Friday, 9 April 2021

Why we need a National Contract for Education

NEU Conference 2021 has had to take place via Zoom, with delegates sitting at their own homes. Such a Conference has obviously not been without its glitches and idiosyncrasies but, in the end, managed to debate and agree a wide range of policy.

Disappointingly, one of the few motions that was never reached was a motion that I had hoped to propose on a “National Contract for Education”. Conference voted to close the debate before it was heard, even though there would have been time to debate it, and still leave time for another important unfinished motion on Pride in Our Union.

However, while the debate was not had at Annual Conference, it’s certainly a proposal that I want to continue to raise for discussion during the campaign for Deputy General Secretary. 

As usual, our Annual Conference has agreed many good demands but the question for delegates as we draw Conference to a close is always the same – now, how do we achieve them? How can we defend pay, jobs and conditions? How can we get rid of SATs, Ofsted and League Tables for good - and build a curriculum based on equality and the real needs of children and our communities? 

The last year of the pandemic has shown that lobbying alone will not succeed, especially now that the Labour Party front bench can no longer be relied on to support NEU policy as under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. The successful use of Section 44 showed in January how we can win - by giving a clear national lead, calling on members to act together union-wide.

The Motion on the National Contract would have come at the end of a series of motions around pay, workload and conditions – but it was the motion that could have brought those together in one national strategy.

Because, while we can – and will – continue to win some gains at a school level, issues that affect every educator will need to be tackled by acting across employers – and across the whole Union. How do we do that?

We all know the organising watchwords we use when we train our reps – that our demands need to be “deeply felt and widely felt” if we are going to be able to act collectively. Now for some educators, their key grievance will be workload, for others pay, for others job losses and the lack of support for students. A campaign for a new ‘National Contract’ for all can bring together those key grievances into one unified campaign – and form the basis for such a unified national campaign of action. 

The motion suggests a series of demands:

Firstly, to “Pay school staff properly” – linking the demands we agreed elsewhere in Conference, for significant pay awards for both teaching and support staff and for guaranteed pay progression, not PRP. The Contract must also include trade-union negotiated common pay scales – together with additional London and Fringe allowances – to replace the increasingly fractured pay scales across different employers.

Secondly “An end to excessive teacher workload” – to stop the burden of 50 hour working weeks and unpaid overtime driving staff out of the job through overwork. The Contract should add the long-standing demand for a minimum 20% PPA – plus additional time for those with additional responsibilities – so staff have time to prepare in the school day, not in their evenings, weekends and holidays. The contract must set a real limit to working hours. That doesn’t just mean limiting teachers’ “directed time” but an end to the open-ended wording in the STPCD that also asks for the “additional hours as may be necessary to enable the effective discharge of the teacher’s professional duties”.  

Thirdly “Sufficient Staff to meet needs” - a limit on hours will only be feasible if it is combined with expectations of work that can be achieved within that limit – for teachers and support staff. That means a Contract that also sets out a requirement for trade union negotiated policies, not least on assessment and planning. It also means making sure employers have class size limits and staffing structures that provide the support needed for students, rather than just having to fit to an inadequate school budget.

Fourthly, “Collective Bargaining and Accountability”- having used our workplace strength together to win national demands, then, in turn, we need to use that national strength to insist that every workplace, and every employer, has its own negotiating structures to resolve how our national contractual rights are applied locally, and to negotiate the individual issues that can arise in a particular sector or school.

Where we have national recognition, we should use the opportunity given to us already via the Review Body process to call for these demands as part of an overhaul of the STPCD – while also seeking direct negotiations and collective bargaining for all our members.

Of course, those overtures will be rejected by this hard-nosed Government – unless they are backed up by the threat of national action that would be required to win a national contract. 

As the Motion proposed, however, ballots could also be counted by employer so that, alongside national negotiations, the Union can also pursue disaggregated action to make gains on an employer-by-employer basis.

Clearly, union-wide action needs careful preparation. That includes the ‘technical’ preparations of making sure we are ‘ballot ready’ to meet the legally imposed thresholds, with correct home addresses and setting up mechanisms for reps to check we are getting the vote back postally in as high a turnout as possible.

