The May Dancing

Janet Downs's picture
For the first time in living memory, well, seven years, the Year Six maypole dancers tangled up the ribbons. They had skipped round the pole weaving an intricate pattern of colours – all they had to do was to reverse the moves. But one of them, maybe more, dived when they should have ducked and the threads became entwined. There was no recrimination, just some furrowed brows, gasps and giggles, while they decided the best way to undo the muddle. Up, down, backwards, forwards, the children worked together to solve a problem. Strings disentangled, they continued their unravelling until each ribbon was separate again. The audience roared their approval – louder and more raucously than if the dance had been perfect.

This year was a break with tradition. The Dancing moved from the village square, increasingly clogged with cars, to the playground. But everything else remained the same. Every class in the primary school took a turn to impress the audience of villagers, parents, grandparents, carers, friends and relatives. This year the theme was “Dancing through the Decades”. The playgroup poppets took this literally – they re-enacted the story of Sleeping Beauty. “The Princess lived for a hundred years, a hundred years…” played while the little princes and princesses cast their spells and one boy, overwhelmed, knuckled his eyes to stem the flow of tears. One class jived to “Rock Around the Clock”, another flashdanced to “What a Feeling”, Year One marched to “I am the Music Man”, but the climax was Year Six and the maypole.

It’s an annual ritual, the May Dancing. Some parents can remember when they, as Upper Juniors, danced round the maypole in the village square – a rite of passage before moving on to secondary school. It’s the same maypole, the same ribbons, but each year, a different group of eleven year olds.

What will these school leavers remember of their primary school? Not the Sats, or the time Ofsted came calling. No, they’ll remember the Christmas concerts where the infants always stage a nativity tableaux, the sports days and competitions, the school dinners (another rite of passage – Year Six pupils are given responsibility for a table), singing to the old people in the village hall, the “evacuee day” when they rode in a steam train with cardboard suitcases containing sandwiches of jam or spam (no crisps). And the May Dancing.

What will the future hold as they dance on to secondary school? Will they be valued for themselves or for their potential contribution to school league tables? Will they be judged for what they are or what tests say they can do? Will they develop a love of education which will stay with them forever or come to regard it as something to be swallowed and regurgitated on demand?

I hope not – I hope that these children will retain the enthusiasm they showed at the May Dancing when with aplomb and teamwork they averted disaster – and were rewarded with cheers.

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Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 02/06/2012 - 18:15

Oh Janet our primary children were just the same with the maypole and I know why it caught your imagination - because the collective concentration and all the rapid thinking that was going on to unmuddle the muddle was just such a delight to watch. It really was absolute teamwork with everyone fully switched on and playing their part. No adult was needed. The accordion player was able to demonstrate her full repertoire of variations of 'sweets of may'and the applause was long at the end.

leonard james's picture
Sat, 02/06/2012 - 19:28

Look I'm not knocking the maypole but I don't see how it encourages a love of anything really aside from dancing around the maypole.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 02/06/2012 - 19:38

You don't think watching a class of 8-year-olds working rapidly and with huge attention and awareness of all those around them to unravel and correct their maypole dance would inspire your love of those children Leonard?

You don't think you'd be one of the crowd clapping long and hard when they finished?

Okay. I suppose it's not everyone's cup of tea.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 03/06/2012 - 07:21

Leonard - I'm sorry you took the piece so literally and interpreted it as a call for more maypole dancing in school. It's seem almost insulting to you to point out that I was using a specific incident to make a generalised point about education. Even if I were just writing about children dancing, there were many skills being demonstrated which are essential for life: teamwork, practice, problem-solving, co-operation, taking responsibility, coping with adversity and doing so without blaming others.

