Scottish Attainment Challenge and Review of Curriculum: Education Secretary speech

Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills  John Swinney, 26 February 2020

Many thanks for that welcome David.

Thank you for hosting us here today and I am grateful to you all for attending given the many demands on your time.

It was in this very hall here at the Wester Hailes Education Centre in 2015 where the First Minister underlined the Government’s commitment to education, with the determination to deliver on the ambition that all children in Scotland should have the best start in life and that there should be no better place in the world to be educated, than here in Scotland.

Today, five years on from the announcement of the Scottish Attainment Challenge (February 2015), I want to:-
• highlight the evidence of excellence and equity in Scottish education.
• highlight the progress that has been made through the Scottish Attainment Challenge and Scottish education more broadly, and
• set out the direction of travel moving forward, including the approach on the Curriculum for Excellence Review.

Excellence and Equity

Education is the highest priority of this government simply because we want all of Scotland’s children and young people to reach their full potential.

We pursue a moral imperative to ensure that all young people in Scotland receive a first class education in their local school.

That is why the relentless focus of this Government is to deliver an education system in Scotland that raises attainment for all, closes the attainment gap, and enables all children and young people to fulfil their potential. We want all young people to achieve the capacities of Curriculum for Excellence in full, and become educated young Scots who are successful learners, effective contributors, responsible citizens and confident individuals - ready for success in life, learning and work.

The twin aims of achieving equity and excellence are now evident across our education system and in individual schools in every part of the country. The clarity of purpose inherent in achieving excellence and equity is focusing the improvement work of schools who are shaping an approach that reflects the circumstances, experiences and challenges of their own localities.

Equity – closing the attainment gap so that all can achieve to their maximum potential. And excellence – raising the standard across our education system.

Our pursuit of excellence and equity will be reinforced for Scotland’s children even before they enter school. From this August, all 3 and 4 year olds and around one-quarter of two year olds will be entitled to up to 1140 hours of high quality early learning and childcare, delivered by committed professionals. Our transformational investment has enormous potential to help close the attainment gap at the earliest stage and help all children flourish.

This was recognised just last week by the International Council of Education Advisers, who emphasised the benefits which could be delivered by the child-centred, play-based pedagogical approaches at the heart of Scotland’s early learning and childcare practice as the expansion is implemented. I have seen and heard the benefits of more high quality early learning and childcare from early learning and childcare professionals, from parents and from primary one teachers. Children have greater opportunities to develop not their language and problem solving skills, and they also grow in confidence as they lead their learning in stimulating and nurturing indoor and outdoor environments.

Our ability of achieve demanding aims of excellence and equity has been greatly strengthened by the willingness of all participants in the education system to work together - local authorities, teachers, professional associations, parents groups and pupils - working with the Government on a shared national endeavour to ensure the best outcomes for our young people.

That was the approach taken when creating, developing and implementing Curriculum for Excellence, an approach that has attracted significant international endorsement. It is an endeavour of common purpose that I am determined to continue to pursue.

The Government has taken a range of actions - in partnership with our education system - to ensure that we deliver practical action to achieve excellence and equity.

We have:
• Expanded teacher numbers to a ten year high and increased the focus on enhancing learning and teaching, strengthening leadership, reducing workload and promoting teacher empowerment,
• Issued curricular guidance that reinforces the critical importance of literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing at the heart of CfE and clarifies the national standards that we expect children to achieve,
• Increased the capacity of local authorities and schools who work with significant numbers of children and families living in poverty through the Scottish Attainment Challenge;
• Empowered schools with the resources and the flexibility they need to close the attainment gap and meet the distinctive needs of their pupils through Pupil Equity Funding, and
• strengthened the capacity to support improvement in our education system by creating Regional Improvement Collaboratives.

I am wholly committed to building on these actions to ensure that we focus our efforts on improving the achievements of our children and young people.

Curriculum for Excellence

At the heart of that process must be our curriculum.

It is important to ensure there are the strongest links between the core principles and the big educational ideas that are central to CfE – and our work to deliver excellence and equity.

I see the impact of Curriculum for Excellence each and every time that I visit a school or early learning setting.

It has become something of a cliché to say that you agree with the principles of CfE but…

“I agree with CfE…but we still focus too much on exams.”
“I agree with CfE…but the implementation could have been better”.