It needs the campaign preparation - taking the campaign out to every member, using what we have learned from using online methods like Zoom, as well as the physical meetings and rallies.

It also need taking out more widely to parents – to explain why a National Contract for staff is also a National Contract for Education – to stop the constant staff turnover, to limit class sizes and insist on sufficient staffing to improve the learning conditions for young people

But above all, pursuing this approach means we move from lowering members’ confidence by emphasising the barriers in our way – and instead start to raise members’ confidence by emphasising what needs to be done  – and then works out soberly but with determination, how we’re going to do it.

Sunday, 21 March 2021

Uncertainty reigns over the effectiveness of Lateral Flow Testing in Schools

Perhaps the only certainty in schools in England since they opened fully to pupils on 8 March is that staff have once again stepped up to meet the latest challenges thrown at them as best as they can.

Otherwise, stress and uncertainty remain - from a lack of information from Exam Boards over this summer’s assessments, to a continued concern about levels of Covid transmission within schools.

Lateral Flow Testing was supposedly meant to help clarify the latter issue – at least in secondary schools. But the reality is that the lack of any genuine prior piloting of these devices in school settings means the school testing programme is being rolled out despite serious uncertainty about its likely effectiveness in identifying positive cases.

Is the ONS modelling wrong – or are LFDs simply failing to detect many positive cases?

A quick comparison of two pieces of official statistical evidence released at the end of last week shows that something doesn’t add up.

On 19 March, the ONS produced the latest weekly results from their ongoing ‘Infection Survey’. Their modelling, based on PCR test sampling that will include both asymptomatic and symptomatic cases, shows a continued welcome decline in the percentage of the UK population testing positive.

In Wales and most English regions the estimated positivity rates are still falling. However, rates may be levelling out in Northern Ireland and northern regions of England. In Scotland, it appears positivity rates are starting to rise again. As Independent SAGE have pointed out, this may well be linked to rising case numbers amongst primary pupils since a phased primary school return began in Scotland on 22 February.

However, the data that I want to concentrate on here is the estimated positivity rate for young people in the secondary school age range. The ONS estimate, for England only, is a positivity rate of 0.3% or 1 in 333 testing positive.

Separately, on 18 March 2021, the Government released data on the results from Lateral Flow Devices (LFDs) in schools, and some other community settings, from 4 to 10 March.

The sharp increase in LFD Testing carried out on secondary school students after 8 March is shown in the following graphs from the LFD report:

Analysis of the data provided shows that “2,762,775 tests on secondary school children were reported to have produced 1,324 positives. This is 0.05% or 1 in 2087 pupils testing positive”.
The ONS estimate suggests 6 in 2000 secondary school students should test positive, but LFDs have found a positivity rate of only about 1 in 2000. 

Even taking into account that some positive cases might be identified symptomatically without a LFD, that's a very significant discrepancy. Is it because the ONS modelling is wrong – or because LFDs are missing the majority of cases? The evidence suggests the latter is far more likely to be the reason for the discrepancy.

The 18 March 2021 Report itself reports that the LFD data “should be treated with caution whilst the understanding of the data and its quality improves”. This is in part owing to the fact that individuals may report more than one test and that some results may not be reported – but there is a more concerning underlying issue and that is the reliability of the LFDs in comparison to PCR testing, particularly in a school setting.

Lateral Flow Devices are not reliable enough to be trusted with school safety

From the very outset last summer, when Ministers came up with their “Operation Moonshot” plan for mass testing, its own advisers in the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) warned that “the cheaper, faster tests that will be useful for mass testing are likely to have lower ability to identify true positives (lower sensitivity) and true negatives (lower specificity) than the tests currently used”.

However, a clinical evaluation went ahead that claimed that “Lateral Flow Tests are accurate and sensitive enough to be used in the community, including for asymptomatic people”. However, a closer reading of the University of Oxford evaluation report shows that, while the Innova LFD test had a sensitivity of 79.2% (156/197) for all PCR positive individuals when used by laboratory scientists, this fell to 57.5% (214/372) when carried out by self-trained members of the public. This, of course, is how school staff have now been asked to conduct the testing.

