible desire to destroy excellence and tear down success. The result is that our secondary schools are nearly all comprehensives. Although there are some good comprehensive schools, overall the system has been a disaster. That much we know.

We also know that there are thousands of parents who cannot quite afford to send their children to private schools, but would do so if they had those education vouchers to help them. Private schools stay stubbornly at the top of the academic league tables, and their social, cultural and spiritual provision is generally much better as well.

The sorry state of our schools is the result of half a century of socialism. Together with the welfare state, it is the main legacy of the domination of British politics by the Left since 1945.

The answer to the failure of our school system is to sort out the schools, not to use the law to keep disaffected, bored youngsters in the classroom for an extra two years.

You Want the Best for Your Kids. Therefore the Government Hates Them


Report on Fair Access to the Professions
Alan Milburn with Gordon Brown – now he’s working for David Cameron – image by Downing Street via Flickr


Alan Milburn, former Labour Government Minister and now the Coalition government’s “independent reviewer on social mobility” wants employers to discriminate against job applicants who went to private schools.



You get bright people in independent and state schools but most people accept this commonsense point you are not getting apples and pears.

If you have been a child from a really good school in a disadvantaged area, from a family with no history of university education, [who] managed to get two As and a B, you have worked pretty hard for it.

I am not saying if you have gone to Eton and you get three A*s you have not had to work hard, but there is a difference. Therefore, in my view, it should be taken into account.

In other words, children in independent schools get good educations and children in State schools get poor educations. As in State comprehensive schools. You know, the ones that Alan Milburn and his mates in the Labour Party created.

We have become used to the Labour and Conservative governments mouthing the same nonsense about university entrance, with grade requirements dumbed down for children from State schools.

Now Mr Milburn wants to go further. He wants employers to take it into account too – so that when the private school pupils have fought their way through university, they get penalised again when they apply for a job.

Mr Milburn isn’t just a prejudiced Leftie with a chip on his shoulder, though. He is muddled as well.

I am really keen that employers collect data on the socio-economic background of their employees.

He added that workers should tell their employers if they claimed free meals in school.

“When we did that with race and gender, it shone a spotlight on discrimination, and forced changes in employer behaviour.

Mr Milburn in one breath says that employers should make allowances for the poor schooling provided by State schools – and in the next, suggests that if they don’t, it is discrimination akin to racism.

I guess you would expect such poisonous nonsense from a Labour man like Mr Milburn. And yet, even if you are a Socialist yourself, his comments are an outrage. If you believe in the State school system, then he has just insulted it by claiming that it generally provides a poor education.

If you are a middle class family scraping the money together to pay for a private school, you are going to be even more angry. The reason you are paying is that Mr Milburn and his chums have let you down, and there are no decent State schools available to you. Mr Milburn wants to punish your children for the sacrifices you are making for them.

Remember – it was Socialists like Mr Milburn who dismantled most of the old British grammar schools. The remaining 165 of those are still, to this day, the cream of the State education sector. The Conservatives have also turned their backs on grammar schools, and UKIP is now the only major party that supports the creation of new grammar schools.

Parents who pay for private schools pay twice – once for the private education and again through their taxes for the State schools they choose not to use. That isn’t enough for Mr Milburn. He wants to make sure their children don’t get any benefit from going to those private schools.

It would be “unfair” for your children to benefit from the sacrifices you make for them.

Socialists through the ages have hated “the bourgeoisie” – the middle classes – and treated them as the enemy. Unfortunately Alan Milburn is a typical example of those Socialists – and David Cameron, who gave him his job, isn’t a whole lot better.

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Clegg and Cameron – Covering Up for the Failings of the State


Nick Clegg announced recently the Government’s new social mobility strategy.

Part of the policy, according to the Telegraph, is to reduce the University entry requirements for State-school educated pupils.

As usual, the government is trying to hide the failures in its own school system. And by the government, I don’t mean our politicians like privately-educated Mr Clegg – or indeed Eton-educated David Cameron. Their opinions are largely irrelevant, since they don’t have the guts to impose their will on the State employees who really run the country.

Why do around 7% of parents choose to pay several thousand pounds every single term, per child, to send their children to private schools? Sure, a few just do it for social or snobbish reasons. But most do it because they can’t get a decent standard of education in the State sector, and they are forced to pay for private schools.

The State grabs a huge amount of tax each year to run our schools. Of course, a great deal is simply wasted in Local Education Authorities or the Department for Education. (See, for example, the “Every Child Matters” strategy, created under Tony Blair and alive and well under the Coalition.)

Even where the money is not completely wasted, though, the services that are delivered are far too often very poor.