Small incidents can reveal greater truths, Leonard. Perhaps it needs children dancing to open the eyes of jaded and joyless adults.

leonard james's picture
Sat, 02/06/2012 - 21:15

I thought the argument was that more maypole dancing etc will mean that more children will love education?

leonard james's picture
Mon, 04/06/2012 - 06:01

I haven't taken the piece literally hence my use of the expression 'maypole dancing etc'. Anyway this is besides the point I could have picked any of the activities mentioned and, indeed, some that aren't and still asked the same questions.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 02/06/2012 - 21:56

I think what you see in this kind of situation are some of the skills and human abilities which we try to nurture in children but which can't be tested by SATS and measured in league tables Leonard. Janet its asking if we will continue to cherish those skills or not and hoping that we will.

leonard james's picture
Sun, 03/06/2012 - 07:26

The article places quite a lot of emphasis on children 'developing a love of education' through these sorts of activities. I'm afraid I see only a superficial connection between successful groups of maypole dancers and successful groups of say, scientists or people who can untangle ribbons and people who can solve mathematical problems quickly.

My point is that you get better at things through practice - if you are going to argue that children will get better at say Science by not doing an enjoyable activity that isn't Science then I'm going to disagree with you.

leonard james's picture
Sun, 03/06/2012 - 07:28

Apologies - a correction in my second paragraph...

I meant to say 'If you are going to argue that children will get better at say Science by doing an enjoyable activity that isn't Science then I'm going to disagree with you'.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 03/06/2012 - 08:08

"I’m afraid I see only a superficial connection between successful groups of maypole dancers and successful groups of say, scientists or people who can untangle ribbons and people who can solve mathematical problems quickly."

I think you'd be surprised by the links which are proven Leonard (although of course this is not the point of the article which are is pointing to deeper transferable skills). If you are genuinely interested in this I suggest you sign up for one of the excellent MaST courses (masters level courses for primary teachers with experience to further develop their understanding of mathematics education) which are not open to all comers. You can explore issues like what the books on this list offer students:

leonard james's picture
Sun, 03/06/2012 - 08:14

Firstly the article is complaining about secondary education (as if students don't get to do anything as memorable as maypole dancing in secondary schools) so I'm not sure why a masters course for primary teachers is particularly appropriate here.

Secondly can you please name some of the 'deeper transferable skills' that can maypole dancing can help develop.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 03/06/2012 - 08:15

Janet already did.

leonard james's picture
Mon, 04/06/2012 - 07:01

I'm amazed that 'practice' is now seen as a skill in itself.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 03/06/2012 - 08:16

Again, Leonard, you have misunderstood. My final paragraph was more to do with the type of secondary education the children might encounter which, with its emphasis on tests, might destroy the love of education that schools should be nurturing.

Of course, it's easy to mock activities like maypole dancing. I can hear the sneers at the DfE now - "There are no jobs dancing round the maypole", "All this lovey dovey, dancing round the maypole stuff, won't help in the real world, will it?", "Maypole dancing won't get anyone a place at Oxbridge." Except that activities like this encourage the skills I mentioned above.

At no time did I suggest that maypole dancing should replace science - but the skills developed in group activities like dancing, indeed any other group activities ,will be useful in later life.

leonard james's picture
Mon, 04/06/2012 - 07:00

Your implication is that maypole dancing etc is a valid educational activity that children will remember with affection for years to come while they will hate being tested at secondary school to the point where they hate education altogether. Ignoring the stereotyping of both primary and secondary education the message seems clear - we should do less of what we do at secondary school and more of what we do at primary school.

The trouble with this suggestion is that we are already stretched at secondary to the point where many teachers have had curriculum time cut so other things (citizenship, learning to learn, diplomas, OCR nationals in ICT & coming soon body image classes) can be added. If you want secondary children to 'learn skills' through Maypole dancing then the curriculum time has to come from somewhere - whether you mean to or not you are suggesting that things like 'maypole dancing should replace science'.

I actually agree with you on excess testing but it is the notion we should fill curriculum time lost to testing with superficial entertainment rather than educational activities that I deplore even more. Here is why;

1) Contrary to the implications in your article most secondary schools already offer extra curricular activities including dance.

2) Many children hate dancing and some even like testing - how is dance fostering a 'love of education' among such children.

3) If we encourage team working by encouraging more group activities like dance then surely we are neglecting other transferable skills such as independent study and autonomy.

