Chapter 4: Progress by Priority
This section addresses the second research question, "To what extent has the Skills Action Plan for Rural Scotland (SAPRS) delivered on the five broad priority areas agreed?"
The research found that considerable progress has been made across all priority areas of the SAPRS, including: skills insights, interventions and support in rural Scotland; and promotional activity. These activities have a much greater focus on the skills needs of rural Scotland, in part due to the cross-sector co-ordination central to the SAPRS.
Some expected activities have however not occurred as planned. This was predominantly due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, which led to delays in activities, or led to activities being adapted.
This chapter focuses on the second research question, "To what extent has the Skills Action Plan for Rural Scotland (SAPRS) delivered on the five broad priority areas agreed?" It summarises the progress made to date across activities within the SAPRS, taking each priority area in turn. The five broad priority areas are:
- Priority area A: Better understand the skills rural employers need and align provision to support this;
- Priority area B: Provide individuals with accessible education and skills provision to secure, sustain and progress in their careers in rural areas;
- Priority area C: Develop the current workforce in rural areas through upskilling and reskilling;
- Priority area D: Build a secure pipeline for the future; and
- Priority area E: Take a co-ordinated, strategic approach to tackling skills in rural areas.
This chapter draws on two SAPRS Progress Update Reports, collated in Spring 2021 and Spring 2022 by SDS in collaboration with partners on the Implementation Steering Group (ISG). It also draws on interviews with stakeholders, to assess their views on progress made, and explore the barriers and challenges they have faced. The stakeholder interviews have also informed the case studies presented in this section.
Priority area A: Better understand the skills rural employers need and align provision to support this
Key activities within this priority area include:
- Skills Assessment for Rural Scotland;
- Data Matrix interactive tool;
- Skills Alignment Pilot; and
- The Rural Business Panel Survey.
Skills Development Scotland published the first Skills Assessment for Rural Scotland in 2020, which is now updated on an annual basis. This document provides a robust evidence base that supports skills investment planning across rural Scotland. Underpinning the Skills Assessment is the Data Matrix, an interactive tool which presents data on skills supply, skills demand and skills mismatches. A rural cut of the data was included to support the SAPRS, accessed via a Rural button on the dashboard. This allows for analysis of individual indicators at a Local Authority level and rural Scotland as a whole, making it easier for organisations to identify and analyse the rural data that is of most use to them. One ISG member in the interviews highlighted the value of the tool, and specifically being able to search by Local Authority:
It's very helpful as it provides a rural database where you can search by local authority and generate specific outputs. The data is very useful, and we can encourage others to use the data.
The Skills Assessment for Rural Scotland is complemented by Regional Skills Assessments in more localised rural geographies, as well as Sector Skills Assessments, which provide evidence of relevance to a number of industries with a strong rural footprint.
In addition to these SDS resources, ISG members have invested in numerous sectoral, thematic and regional consultations and research studies, to improve their understanding of the skills needs in rural Scotland. The ISG meetings and communication platforms (such as blogs) provide opportunities to share and discuss this information. Examples of research shared include Lantra's Skills Summit report, National Farmers Union Scotland (NFUS) employer workshops, Highland recruitment research, and research on the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The Federation of Small Businesses has also presented findings from sectoral and regionally-focused surveys to the ISG, with ISG members encouraged to promote this information to their networks. Sharing information has been a key benefit of the SAPRS for many ISG members, as one interviewee highlighted:
The value of actually being able to articulate, in quite a compelling way, what's happening across rural Scotland and how partners are responding to local and regional needs. I personally feel that that's not something that was there before the Rural Plan.
An important part of Priority area A was better aligning education and skills provision to the needs of the rural economy. In partnership with South of Scotland Enterprise (SOSE) and the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), SDS commissioned a skills planning pilot, which sought to map regional demand with provision in a rural area.