It is right that we return to those challenges of implementation, and it is right that we look at what we need to do to improve. The OECD led curriculum review will help in this task.

But it is important also to dwell on those principles and big ideas, reflect on why they receive such a positive reaction from the teaching profession and mark the excellent progress that has been made.

A curriculum based around values

Let me start with values.

Wisdom, justice, compassion and integrity define the values for Scottish society – engraved on the Mace of the Scottish Parliament - and they define the values for our curriculum.

We should be proud of this vital connection between our country, our Parliament and the curriculum pursued in every school in Scotland. This connection is a fundamental strength in ensuring that we create an inextricable link between the education of our young people and the future direction we aspire to for our country.

I see those values in action each and every week by pupils right across the country - pupils who are demonstrating the four capacities of being successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors.

I am struck by the number of people who wax lyrical about the confident, articulate, capable and reflective young people who are emerging from our school system.

This is no accident. The capability of our young people is supported and encouraged by our curriculum.

Thanks to CfE, we have a curriculum which encourages a much broader set of experiences and pathways for our young people: a curriculum that is focused on the needs of every single young person.

This idea is expressed in the CfE design principles of relevance, personalisation and choice.

When Scotland conducted our National Debate on education in 2002 it was clear that the education system was funnelling too many young people into traditional pathways with limited regard to their individual skills, aspirations and interests. Now, our young people are provided with personalised experiences in the senior phase and this has resulted in a much more diverse picture of achievement. For example, skills based qualifications have increased by over a third to over 64,000 (64,267) in 2019. In addition the number of young people leaving school with no National Qualifications at SCQF Level 3 or better has decreased from 2.8 per cent in 2009/10 to 2.2 per cent in 2018/19.

Last year, at Boroughmuir High School in Edinburgh the International Council of Education Advisers heard a very passionate and a very powerful testimony from the Chair of the National Parent Forum of Scotland. The Council heard that children are learning in different ways and are gaining a much deeper understanding of why they are learning. They also heard that parents are seeing their young people take much more diverse pathways through the system.

We should take encouragement from this feedback.

We should also take comfort from the achievements of our young people who are going on to positive outcomes in work, in training and in further and higher education to an extent that they have never before. Statistics published yesterday showed the highest ever level of initial positive post-school destinations for school leavers in 2018/19, at 95%. This demonstrates that Curriculum for Excellence is delivering one of the ultimate aims of Scottish education – to secure a positive next step in learning, life and work for our young people.

Do we still have work to do on autonomy and flexibility? Absolutely. If we had achieved a perfect degree of autonomy, there would be no need for a headteacher’s charter or for school empowerment guidance.

Do we need to invest further in teacher professionalism to fully realise the aims of CfE? Yes. In particular, we need further work to ensure that we have confident educators in every school and setting who will take the initiative and create the approaches, the interventions, the connections and the collaborations to make real and sustainable change happen.

But I wonder if in the midst of rather overblown and over-hyped media coverage that is part of the education debate, we have begun to take these principles and big ideas for granted?

That we have begun to take the wider range of pathways, options and experiences and positive destinations for our young people, for granted.

These positive outcomes are being achieved as a result of the strong foundations you have given them, the leadership that you are providing and – yes - thanks to the principles and the big ideas that lie at the heart of CfE.

This is why I was delighted to launch the Narrative for the Curriculum in September last year. The Narrative – a practical, focused tool to assist in curriculum making - states that CfE helps our children and young people gain the knowledge, skills and attributes needed for life in the 21st century.

The attributes needed to adapt, to think critically and to flourish. Ever important as we embrace new technology and ways of working with our children and young people also helping to raise awareness of important global issues such as climate change.

These are the powerful reasons why CfE is the correct curriculum approach for Scotland and why its approach is so relevant in equipping young people for an ever changing 21st Century world.

An entirely legitimate are for debate is considering the performance of our education system, and in doing so we must draw upon the broadest range of information to inform this judgement.

Let me tell you why.

Last summer I visited Lochend secondary school in the East End of Glasgow where I had the pleasure of meeting the young people of that school. In my conversations with them they told me that the many strengths and achievements of their school had been belittled, because the school did not have a high position in a league table published in a newspaper. That hurt those young people. We all know that many of the young people being educated at Lochend Secondary School, and schools around the country, face tough challenges. If I had ever considered publishing a school league table - which I have not - I would have rejected the idea based solely on the hurt expressed by the pupils of Lochend Secondary.