There are, of course, good State schools. For a start, most of our remaining 165 grammar schools. The government doesn’t like those though. It has a law that prevents the creation of new ones. (Only UKIP wants to encourage new grammar schools. The Tories abandoned them as soon as David Cameron became their leader.)

There are also good State Comprehensive schools. Yes, there really are. Many of them are in areas that still have grammar schools. They are forced to up their standards in order to compete for pupils with the grammar schools.

But too many State schools really are dismally failing. Parents who can’t afford to pay £10,000 a year to send each child to school are forced in many cases to make the heart-breaking decision to ruin their children’s life chances by sending them to “bog standard local comprehensives”.

Of course, the bureaucrats are trying to cover up their failure with talk of “social background” and “the middle classes”. Politicians who were in power, as opposed to merely in office, would explain to those bureaucrats in words of one syllable that the performance of their State schools is unacceptable and if they can’t improve them they will be sacked.

If the politicians haven’t the guts to do that, they could introduce education vouchers instead. That would allow pupils from poorer backgrounds to start going to private schools, and it would bring State schools into direct competition with private schools. That of course would mean a bonfire of mediocre State-run schools – which is of course what is needed.

The achievement (or lack of it) of State schools can be easily measured by the proportion of their pupils going to University. You can monitor that, by all means. Stratify it by social class. What you will find is that pupils from good backgrounds who go to private schools are more likely to go to University than pupils from good backgrounds who go to State schools.

The problem is not our Universities. No, Mr Clegg, they are not discriminating in favour of private schools. And the problem is not the British class system, or something nebulous like “lack of social mobility”. The problem is just that your bureaucrats (you know, Mr Clegg, the ones that you, the government, are responsible for?) are delivering a failing school system.

The Head Teacher of my old school (to which I went on a “Direct Grant” – direct grants were a little like education vouchers) didn’t mince his words:

“This is the old-style communist creation of a closed market, to try and deal with the problem after the event.”

The Government’s “energy and money” would be better spent on improving state education “rather than capping the achievements” of pupils in independent schools.

Despite Mr Clegg’s and Mr Cameron’s attempts to cover up for their bureaucrats’ failings, the whole country knows where the blame lies for our failing schools. It lies with the people who run our State school system. And it lies with our complicit politicians who cover up for the failings of the State, for fear they will themselves be blamed. That has been the pattern for half a century – and not just in education.

The Onward March of Academies – Will They Make Our Schools Better?


H block and A block - Edlington Comprehensive School
Image by aldisley via Flickr

The Telegraph tells us that half of all secondary schools have converted, or are in the process of converting, to Academies.

Lord Hill, the Schools Minister, said: “In academies, head teachers – not politicians or bureaucrats – are in charge of what happens in the school. I am delighted that the majority of secondary schools in England are seizing this independence by becoming an academy.

“With greater freedoms, these state funded schools can truly meet the needs of local parents and pupils.”

Academies are schools that are funded directly from central government, rather than being funded by Local Education Authorities (a.k.a. local councils). To be more accurate, central government takes the money from local education authorities and gives it to the Academies. The Academies get a little more funding than normal State schools, but have to provide for themselves the services that local authorities provide for normal State schools.

Academies are set up with a “sponsor”, who pays a small part of the capital cost for the school. That sponsor might be a large company, a charitable organisation, or even an individual. That sponsor is supposed to take an interest in the running of the school, and has the right to appoint governors to the school governing body.

The head teachers of Academies also have more authority over the curriculum and the running of the school than head teachers of normal State schools do.

The Academy programme was set up by Tony Blair’s government, but was supported from the start by the Conservatives, and is now supported by the Liberal Democrats as well.

That in itself sets alarm bells ringing. Initiatives with cross-party support are often wrong-headed. After all, with no party opposing, the opportunity for effective political challenge to the initiative is limited, and its failings can go unremarked. What is more, such policies that are championed by successive governments often turn out to be the policies of the bureaucracy rather than the policies of elected representative government.

On the other hand, perhaps we should celebrate a political consensus on the way forward to overhaul our education system. And the opposition of teaching unions has more to do with the threat to the collective bargaining power of the unions, than it does with educational standards.

It is pretty clear that the government’s eventual aim is to abolish local education authorities. Once almost all schools have converted, and we are well on the way to that, the LEA’s will serve little useful purpose. The case for their abolition will become compelling.

There is a problem with that though. LEA’s don’t only run schools. That is the main part of their function, but not the only part. They are also responsible for the admissions system, and importantly, have the legal responsibility to provide a school place for all children. There will still be a need for that function.

I suspect, therefore, that we will see LEA’s being replaced by something like local school boards. The big danger is that those boards will be set up as subsidiaries of the Department for Education, rather than of local councils. Once that happens, they will begin to agitate for more powers over schools. They will argue that they need those powers to fulfil their duty to ensure education for all. That agitation will not be in public, where the press and the public can stand up against it. It will be done behind the scenes, in cosy chats with their fellow bureaucrats in Whitehall.