Further work is being taken forward through the SFC-led South of Scotland Regional Pathfinder, and a range of partnership activity has occurred to inform more targeted responses to skills issues in rural areas. These activities have benefitted financially from the National Transition Training Fund, which supports individuals who had been made redundant or were at risk of redundancy, as well as the sectors hit hardest by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The expertise of ISG members has been key in shaping these interventions and responding to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Projects of note include the Timber Haulage Academy by Confor, and Redesigning Rural by Scottish Enterprise. While these activities were likely to have occurred without the SAPRS, the networks created as a result of the SAPRS have helped to promote potential opportunities and ensure the design and delivery of these activities better meets the needs of the rural economy. As one ISG member in the interviews described:
[Programme X] probably would have gone ahead without the SAPRS because we were approached directly by Scottish Government. SAPRS has brought a framework and focus, so we know where we fit in the landscape of skills delivery.
One of the ambitions of the SAPRS is to better understand the skills needs of employers in rural areas through direct engagement. As outlined in the progress reports, activity here has built on existing or proposed panels or datasets, rather than creating new studies. Initial activity in this area was put on hold, in order to prioritise responses to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. However, in 2021, South of Scotland Enterprise (SOSE) collaborated with Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) to develop the latter's existing business panel survey and undertake a joint survey of businesses in each region. Building on this, the first national Rural Scotland Business Panel Survey was then commissioned through a partnership between the Scottish Government, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and South of Scotland Enterprise. As well as measuring the economic health of rural Scotland more broadly, the survey captures information on skills needs, such as the extent of labour shortages. A more enhanced dataset on skills needs and gaps can be found in the Scottish Employer Skills Survey (which for example can break down skills needs at an occupational level).
Overall, the research has found that clear progress has been made across the various activities planned in priority area A, although this has been slower than intended due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Key developments include the Skills Assessment for Rural Scotland and tailored links to the underpinning Data Matrix, a variety of ISG led or supported research, and the first Rural Business Panel Survey. These provide more nuanced, tailored and accessible insights into the skills needs of rural Scotland.
Priority area B: Provide individuals with accessible education and skills provision to secure, sustain and progress in their careers in rural areas
Key activities within this priority area include:
- The development of the South of Scotland Skills and Learning Network;
- Promotion of the benefits of apprenticeships in rural Scotland;
- Creation of innovative ways to support Apprenticeship delivery;
- Awareness raising of the rural supplement for training providers; and
- Improvement to the accessibility of education opportunities.
Priority area B gained increased significance in 2020 due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, which necessitated a move to more accessible and flexible forms of education and skills provision.
In 2020, the Scottish Funding Council, with support from Dumfries & Galloway and Borders Colleges, launched the South of Scotland Skills and Learning Network. This consists of four physical hubs that provide access to learning opportunities for individuals of all ages, irrespective of location, through its digital learning platform. Key sectors of interest are care, renewable energy, construction and engineering.
During the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the Scottish Funding Council worked with colleges and universities in rural areas to explore how they were adapting to the changing landscape, and to share any learnings. As highlighted within the progress update, this work demonstrated that colleges typically structured their response to the pandemic in three stages: an immediate response in April to July 2020; planning for the start of the next academic year 2020-21; and thinking longer term about post-pandemic impacts on learning.
Apprenticeships are a vital mechanism in Scotland for delivering skills provision through a work-based learning approach. SDS and partners, including Developing the Young Workforce (DYW) and providers, continue to promote apprenticeships in rural areas through the use of innovative communication methods (described below) in order to ensure national campaigns for Scottish Apprenticeships resonate in rural areas. Scottish Apprenticeship Week is an example of a national campaign led by Skills Development Scotland (SDS). With ISG members encouraged to support related activity during the event, this has helped to contribute to a greater focus on Apprenticeships in rural Scotland.
SDS has also worked with partners and employers to facilitate sector commentary pieces and apprenticeship case studies. These help to drive awareness of the range of apprenticeship pathways in rural Scotland. These have been formalised through the Case Study of the Month initiative, which has established a thematic focus for case studies. ISG partners have also helped promote Scottish Apprenticeships in their sectors or regions more widely.