I took two key messages from that.
• We should work hard with the public and the media to help them to understand the broad range of measures that we have developed to judge success, which reflect the four capacities of CfE.
• The heart of the assessment model must be the judgement of educators, like many of you here today, that is key, and we should not be distracted by the political arguments that surround this issue.

Progress is measured in Scotland through the National Improvement Framework, a collection of indicators, never a league table. A broad range of measures to enable us to make a judgement if we are making progress against closing the attainment gap and raising attainment for all, as part of the delivery of Curriculum for Excellence

Attainment and equity

I want to highlight some specific data and facts which demonstrate this approach.

First, on Achievement of Curriculum for Excellence levels published in December:

• Reading, writing, listening and talking is improving across almost every level.
• The same is true for numeracy – improvement against almost every measure.

On the attainment gap the figures show that:
• amongst the most disadvantaged pupils, attainment rose at all stages in numeracy, and
• for literacy it rose at P1, P4 and P7.

This data is now classed as ‘official statistics’ by the Chief Statistician, reflecting improvements to the quality and consistency of the judgements made by teachers across Scotland. This is a huge vote of confidence in our teachers and reflects a range of excellent work to develop consistent understanding of the standards within CfE levels in literacy and numeracy, informed by a range of evidence including standardised assessment. It provides evidence that our BGE assessment model is working. The CfE data also shows significant variability in the numbers of children achieving the national standards that we have set out. I encourage you to continue to use this data to ensure that all children are getting the help they need to achieve CfE levels. We need to focus on the regions, localities and schools where there is greatest headroom for improvement, through collaborative support and challenge across the education system in Scotland.

Looking specifically at the 11 key measures to assess progress in closing the attainment gap, first published in 2017, we have seen improvement in two-thirds of the measures for which we have comparable data.

When we set our approach to measuring the poverty related attainment gap, we also published some deliberately challenging stretch aims.

These are unapologetically ambitious and are designed to guide progress in closing the attainment gap.

They provide a clear, consistent reference point by which Scotland can navigate over the long term.

And, that long-term approach is reflected in the advice of the International Council of Education Advisers.

They are clear that Scotland is heading in the right direction. But, more than that, they are clear that excellence and equity is a long term task.

And they have told us that steady, incremental gains are necessary in order to deliver sustainable improvements towards closing the gap. That is exactly what we are doing. At the conclusion of their last visit to Scotland last week, Professor Alma Harris stated, on behalf of the International Council, and I quote:
“The Scottish system is doing everything that we would expect a high performing system to do. It has all the right components, it’s investing in the right places. What we are seeing is incremental growth. And, as a council, we’re very confident that the incremental growth bodes well for the future.

“The focus on equity and excellence is, without question, the right focus. The way in which the system has been empowered, to develop itself into a high performing system, is also to be commended.”

The Council also fed back to the First Minister reflects the strengths in Scottish education is the teaching profession. The commitment, professionalism, dedication and hard work that you put in to give our young people the best chance of success.

We also agree with the Council’s assessment that we now need a period of consolidation and stability to ensure improvements have time to become embedded.

Senior phase

The performance of the education system can be seen both by the academic results it generates, but also, and of equal importance, the number and breadth of vocational and wider qualifications and awards that are achieved by our young people.

Almost 30 per cent (28.7%) of pupils are achieving at least five higher passes, which is up from just 20 per cent in 2009, and the number of young people who are achieving skills-based qualifications has increased from 47,747 in 2014 to over 64,000 in 2019. That is the progress that has been delivered.

The percentage of students achieving a level 5 qualification such as a national 5 has increased from 71 per cent when we came to office to just over 85 per cent now.

The number of students gaining a Level 6 qualification such as a Higher has increased from less than half when we came to office to over 60%.

And as I said the statistics published just yesterday show that the proportion of 2018/19 school leavers in a positive initial destination was 95.0%; this is the highest on record.

Also published yesterday, was a report outlining the quality of work going on in our schools. This ‘school inspections findings’ briefing is the first in the series of briefings Education Scotland will publish based on inspection findings for session 2018-19.