Conservatives appear to think that the end game is a system of free and independent schools, funded by grants from Whitehall based on the number of pupils they attract, and inspected by Ofsted to ensure standards,

The actual end game may well be a National Education Service, organised along exactly the same lines as the National Health Service currently is. Those local school boards would look remarkably like local health authorities do, and the Academies would look remarkably like Hospital Trusts. Our education system could well end up not only failing, but almost completely unaccountable as well, just like the NHS.

There is, of course, another way. Education vouchers have been proposed for years, and universally rubbished by the education experts who have wrecked our school system. In that system, every child gets a voucher to the value of a State education. They can spend it on a school place in a State school, in which case it covers the full cost. Or they can spend it on a private school education – in which case they would have to top up its value to the price of the private school place.

The bureaucrats don’t like that. It would bring real competition into the system and expose their own failings. The stampede of kids out of the State schools would give the lie to the idea that the people are happy with the education system that the bureaucrats have provided.

The other side of that coin is the reintroduction of grammar schools. Critics of the selective education system claim that it brands children who fail the 11-plus as “failures”, and that concentration on the grammar schools means that all the other schools become second rate.

The truth in practice is the reverse. The standards in grammar schools are extremely high – often higher even than those in private schools. Crucially, in areas where grammar schools are still retained, the presence of the grammar schools actually seems to lift the performance of the other schools. You end up with elite grammar schools, and other schools scrambling to prove that they are good enough even for bright pupils to attend.

This is true, for example, in Warwickshire, whereas in neighbouring Northamptonshire, the comprehensive schools are so poor that the local education authority took legal action to try and stop people living near the border sending their kids across to grammar schools in Warwickshire.

The Conservative Party used to believe in grammar schools, until it was hijacked by the Cameroons. In 2005, they went into the general election with a policy of “a grammar school in every town”. Today their policy is to keep the existing law, where it is illegal to open a new grammar school. David Cameron called grammar school supporters “intellectually self-indulgent”. He feels more in common with the bureaucrats who run the education system, than he does with ordinary people who can see that selective education works.

Tory Party leaders might say, “Ah yes, but we got heavily defeated in 2005, and in 2010, with the new policy, we won!”

Actually, in 2005 Michael Howard’s Tories got 31.7% of the vote, and ended up with 198 – 31% – of the seats. A fair result. In 2010, David Cameron managed 36.1% of the vote and got 306 – 47% – of the seats. Their vote was only up a little – their much better result in terms of seats was down to Britain’s rigged electoral system. There is no evidence from that result of any enthusiasm for them from the electorate.

The Tories are busy changing constituency boundaries because the current system, they say, is unfair to them – whereas the truth is that the current system with the current boundaries gave them 71 more seats than their vote share warrants!

But back to schools.

The current Academies policy, supported by the three old parties, could end up with a good system – or it could easily make things worse.

A really serious reform of our school system would include education vouchers and support for new grammar schools. And that just so happens to be the policy of UKIP, and anathema to the Tories.

Sun Cream, Schools and Drug Companies

Child play

Danger, Danger, Quick, Hide: It’s the Sun – image by i-on via Flickr

The busy-bodies have been at it again. They are now calling for “mandatory sun safety policies for schools”.

A recent survey of 1,000 parents, commissioned by MPs on the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Skin, found almost 40% of pupils have suffered sunburn while at school.

It’s another of those “All Party Parliamentary Groups”. Note: these are not the same as parliamentary select committees. APPG’s are formed by outside special interest groups, in order to put pressure on parliament and the government.

In this case, the APPG on Skin is explained on the website of the Primary Care Dermatology Society thus:

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Skin (APPGS) was established in 1994, the culmination of a Skin Care Campaign (SCC) campaign to raise awareness of skin disease in Parliament.

The study about the 40% of pupils having suffered sunburn at school was reported back in May. The study was officially carried out on behalf of the APPG, but was in fact carried out by Skin Cancer UK.

The Daily Mail (and other websites) describe Skin Cancer UK as a charity. However, the Charity Commission website has no record of it, and it does not appear to have a website of its own. So who are they?

There is a website called The Karen Clifford Skin Cancer Charity. That charity is recognised by the Charity Commission, and it seems from their website that they and Skin Cancer UK are in fact one and the same.