Alongside this work, SDS has worked with industry partners to pilot innovative ways to support Modern Apprenticeship delivery and help respond to specific needs of individuals and (particularly small and micro) employers in rural Scotland. Examples include the Adhartas apprenticeship scheme, a novel apprenticeship model with an emphasis on the Gaelic language, and an industry led programme supporting the delivery of Modern Apprenticeships in Hospitality. One stakeholder who was interviewed reported that the SAPRS has been particularly important in contributing to the piloting of the new apprenticeship models within the rural economy.
A number of sector bodies are ISG members - so they're hearing directly about initiatives (e.g. the novel apprenticeship models)… and so that has really helped disseminate novel approaches to challenges that have been faced by employers working in rural areas.
In addition to these communications, and the novel apprenticeship model, further support for rural communities to access training includes the SDS Rural Supplement grant. This provides financial support to training providers who offer Modern Apprenticeships to individuals living in rural areas, in recognition of the increased costs for delivering apprentices in rural areas, and the need to reduce barriers for people in more remote areas. Introduced in 2017, it has supported the training of over 3,000 individuals since the creation of the SAPRS. Lantra and other industry partners supported uptake by conducting awareness raising activities.
The Skillseeder web platform and app is one example of an activity designed to improve awareness of and ease of access to education and skills provision in rural Scotland. Case study one draws on an interview with a Skillseeder representative.
Case Study 1: Skillseeder app, by Skillseeder
Four entrepreneurs developed the Skillseeder app in 2020, in response to the Scottish Government's CivTech programme. The aim of the app is to provide information about skills provision opportunities across rural Scotland through a simple, easily accessible platform. At the 'click of a button' potential learners can access a range of educational courses at different levels, and find relevant training.
There are currently 6,000 courses offered on the app. Training courses are identified via webscraping, while training providers can also upload courses onto the app themselves. Whilst it took some time for the team behind the Skillseeder app to convince training providers of its merits, they have gradually been able to raise its profile. By making an accessible platform, the developers hoped to reduce barriers for specific groups, such as women and people with disabilities, who are more likely to encounter challenges attending and applying for training. The app is often able to target promotional activity at these individuals, through "search engine optimization" and Facebook and Twitter targeting, although they have reported that it is more difficult to target people with disabilities.
Skillseeder has used information from ISG communications to help inform their delivery of the app, particularly in terms of targeting specific regions and sectors. The collaborative approach of the ISG has also meant that Skillseeder and the ISG have discussed other opportunities including support for peatland restoration. They are currently exploring linking trainers to workers in this area.
It is clear that a considerable amount of activity has focused on improving individuals' awareness of, and accessibility to, training provision in rural Scotland.
With respect to raising awareness, a key focus has been promoting the value of Apprenticeships in rural areas, for example via the Scottish Apprenticeship Week campaign and case studies that ISG members have supported. Other activity, such as the Skillseeder app, has sought to make it easier for individuals in rural areas to find training opportunities. Furthermore, SDS and partners have piloted examples of more flexible models of apprenticeship delivery, thereby enhancing their accessibility, while the South of Scotland Skills and Learning Network seeks to improve access to learning opportunities.
While there has been valuable progress, some of these schemes are still in their infancy and do not cut across all sectors and regions of the rural economy, so their impact on the rural economy as a whole might take time to materialise.
Priority area C: Develop the current workforce in rural areas through upskilling and reskilling
Key activities within this priority area include:
- The Rural Employers' Toolkit;
- A range of sectoral-focused upskilling and reskilling initiatives;
- Skills for Growth service;
- Skills Discovery tool on Our Skillsforce;
- Enhanced Careers Information, Advice and Guidance support; and
- Promotion of digital skills projects.
Supporting interventions that meet the skills needs of rural employers are important to this Priority. The Rural Employers' Toolkit is an example of one such intervention. Lantra, supported with funding from SDS, and on behalf of the ISG, developed this toolkit to give rural employers practical guidance and support across all sectors of the economy. A number of Scottish Government-funded, sectoral-focused initiatives have also contributed to this priority area since 2019, including the Seafood Upskilling and Reskilling project, a range of Forestry upskilling and reskilling activity, and the Tourism & Hospitality Talent Development Programme.