The key messages deserve further discussion. Strengths include:

• Effective school leadership with a strong emphasis on raising attainment.
• Through effective collaboration and participation in career-long professional learning, staff have a clearer understanding of the social, economic and cultural context of the school community.
• Evidence from self-evaluation is being used more effectively.
• Schools are continuing to develop approaches to empower staff, children and young people.

Taken together, the evidence is clear. Improvement is being made in Scotland’s schools. I would encourage you to read the report and reflect on the strengths and areas for further improvement, considering how good your school is and which messages resonate with you and your colleagues.

I want to be clear that I am not claiming that everything is wonderful in education and nothing may need to change.

That is not my message.

My message is that we have made a series of reforms to education designed to improve performance.

Reforms that international experts tell us are correct.

Reforms that are designed to achieve long-term, sustained improvement in education.

Reforms that the evidence tells us are starting to work.

Some of my colleagues from different political parties have recently highlighted subjects’ Higher pass rates, painting a picture of declining perfomrnace.

But when we look at the big subjects – those taken by the most pupils – the majority of the top ten have seen pass rates increase since 2015. Maths, Chemistry, Modern Studies, Physics, Biology, and Geography – major subjects - are all up.

It is not the case that some subjects matter more than others, but it is entirely right that we should look at the whole picture and acknowledge the successes.

And we should acknowledge volatility in pass rates. Last year saw an increase in the pass rate at National 5 and a fall in the pass rate at Higher. We cannot expect there to be a continual increase in pass rates in a qualification system with credibility and rigour.

The reality is that as a result of Curriculum for Excellence, young people have more choices and options than they have ever had before.

We should not judge some subjects, or indeed some ‘traditional’ subjects as described by some, as more valuable than others. Scotland’s curriculum places learners at the heart of education and we want each young person to choose the right blend of courses, achievements and awards to give them the best possible chance of success in life and work.

So, we can say with confidence that our education system is delivering:
• a record proportion of young people from all backgrounds achieving positive destinations,
• more young people from more disadvantaged communities going to university, and
• an expansion of choices leading to more options than ever before to meet young peoples’ aspirations.

Scottish Attainment Challenge

I mentioned earlier that the First Minister was in this very hall in 2015. A lot has happened since then of course. But I want to reaffirm that closing the poverty related attainment gap is the defining mission of this Government - I am proud of the progress being made and without reservation I reaffirm that driving mission today.

The Scottish Attainment Challenge programme has developed considerably since it first began in August 2015. We recognise tackling the poverty related attainment gap requires a long-term commitment, which is why we are investing £750 million during the course of this parliament.

Poverty negatively impacts on the lives and outcomes of children.
As a Government we have set in statute our ambition to eradicate child poverty in Scotland and outlined concrete action to reduce child poverty in our first Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan.

This includes plans funded as part of the budget being voted on in Parliament tomorrow to introduce the new Scottish Child Payment, worth £10 per child per week for eligible families, the new Payment is expected to lift 30,000 children out of poverty when rolled out in full by the end of 2022.

But whilst action is needed to lift children out of poverty, we also need to support those living in poverty to reach their full potential.

The Scottish Attainment Challenge now provides targeted funding for 9 Challenge Authorities as well as an additional 73 primary and secondary schools out-with those nine areas, with the highest concentration of pupils living in deprivation. In November, I attended a national schools programme event with head teachers from across Scotland. Schools shared the innovative ways and approaches they are using Scottish Attainment Challenge funding to help break down barriers to learning and raise the attainment of the children in their schools.

I also introduced Pupil Equity Funding in 2017 as a new way of working to close the attainment gap, by providing money directly to the schools, and headteachers, like many of you here today, that know their young people best. Currently over 95% of schools across Scotland have Pupil Equity Funding empowering Headteachers to decide where best to make a real difference to the children in their schools. That commitment to empower Headteachers is central to this Government’s approach.

Too often we hear the accusation that Scottish education lacks creativity and innovation. PEF proves that argument entirely wrong. Empowered teachers, like many of you here today, when given the right resources and appropriate support, are improving the chances of children and young people and transforming lives.