4) You described some fondly remembered primary activities as 'rites of passage' - if nothing changes at secondary school then said activities cease to be so. It is weird that you are celebrating 'rites of passage' on one hand while arguing for more of the same on the other. We have a problem in this country with adults behaving like children and it is vital that secondary schools bridge the gap between childhood and adulthood - not worrying about work being entertaining seems a good place to start.

5) I've often heard that the 'transferable skills' argument is merely a smokescreen for replacing education with entertainment. I'd be interested in your answer to the following question: Hedge fund managers have lots of transferable skills - would you be happy for a hedge fund manager to manage a school without any specific training?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 04/06/2012 - 09:29

In my experience young kids tend to remember the stuff which was exciting. Like their teacher stopping in sheep poo at the farm. They also remember the things their parents take photos and video of and the things they talk about. So they remember the things which were exciting for their parents too.

leonard james's picture
Mon, 04/06/2012 - 09:53

I thought the point of contention here was how we are educating older children?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 04/06/2012 - 09:56

It's always dangerous to assume there is a commonly shared objective reality regarding what the conversation is about. More here on this if you're interested:

andy's picture
Sun, 03/06/2012 - 11:50


I love the analogy but fear that the Maypole dancing effectively starts to become dysfunctional in that it becomes more and more tightly choreographed from Y5 onwards as the dance becomes more focused on KS2 SATs. Thereafter the freestyle is squeezed out by the high value testing and expected progression that are intertwined in the existing national curriculum. Add the school league tables arising from political intervention and centrally determined (arbitrary soundbite) floor targets and the Maypole has not just disappeared but been felled for firewood.

Our existing system is all too often used to get schools through the government of the day's hoops and pay little/no attention to optimising and nurturing student learning, development and blossoming.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 03/06/2012 - 19:48

Would this YouTube illustrate such a school Andy? Note the extremes to which the teacher has gone to colour code the chidren so they can more easily learn more complex dances without ever making mistakes.

leonard james's picture
Mon, 04/06/2012 - 10:41


"It’s always dangerous to assume there is a commonly shared objective reality regarding what the conversation is about. More here on this if you’re interested:"

Just so I know what is this conversation about from your perspective?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 04/06/2012 - 17:33

It varies depending on who I'm chatting to (if anyone - I might just be thinking aloud) and what's recently been said. Most recently with the maypole dancing videos I've just been 'aving a larf' Leonard.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Tue, 05/06/2012 - 09:04


Despite Rebecca's prejudice, I am confident that the Secretary of State would have been both delighted and charmed by your village school's maypole dancing.

The maypole has a long tradition in these islands and is an icon of national identity. It has all sorts of other resonances and associations (e.g. axis mundi) which commend it.

Although Hobbes saw the maypole as priapic and Cromwell associated with superstition, we can safely put them aside and let the children enjoy themselves in a healthy and traditional way.

Just a shame about the Flashdance rubbish, which dates back only to 1983..... and probably meant more to one of the teachers than the children.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 05/06/2012 - 09:18

ah - I didn't realise it was a copy. In which case I would not link it to Summer Hill!

I assumed the SoS would enjoy the enthusiastic children unravelling the maypole. After all he has young children too doesn't he? I'd be shocked to find anyone who'd had their own children not 'getting' the spirit of Janet's post.

An Eton maypole dance? (with the girls danced by boys of course)

and why to our transatlantic friends have to do everything bigger....?

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 05/06/2012 - 14:19

Ricky - the theme was "Dancing through the decades" so the 80s had to appear. However, the "flashdance" was carefully choreographed and the lively dance needed lots of practice. Of course, the decades could also have covered the 20s - the Charleston would have been fun, but might have caused wardrobe some problems, or the 40s (Glen Miller and Swing - I'm in the mood already). Or maybe the dances could have been chosen from earlier times then they could have had minuets, waltzing or Strip the Willow.

Whatever - it was, as you say, children (and the staff, parents and villagers who came to watch) enjoying themselves. Great fun!