Other activity has focused on training opportunities for women in the rural economy, particularly in Agriculture and other land-based sectors, and Aquaculture. One ISG member felt that this activity is helping to increase awareness within the rural economy of the need to attract a more diverse workforce. However, as covered in the following section on priority area D, there is more work to be done in this area.
Many land-based sectors are heavily gender-segregated which raises the issue of changing sectoral demographics. We want to attract new people, women, and men into non-traditional sectors. We are seeing more success in these areas, with more awareness in imaging and promotion to try to promote a more diverse workforce. SAPRS has supported this by producing case studies, blogs, "My day at work" pieces etc., to help dispel stereotypes.
Additionally, there has been some activity to respond to the climate emergency. For example, Borders College and Dumfries & Galloway College have developed a Green Skills Academy, while the Scottish Government-funded Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Practical Training Fund was launched in 2022. Some ISG members felt there needed to be a greater strategic approach to these activities, further discussed in Chapter 5.
SDS and ISG partners have played an important role in encouraging employers to understand their workforce development needs and access relevant support. Owing to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, this often took the form of online promotion. This included Developing the Young Workforce (DYW) in the West Highland region hosting an online webinar on apprenticeship funding opportunities for employers, and an online Business Support Post-COVID event in the Scottish Borders targeted at construction employers. A key form of support is SDS's Skills for Growth service. Case study two below draws on an interview with a representative of the team running this programme.
Case Study 2: Skills for Growth, by Skills Development Scotland
Skills for Growth was launched ten years ago by SDS. Its aim was to help businesses tackle longer-term challenges such as changing demographics and technological changes, and to highlight the demand for skills across a number of sectors. The programme helps businesses tackle these challenges, providing opportunities for training, support and funding. Since its launch, the programme has also digitized, allowing more businesses, including rural employers, to access services.
The SAPRS has benefitted the programme in a number of ways, in part because it has highlighted the need to have staff based in rural locations to provide support to businesses in these areas. The ISG Skills Planning Manager at SDS consulted the Skills for Growth team about products and services – as a result of this, and the subsequent networking opportunities, Skills for Growth's involvement with the SAPRS has resulted in an increase in the number of referrals from rural businesses seeking support. In terms of Skills for Growth's impact on the rural economy, its last evaluation in November 2021 highlighted the results from a survey of supported businesses. Of the 97 respondents surveyed, 94% recommended Skills for Growth, stating immediate benefit to their organisation and increased understanding of their skills needs. Just over half (56%) of respondents were businesses operating in local authorities with remote and island, rural and mainly rural areas.
Skills for Growth complements the Skills Discovery tool on Our Skillsforce, which helps small to medium sized enterprises understand the skills needs and skills gaps across their business or department.
Alongside supporting employers, activity within priority area C also seeks to help individuals who are looking to change or progress their careers. Promoting pathways into the workplace has played a role, with various SDS case studies developed exploring the different educational routes individuals have taken to join a new industry. Enhancing careers advice is also a key activity here:
- SDS has supported careers staff by ensuring the labour market intelligence they receive is relevant to the rural economy.
- The SDS Virtual Experts programme, which forms part of the "My World of Work (MyWOW) Live" interactive activities, aims to bring the world of work to life through direct engagement with industry experts.
- SDS has also run "meet the expert" virtual sessions where experts in various sectors inform young people about careers available to them. One ISG member in the interviews highlighted the influence of the SAPRS on these sessions, with partners coming together to support initiatives.
One theme within this priority area relates to supporting digital leadership and management skills. SDS and ISG members have taken responsibility for promoting existing national projects such as the Digitally Enabled Learning Pilot (DELP), the Digital Start Fund, the Digital Xtra Fund, and the Digital Skills Pipeline. While these are nationally available offers, the key has been to signpost and share these opportunities to ensure that they reach a rural audience, for example through the digital newsletter which was issued in November 2021. There are also more localised digital interventions that focus on specific rural areas.
SDS are currently in the process of developing a Digital Economy Skills Action Plan (DESAP), with ISG members offered the opportunity to feed into the consultation process. Recognising that the need for digital skills cuts across all sectors, the plan will take a whole-economy approach, focusing on common digital economy skills requirements across sectors. The Digital Economy Skills Action Plan will consider skills in three segments:
- Digital skills that employees need to enable them to do their jobs, as employers adopt more digital technology. These are currently referred to as "Digital Enablement Skills".