Looked after children also benefit from additional resources through the Attainment Scotland Fund. In the summer of 2018 we introduced the Care Experienced Children and Young People Fund with up to £33m being provided to LAs to help support care experienced children and young people. This is the newest fund which is routed through LAs with the Chief Social Work Officer and Chief Education Officer working together to ensure there are strategic plans in place to best support looked after/care experienced children. Projects as diverse as mentoring programmes, counselling services and bespoke individual tailored packages including driving lessons were supported through the fund last year.

Whilst this funding support is making a difference for looked after children we also must reflect on the findings of the Independent Care Review. In particular the uncomfortable truth that our approaches to support for this group of our most vulnerable children and young people have to date not been good enough. I have heard from care experienced young people of teachers who have been the one anchor of stability in their lives and who have loved and supported them through the most difficult times but I have also heard that this is not the case for many. I am determined, as is the First Minister, to honour the work of the Independent Care Review and our commitment to full implementation.

The Scottish Attainment Challenge also supports a small number of nationally funded programmes around teacher recruitment, research and professional learning. And third sector organisations receive support to take forward specific pieces of targeted work to support the aims of the Challenge. All of them delivering vital support for children, young people and their families.

I am immensely proud of what our schools are doing. As we move into the fifth year since the announcement of the Scottish Attainment Challenge it is time to reflect on the learning and the progress made.

The interim Evaluation report of the Attainment Scotland Fund, published in June 2019, provides clear evidence that the Scottish Attainment Challenge is beginning to make a difference.

The fund has been identified as a driver for change and cohesion and found wide support for the aims of the Fund, with schools reporting greater collaboration and a focus on improving teaching skills and practice.

Key findings included 88% of headteachers seeing improvements in closing poverty-related attainment gap as a result of interventions supported by the Attainment Scotland Fund, 95% expected to see improvements over the next 5 years and 89% of Headteachers felt they had the autonomy to develop plans for PEF.

We know that the use of data to identify and understand the poverty-related attainment gap and to monitor and measure progress continues to improve.

We are seeing some emerging strengths in relation to the Scottish Attainment Challenge and the use of PEF.
• A significantly increased focus on achieving equity.
• Improved use and analysis of data.
• An increased focus on improving outcomes in health and wellbeing, literacy and numeracy.
• A greater focus on increasing the participation and engagement of children and young people in their learning in and beyond the school through more inclusive approaches.
• Greater evidence of schools and local authorities working more collaboratively with a wider range of partners.

So progress is indeed being made and the progress is testament to all the local authorities, regional improvement collaboratives, headteachers, teachers, other education practitioners and partners who have worked collaboratively to develop and deliver innovative and inclusive approaches to supporting children and young people – and their families – in realising their full potential.

However, the job is not yet done. There remains work to do to further close the poverty related attainment gap and now is the time to build on and maximise the progress that we have already made.

The International Council of Education Advisers has been clear in their advice to me that the efforts to close the poverty related attainment gap must continue for many years, not just a single parliamentary term.

They have been clear that we should be seeking to make sustained gains over many years and that is why we have committed to extend funding for the Scottish Attainment Challenge at current levels beyond the lifetime of this parliament and into 2021/22.

On that note, whilst the process of confirming exact school level Pupil Equity Funding allocations for 2020/21 is being finalised with local authorities. I am pleased that smoothing will be continued helping support schools across Scotland deliver their plans.

I hope this gives some vital clarity to schools and local authorities that this support will continue to help close the poverty related attainment gap and to make a positive impact on the life chances of young people in our society.

But it’s important to also look forward to maximise that progress and give our children and young people every opportunity to realise their potential, regardless of their backgrounds.

Scotland has one of the most inclusive education systems in the world when it comes to the provision of support in schools and the cornerstone of this is the presumption of mainstreaming for those with additional support needs.

There remains strong support for our inclusive approach to education and the presumption of mainstreaming and we know that significant numbers of children and young people and their families have benefited as a result.

I recognise that this brings challenges and that is why we are working closely with local authorities and schools to improve consistency of support across Scotland. This includes improved guidance, building capacity to deliver effective additional support, improving career pathways and providing professional development resources.

Having listened to the experiences of children and young people with additional support needs, their families and their teachers, I know we need to do more to enhance their experience at school. Also ensuring that they get the right help at the right time and that is why I committed to an independently chaired review of the implementation of Additional Support for Learning, including where children learn.