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 05/06/2012 - 14:22

The following hand-written note was pushed through my door. I reproduce it below:

“Bah! Humbug! Maypole dancing! What right have you to praise maypole dancing? Maypole dancing is superfluous fluff, Ma'am. What is needed is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. Everything else is Fancy, Ma'am. You must discard the word Fancy altogether. If I could work my will, idiots who go about maypole dancing should be hoisted in their own ribbons and hung from the maypole by the neck if necessary. Yours disgustedly, Ebenezer Scrooge.”

The ghosts of May Day Past, Present and Future are yet to visit Scrooge. When they have, perhaps he will join in the cheers and shouts of collective joy.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 05/06/2012 - 15:14

and create the policy framework which will make schemes such as this thrive
while bringing Ofsted inside the law - thus allowing high quality to education is valued both by professional experts and by local communities to thrive.
or is the jubilee just making me feel ludicrously and inappropriately optimistic about our potential?

leonard james's picture
Wed, 06/06/2012 - 06:38

You've already tried to create a false juxtaposition of primary and secondary education and now you are trying to associate anyone who disagrees with you as Gradgrind or Scrooge. Opposing the proliferation of entertaining but superficial activities in our secondary schools (especially for the working class) isn't the same as advocating nothing but facts and learning by rote - surely you can see that?

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Wed, 06/06/2012 - 08:50

Well I'm glad someone has pointed out that Gradgrand was the facts guy, not scrooge.

It's the sort of thing a pesky examiner might pick up on.

andy's picture
Wed, 06/06/2012 - 16:07

Speaking for myself, and whether I got this right or wrong only Janet can judge, I read the top story as a direct analogy of the way the process squeezes the learning life out of our young people through high value testing and a curriculum overloaded with content (knowledge) based subjects. Whereas, and I do accept that the maypole dancing was also used as an example not the sole exclusive vehicle for engagement in learning, the focus on innovative and interesting activities to enliven learning and prepare youngsters for the future (work, relationships and well-being) are being strangled from Y5 onwards. Where is the scope for Personalised Learning and Thinking Skills (PLTS) that nurture and grow independent learners possessed of the confidence to undertake things on their own initiative? Where is the Social Emotional Attitudes to Learning (SEAL) that inculcates balanced approaches to personal and interpersonal relationships? These aspects of education are important in preparing the next and future generations. Learning by rote, learning to test, learning how to pass exams do not and never have adequately or appropriately helped young people prepare for the next stages of their life journey.

So its not about the dance, its about youngsters possessed of self-reliance, self-confidence, self-worth and value who have the determination and enthusiasm to shape their own future. Its a classic example of the how not the what ...

leonard james's picture
Wed, 06/06/2012 - 23:06

My experience is that the system is awash with well paid consultants peddling fads like SEAL and well paid inspector types who force teachers into the dark arts of getting kids through exams. Neither group will acknowledge this and both blame the other for their collective failure.

andy's picture
Thu, 07/06/2012 - 06:16

Clearly your encounter with SEAL was less than fruitful, which is a great shame as the full framework when interwoven across a school modus operandi is positive and productive. However, if treated as just another bolt on, another accretion then, yes, it may well be perceived as just another "fad". SEAL was rooted firmly in Emotion Quotion / Emotional Intelligence (e.g. Goleman et al) and was fantastic opportunity to assist pupils in their personal/interpersonal development (including personal responsibility) and support their learning journey.

As you may have deduced my experience of SEAL and working in an EQ badged school appears to have been rather more positive than yours, and it will come as no surprise to read that I consider your remarks somewhat harsh and potentially ill-founded. This is particularly appropriate when set against the prevailing viewpoint about young people and their attitudes and inability to play constructive roles within their communities (starting with poor relationships and behaviours in schools).

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Wed, 06/06/2012 - 18:03

Oh dear, Andy, where to begin?

Where is the scope for Personalised Learning and Thinking Skills (PLTS) that nurture and grow independent learners possessed of the confidence to undertake things on their own initiative?

Are you not aware of the scientific evidence that shows transferable skills cannot be taught independently of a knowledge base?