- Roles that are not technology-based, but which require an increasing number of digital skills. These are currently referred to as "Hybrid Digital Tech Professionals".
- Specialist digital technology professions that require specific skills, such as data analytics and software engineering. These are currently referred to as "Digital Tech Professionals".
Work towards priority area C has progressed largely as planned. Although the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has disrupted some of the planned activity, a range of activities are in place to develop the workforce in rural areas.
The SAPRS has helped enhance the focus of existing initiatives on the needs of rural Scotland, providing a platform to promote these initiatives, and bringing partners together to work collaboratively on them. Activity has covered a range of sectors and skills specialisms, although one or two ISG members considered that more could be done in certain areas, including a more strategic approach to developing green skills.
Priority area D: Build a secure pipeline for the future
Key activities within this priority area include:
- Providing more localised careers information, advice and guidance;
- Promoting career opportunities;
- Creating a more diverse workforce; and
- Enhancing work-based learning pathways through for example Foundation Apprenticeships.
In terms of more localised careers information, as outlined in the previous section, a range of work has been undertaken to support this. A key additional development during 2020-21 was the introduction of an SDS Yammer page, which allows colleagues across the organisation to share careers information internally. This page now has 180 members, and provides career-related resources that reflect current skills needs in rural Scotland. SDS colleagues – for example, those working in Careers Information Advice and Guidance (CIAG) – can then share these resources with teachers and training providers, to help them support young people.
Activity around promoting careers opportunities was adapted due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, and the rapidly changing context. In particular, the SAPRS had an activity to 'investigate the value of utilising digital platforms to extend access to skills resources'. This work was accelerated, as the swift shift to online delivery due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic meant that the planned scoping exercise was no longer relevant. Implementation Steering Group (ISG) partners have since consistently used digital platforms to ensure that individuals can obtain a relevant and up-to-date picture of employment opportunities in rural areas. Examples of this have included the VirtRural Careers event and Developing the Young Workforce (DYW) Live.
ISG members and SDS have used case studies and events to promote career opportunities to all ages but with a primary focus on young people and their parents, carers and influencers living and working in rural areas, as the section above on 'priority area C' outlines.
From a workforce diversity perspective, the SAPRS aimed to assess the issues and barriers individuals with protected characteristics in rural areas face in accessing training and gaining employment. The evidence review was paused due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic but the work on understanding barriers continued. A draft report looking at existing evidence from public sources was produced with the intention of providing a basis for agreeing next steps. There are however, multiple activities occurring at a local or sectoral level promoting the importance of diversity within the rural economy by all partners.
Finally, an important element of building a secure pipeline is ensuring work-based learning pathways in rural areas. The national Foundation Apprenticeships programme has a key role to play here, providing school pupils with skills for work and an industry-recognised qualification. SDS' Foundation Apprenticeships recruitment campaign allows employers to target by geography and communicate with young people living in rural areas. Collaborative work between ISG members and beyond has helped promote and increase the uptake of Foundation Apprenticeships, with SDS working closely with delivery providers, local authorities, schools and Developing the Young Workforce (DYW) Groups at a regional level.
Foundation Apprenticeships have seen a substantial increase in starts since 2019. This increase has been reflected in rural areas as well, with Aberdeenshire starts, for example, increasing from 61 individuals in 2018 to 647 in 2020. This trend can be seen across all other rural areas too. In partnership with others, SDS has also overseen the creation of the Land Based Pre-Apprenticeship, which piloted in 2019-20, and for the 2021-22 year saw 47 starts.
Overall, there has been mixed progress within priority area D, in line with the anticipated activities. Progress has been made on careers advice and enhancing work-based learning pathways. SDS have made good use of digital platforms for both of these, by creating both an internal Yammer page for colleagues to share resources and using digital platforms, case studies and online events to ensure that young people can obtain a relevant and up-to-date picture of employment opportunities in rural areas.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic resulted in an adjustment in how careers opportunities were promoted such as exclusively using digital platforms for long periods. The evidence review on creating a more diverse workforce was paused due to the pandemic, but work on understanding the barriers continued as it was a priority for Government-led coronavirus (COVID-19) data. A draft report was produced with the original intention of providing a platform for discussion on the next steps. Nevertheless, there are multiple activities occurring at a local or sectoral level promoting diversity within the rural economy by all partners.