The review is about to conclude and the report and recommendations will be published in the next few months. We will use the findings of the review to build on our progress in this area in ensuring all children and young people are getting the appropriate support they need to reach their full learning potential.

We are also investing an additional £15m this financial year for additional frontline staff to improve the experiences of children and young people who need additional support. This will further enhance capacity in education authorities and schools to respond effectively to the individual needs of children and young people.

Curriculum Review

Although many aspects of the education system are delivering real improvements, it is essential that we are always open to considering how further improvement might be delivered.

I have reflected on last month’s Education Debate, and the view of Parliament, and we will be broadening the planned review of the Senior Phase curriculum to a full review of Curriculum for Excellence, covering the Broad General Education, the Senior Phase and the articulation between the two.

Following the debate in parliament in January, my officials have been working closely with the OECD to develop the remit for the broader curriculum review. We have been engaging closely with education stakeholders, including the Curriculum & Assessment Board, on this.

The feedback from these recent discussions reflects what we have heard throughout the Education & Skills Committee inquiry - there are a set of key issues that we want the review to explore, including:

• Curriculum design
• Depth and Breadth of learning in the Senior Phase
• Local flexibility versus increased prescription
• The transition from the BGE into Senior Phase Vocational and academic learning and awards

And, surrounding this all, roles and responsibilities in relation to the curriculum – looking at how, where and when key decisions are made and the role of national agencies

As we have agreed to undertake a full review of Curriculum for Excellence, not just the Senior Phase, we will also be using this opportunity to revisit progress made in addressing the recommendations made by the OECD in 2015, when they previously reviewed the Broad General Education.

As we embark on this process, it is vital to recognise that, despite calls for such a review within Parliament, there was cross party support for the development of Curriculum for Excellence and there continues to be cross party support for Curriculum for Excellence. That constancy of Parliamentary support for Scotland’s Curriculum, gives fundamental certainty to our education system on the scope and parameters of this Review.

It is important that we maintain stability throughout the period of the review and continue to build on the good work that is happening in schools during this time. I also want to make it very clear that this will be a review of the curriculum and, while it will very much need to take account of the wider context in which that has been developed, it will not be a review of the whole of Scottish education.

Throughout our discussions on the scope of the review, we have consistently heard continued support for the values and principles of Curriculum for Excellence and a shared commitment to delivering on its original aims and aspirations. This review will be a collaborative endeavour – an opportunity for us to reflect, across the education system, on how we have been delivering on these original intentions.

We have the support of national and local partners, including COSLA and ADES, in taking this forward. For me, it is absolutely critical that the review is informed by the views, the experience, the perspective and the skill of the professionals working with young people in Scotland today. For this purpose, we will be setting up a Scottish Practitioner Forum to ensure this and we will work closely with the OECD to ensure this review fully captures the experiences of young people in our schools, colleges and other places of learning.

I have given you an overview of the focus of the review and I am pleased to announce that the remit for the curriculum review has been published today. We expect the OECD review to conclude at the end of February 2021.

I want to be clear today that I firmly believe in Curriculum for Excellence and that it is the right approach for Scottish education. I do not wish this review to be a distraction or to create uncertainty in the system. We need to stick with our current agenda of excellence and equity and deepen and embed progress. I want us to take the opportunity of the review to discuss and debate what we want Curriculum for Excellence to be over the next 10 years. I want us to have an energising discussion – almost 20 years since the national debate which led to CfE, on what we want the curriculum to achieve for our young people in the years ahead. So I encourage you today to engage in this constructive discussion and debate and take this opportunity to build the next phase of Curriculum for Excellence with us, to ensure the best outcomes for young people.


Every education system must always be open to make further improvements. We are in Scotland and we will strive to make them happen. We will stick close to the data and evidence, examine it carefully and take long term evidence based decisions.

But the evidence is clear: the children and young people of Scotland are achieving strongly through the different educational pathways they can choose.

We have embarked on a reform of Scottish education that is working, that is closing the attainment gap, raising standards and is sustainable for the long term.

There is still much to do, but I believe we are on the right track.

Now is the time to stay the course. To have trust in the evidence, in our teachers, schools and young people.

If we do that, we can help create a bright future for all our young people.
Thank you.

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