It's a long journey, but you can start here:

andy's picture
Wed, 06/06/2012 - 18:34

Ricky, I fear that either we are at cross purposes or you have missed the point. PLTS is not related to Critical Thinking. Try this link:

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Thu, 07/06/2012 - 13:38

sorry, my mistake.

andy's picture
Thu, 07/06/2012 - 14:16

No worries. I hope the PLTS link was nonetheless useful. Aesthetically, the PLTS background design is made up of multicoloured ribbons, which resonates with the Maypole analogy.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 07/06/2012 - 15:01

So how do the personal, learning and thinking skills (PLTS) relate to the maypole dancing? According to Andy’s helpful link complete with background of multi-coloured ribbons : “Each group of skills is distinctive and coherent. The groups are also interconnected and learners are likely to encounter skills from several groups in any one learning experience.” The dancers demonstrated:

(a) Creative thinking. They had to unravel the tangled ribbons. They also developed their own routine (not mentioned in original post).
(b)Reflective learning. After untangling the ribbons they had to reflect on what went wrong.
(c)Team working: obviously.
(d)Self managing. They had to demonstrate self-discipline and, where necessary, take responsibility for mistakes.
(e)Effective participation. Even though things went wrong the children overcame the difficulties with aplomb.

They also had a thoroughly enjoyable time and brought joy (and a few tears) into other people’s lives. Can’t say better than that.

Leonard James's picture
Fri, 08/06/2012 - 10:02

So how do the personal, learning and thinking skills (PLTS) relate to my kids playing the multiplayer console game 'war crimes 4'? According to Andy’s helpful link complete with background of multi-coloured ribbons: “Each group of skills is distinctive and coherent. The groups are also interconnected and learners are likely to encounter skills from several groups in any one learning experience.” The children playing multi-player violent video games demonstrated:
(a) Creative thinking. They had to work out how best to position themselves to get a head shot on the computer controlled enemy battalion. They also developed their own routine.
(b)Reflective learning. After shooting each other first time around they had to work out what went wrong.
(c)Team working: obviously.
(d)Self managing. They had to demonstrate self-discipline and, where necessary, take responsibility for mistakes.
(e)Effective participation. Even though things went wrong the children overcame the difficulties with aplomb as the enemies head came apart like a melon.

They also had a thoroughly enjoyable time. This bought joy into my life as I was thoroughly entertained and didn't have to do any work.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 08/06/2012 - 13:09


If your kids are lucky they'll find completing War Crimes 4 is worth two GCSEs (unless it's one of those Gove has de-recognized).

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 08/06/2012 - 13:33

(unless it’s one of those Gove has de-recognized)
Like RE, DT, Art, Business Studies, and all other academic GCSEs with relevance to the real world.
Viva la Ebacc. An idea which should have had a life expectancy of at last 20 minutes even in Gove's most hallucinagenic phase and would have done if he hadn't sacked everyone who wasn't a disciple.

And don't give me all that guff about 'it's only a measure' 'it's not really causing masses of students to be forced to take the subjects Gove wants them to take instead of the academic subjects they actually wanted to take and which will help them prepare for their next steps in life' Ricky. You may live in the Westminster bubble where you can believe that unreality but I don't.

Leonard James's picture
Fri, 08/06/2012 - 17:44

What about the vocational courses kids didn't want to take but were forced to because they help schools move up the league tables? Don't forget them!

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 08/06/2012 - 18:04

As a head of maths it as obvious that students taking courses which they liked and helped them to think about their futures helped them become motivated regarding their futures and therefore to engage with maths, therefore moving us up the league tables.

I've never worked in a school which has engaged with any of those spurious 4 GCSE qualifications you're probably referring to. Of course the over accreditation of some qualifications should have been stopped. What's that got to do with forcing everyone to do history or geography and stopping them doing art, RE or business studies?

Leonard James's picture
Sat, 09/06/2012 - 09:00

Everyone did it around my way - the academies and outstanding schools were the pioneers and everyone else just copied them.

My point here that children have always been 'encouraged' to take particular courses. If people are doing it now at the very least the e-bacc is a step in the right direction compared to what was happening (mainly to working class kids) before.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 09/06/2012 - 09:20

Leonard - are you saying that academies and "outstanding schools" were the first ones to encourage children to take particular courses which were for the benefit of the schools not the pupils? In other words, were academies and "outstanding schools" pioneers in the craft of "gaming"?