Priority area E: Take a coordinated, strategic approach to tackling skills in rural areas
Key activities within this priority area include:
- the creation of the Implementation Steering Group (ISG);
- a skills mapping exercise;
- the development of leaner pathways; and
- a calendar of events to promote key messages relating to the rural agenda.
The work of the Implementation Steering Group (ISG), which has overseen progress of the SAPRS since December 2019, has been vital to ensuring a multi-agency, cross-sectoral approach to addressing skills issues in rural areas. The ISG has a broad membership with a wide range of expertise spanning across sectors and regions. The group has met regularly online, with sub-groups allowing for more targeted discussions and activity planning.
However, some ISG members who took part in interviews felt that the ISG could give more attention to strategic planning. A handful of ISG members also acknowledged that the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic had necessitated a more reactive approach to immediate skills needs.
A skills-mapping provision exercise was planned as part of priority area E to map the volume, type and delivery of education and training opportunities on offer across rural areas in Scotland. As a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, this work has not happened. Stakeholders, including SDS' Skills Evidence & Impact and Regional Skills Planning and Sector Development Teams, the Scottish Funding Council, Lantra and others, instead focused activity on understanding and responding to skills issues caused by the pandemic. However, at a sectoral level, a "root and branch" review of learning in Scotland's land-based and aquaculture sectors has commenced by the independent Commission for the Land-Based and Aquaculture Learning Review.
A further planned initiative was the development of learner journey pathways across relevant college and university Regional Outcome Agreements (ROAs). As the progress update highlights, this work – which the Scottish Funding Council leads in partnership with Scotland's Colleges and SDS – is considered central to delivering the 'right' outcomes for learners. Similar to above, Scottish Funding Council adapted their work in this area due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. For example, they took a more proportionate approach to reporting requests in relation to the Regional Outcome Agreements.
A final activity within priority area E was to compile a calendar of events to help promote key messages relating to the rural agenda. While – as set out in the previous section – the webpage for the SAPRS, regular blogs and case studies helped promote the activity of the ISG, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has meant there have been few opportunities to promote key messages at in-person events.
Overall, good progress has been made towards taking a coordinated, strategic approach to tackling skills in rural areas. The most significant development has been the development of the ISG. The cross-sector, cross-region, and multi-agency approach to this group has been central to ensuring a co-ordinated approach to tacking skills in rural areas.
However, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, and its impact on a range of organisations, has meant that other planned activities sitting within priority area E have been paused or adapted.
This chapter has addressed the research question "To what extent has the SAPRS delivered on the five broad priority areas agreed?" To make this assessment, the research has primarily drawn on the Implementation Steering Group (ISG) progress updates, supplemented by stakeholder interviews where relevant.
As detailed, a considerable amount of progress has been achieved across the five priority areas. This progress has contributed to an enhanced focus on the skills needs of rural Scotland through a number of activities, including: skills insights, skills provision, careers guidance, and promotional work.
SDS has played a key role in driving activity forward, but activities have typically involved multiple partners collaborating and therefore bridging the divide between local and national government, training providers, awarding bodies and industry bodies. ISG members have helped drive the impact of this activity, supporting collaboration on interventions, sharing knowledge and promoting activity.
A theme running across the five priority areas is the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. In many ways, the SAPRS has enabled and enhanced the ability of stakeholders to respond more effectively to the quickly evolving skills needs of industry and learners. However, certain activities have not progressed as anticipated. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic impacted the method of promoting careers opportunities and vacancies and the volume of vacancies and opportunities in some sectors. SDS and partners have made good use of digital platforms to promote careers advice and enhance work-based learning pathways. The evidence review on understanding the barriers to a diverse workforce was paused in order for partners to produce coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic-related data on people affected by the pandemic in their sector.
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