Their website shows the following corporate supporters:

  • Bristol-Myers Squibb, a major drug manufacturer
  • Croda, “Recognised as the world leader in the provision of specialist ingredients used by most of the major suncream manufacturers”
  • Deb Group, which “aspires to be the world’s leading away from home skin care system company”
  • Schuco, “Experts in and specialist suppliers of skin technology and equipment to the medical industry.”
  • St Tropez, “the leading sunless tanning company”
  • Sun Sense, which “have a range of high factor protection sun creams”
  • Suntogs, which “have an extensive range of UV protective and clothing and accessories” and even sell their products through the charity’s website

Having looked at the background, then, let’s get back to that BBC report. It quotes Richard Clifford, of Skin Cancer UK, thus:

Admittedly teachers cannot be expected to apply sunscreen due to simple time pressures.

There is also the inevitable question regarding their concerns over child abuse and the strong advice they receive from local authority education departments and trade unions.

However, there is no reason whatsoever why they should not supervise the application, perhaps with the assistance of the school nurse or indeed parents who attend on a pre-arranged rota system.

Yep, Mr Clifford would like parents to be forced to go to school to apply the products of the companies that support his charity.

The report also comes out with that usual statement:

Prolonged over-exposure to the sun and episodes of sunburn under the age of 15 are major risk factors for skin cancer in later life.

and it quotes Cancer Research UK in support of that.

But really? Let’s just think about that for a moment. How would you ever construct a study to check that? How would you ever measure people’s “over-exposure to the sun” or indeed “episodes of sun-burn”? Or would you base it on questionnaires after the event? Along the lines of, “And you, sir, with your malignant melanoma, how much time did you spend in the sun 40 years ago when you were a kid?”

The statement about over-exposure to the sun being a major cause of skin cancer is a mere assertion. Although it is plausible, it does not have any basis in experimental evidence.

What we do know is that with today’s panics about exposure to the sun, we are now seeing the reappearance of rickets, a disease caused by a deficiency in vitamin D. Vitamin D is made by your skin when you are exposed to the sun. Rickets was thought to have disappeared decades ago, but is now making a comeback, described by orthopaedic surgeon Professor Nicholas Clarke of Southampton General Hospital as an “astonising” increase.

The report I’ve linked to there says

Doctors say 20-30 minutes of direct sunshine a day, five days a week, is necessary to maintain healthy levels of vitamin D. Any sun cream over factor eight blocks the ultra violet light the body needs to create vitamin D.

It is really time the BBC stopped parroting the output of pressure groups as if it were incontrovertible fact, and started doing some real journalism.

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Special Pleading Appears in All Kinds of Guises

Fabian Hamilton photographed outside the House...
Image via Wikipedia

Fabian Hamilton, MP, of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Education

The BBC today has a quite bizarre article headed “Schools ‘pushed into phonics by financial incentives'”.

The article reports on a report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Education that bemoans the fact that government policy is pushing schools into teaching reading by synthetic phonics. It also castigates the government for only providing matching funding for schools that buy approved educational supplies.

For cash-strapped schools the incentive to take advantage of the matched funding offered for phonics products and training will push them in the direction of synthetic phonics.

Well, yes. That is explicit government policy, and quite right too. (Synthetic phonics is teaching reading by teaching children the sounds that individual letters make, then getting them to construct words by putting the sounds/letters together. In other words, it is the method that works, and that was uncontroversial until the Socialists wrecked Britain’s education system in the 1960s.)

Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister, was having no truck with the report. He said:

It is vital that we focus on the reading skills of children early on in their lives and give those who are struggling the extra help they need to enable them to go on to enjoy a lifetime’s love of reading rather than a lifelong struggle.

Schools have the option of applying for match-funding to buy approved products and training to help them teach high-quality systematic synthetic phonics.

And indeed it is now accepted by pretty much everyone that synthetic phonics is the way to go. So why did that All-Party Parliamentary Group produce a report like this? Why did they object so strongly to the government providing funding only for the approved teaching materials? And who are the Group anyway?

Here is what the British Educational Suppliers Association has to say on its website:

The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for education was established to build a stronger relationship between the education supplies industry and Parliament. The Group has covered a broad range of topics that affect education, education resources and associated industries.

This group of parliamentarians, led by Fabian Hamilton MP, has given invaluable support and advice to the industry and to the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA). The APPG provides a forum for debate between legislators and industry representatives and an excellent opportunity to brief MPs and Peers on the challenges facing the education supplies industry and education in general.

Mr Fabian’s own website has this about that All-Party Group:

The APPG Secretariat is provided by

Anna Wolffe
Ranelagh International Ltd

And Ranelagh’s own website reveals them to be a parliamentary lobbying company founded by ex-Conservative MP Jonathan Sayeed. It says that Anna Wolffe

has successfully established and provided the secretariat for a number of All-Party Parliamentary Groups; built informed relationships between clients and key decisions-makers in the Commons and the Lords and provided strategic advice to build campaigns over many parliamentary sessions.

Ah yes. I think all is now clear.

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