Your contention is supported by PriceWaterhouseCoopers who pointed out as long ago as 2008 that some Academies had used vocational courses to boost improvement more quickly and that this was at the expense of ensuring a “broad and balanced curriculum” in some cases.

However, EBacc may lead to a narrowing of the curriculum as Rebecca points out. The Education Select Committee gave the exam the thumbs-down - Mr Gove has, of course, ignored his peers.

andy's picture
Sat, 09/06/2012 - 15:26

For the purposes of clarity and accuracy, the EBacc – love it or hate it – has 5 components: English, Maths, a qualifying Science, History or Geography and a qualifying foreign language. It is not compulsory and (currently) is not a statutory measurement with attached government floor target in the same way as English and Maths. It is however, reflected a performance measure in the performance tables. Thus, schools are not obliged to channel pupils into taking it. Equally, the EBacc doesn’t exist as a qualification in its own right, rather it is a vehicle through which pupils can attain 5 GCSEs at A*-C that may be useful for their future progression in education:

The DFE guidance is that while it is measurement in the school performance tables it is not and never was intended for every pupil.

The issue of constricting or narrowing the curriculum has more to do with the VA factor (whether on the basis of FFT CVA, Jesson or CATs) in that this measure is derived from the best 8 exam results (including Eng and Maths). It follows from this that schools feel they cannot afford to hedge their chances on KS4 being tailored to 8 GCSEs and equivalents hence they push for 9+ which they hope creates a buffer for pupils stumbling with one or more results.

My personal preference would be to either withdraw the EBacc or expand the options e.g. core Eng and Maths with 3 more chosen from the Sciences, Humanities, Languages, Business Studies, DT, ICT or the Arts (including Music). In addition, and to increase the quality of GCSE attainment reduce the VA to best 6. The latter would create time and space for the wider goals of education (e.g. personal wellbeing and higher quality teacher support through increased capacity by dint of more flexible timetable). A final thought is that performance should be linked to meeting, exceeding or falling below predicted targets (i.e. residuals). I say this because every positive residual (e.g. pupils achieving a grade above their predicted grade) masks/hides the impact of negative residuals. This switches the focus away from schools jumping through hoops to pupils performing to expected levels.

A spin off from this could be the option of less academically minded pupils choosing 6-7 GCSEs/equivalents and the academically minded pupils choosing GCSE subjects with AS/A2 and HE in mind.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 09/06/2012 - 15:33

andy - Ebac is six subjects. It requires two sciences. The Education Select Committee (see link above) received many submissions during consultations expressing concern that the EBac was a way to judge schools and its retrospective introduction was a politically rather than educationally driven move, as it would, in the words of the Catholic Education Service, “allow the Government to show significant ‘improvement’ in future years”.

andy's picture
Sat, 09/06/2012 - 15:52

Janet: I beg to differ but do not want to follow the pendantic line indicated in your post.

The EBacc has 5 component parts comprising an huge numnber of qualifiying subjects and eligible examination boards (see the languages list). Hence I carefully stated qualifying science and qualifying language. Indeed, the detailed notes on the DFE link I provided state:

"To count in the EBacc all three single science AS, GCSEs or Certificates/iGCSEs - Physics, Chemistry and Biology must be taken and grades A* C achieved in two of them or A*-C grades achieved in Science and Additional Science or A*A-CC grades achieved in Science Double Award"

Despite its title the Science Double Award is a single qualification. On that basis are there 5 subjects or 6 or are there 5 subject areas and up to 6 GCSE examinations that are required?

Leonard James's picture
Sat, 09/06/2012 - 09:40

In my experience yes especially if they had disadvantaged intakes - the usual methods employed were extensive use of vocational courses and multiple resits and targeting in English and Maths. One head boasted to me at a job interview that over 70% of his Yr 11 students had a C in English - it was January.

Personally I'm not bothered about narrowing the curriculum - I'd sooner do less well than more badly. Some children desperately need remedial literacy and a full timetable of GCSE subjects prevents that.


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