A further two-week pilot of mass testing using the Innova devices was carried out in Liverpool. It only confirmed concerns over the accuracy of the Innova tests. A Liverpool University Report on the Pilot concluded that “the Innova SARS-CoV-2 antigen lateral flow device sensitivity was lower than expected (based on the preceding validation studies) at 40% but identified two thirds of cases with higher viral loads”.

This was confirmed to the Government in a paper presented to the 70th meeting of SAGE on 26 November 2020 that said “emerging evidence from Liverpool is that the lateral flow tests being used are not as sensitive as had been expected from the test validation”.

The data shows that LFDs are likely to miss a majority of positive cases in a school setting

The 40% sensitivity estimate – even lower than the sensitivity rates reported in the initial Oxford University clinical evaluation report - is explained below. Only 28 of the 70 cases detected by a PCR test were detected by the Innova Lateral Flow Test:

This second table shows how the majority of the cases that were not detected were for cases where the “Ct level” was high – or, in other words, where the “viral load” was low.

Table 2: Comparison of LFT site results and PCR results, by Ct levels

But asymptomatic children are more likely to have a lower viral load. Therefore, the sensitivity rates in a school setting may be even lower than the 40% estimate found in the Liverpool pilot.

In short, the initial evaluations of the Innova tests in practice suggest that they will fail to find the majority of cases in our school students and that “false negatives” will be common.

Of course, as staff are already finding, explaining to a student who has been told they are “negative” that this may be a false reassurance - and that they need to maintain social distancing, mask-wearing and all the other necessary mitigations, becomes more difficult.

(The unreliability of the tests also means that there may also be “false positives”, which could lead to children isolating without good reason, as explained in other articles).

So where are the scientific studies into the use of Innova tests in schools?

So, could the discrepancy between the ONS modelling (6 in 2000) and the results so far found in schools with LFDs (1 in 2000) be down to their lack of sensitivity when being used on young people in a school setting (or indeed, a home setting, as will soon be the case) ?

Scandalously, there is no clear data available because the Government failed to carry out any proper pilot into their use in schools. For example, the original Oxford University evaluation listed the settings in which the Innova tests had been trialled and their results compared with those from PCR tests:

But, as the table shows, where school settings were involved, none of the results were checked against PCR tests at all!

The Government claim they then carried out a further “pilot” into the use of Innova tests in schools. Indeed, Schools Week has reported that part of their “flimsy” evidence backing up their use of the Coronavirus Act to prevent Greenwich council closing its schools, was a claim that closing schools would prevent them using “testing programmes” – and that two Greenwich schools were then “involved in a pilot testing programme”.

But, as an article on the DfE blog makes clear, this pilot was about trialling the use of LFDs to “minimise staff and student absence” by offering them the opportunity to “remain in school and be tested daily rather than self-isolate when they were identified as COVID-19 contacts”. Were the DfE happy to allow participants to ignore their legal responsibilities to self-isolate under their own Government’s legislation? It was certainly without the clearance of the MHRA, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency as also revealed by Schools Week and discussed on my blog in a previous article.

Instead of trialling an unsafe procedure which they were then forced to abandon, the Government missed another opportunity to compare the results from LFDs with those from PCRs. Instead, schools are being expected to run a testing system that has had no serious prior evaluation about its appropriateness in such a setting.

Do not draw false reassurance about transmission in schools from LFD results

Sadly, there is a risk that the low number of positive cases detected through LFDs will give a false reassurance about the amount of transmission taking place in schools.

For example, I was disappointed to read the Director of Public Health for Lancashire, where I am a member of the NEU Branch, saying that "thankfully, the positivity rate in our schools remains extremely low. Between Monday, March 8 and Sunday, March 14, 47 tests taken by secondary pupils were reported as positive, from more than 71,000 tests”.

For all the reasons explained above, this is a false conclusion to draw. Actual positivity rates, and transmission risks within schools, may be far greater, particularly in those areas where local infection rates remain of real concern.

The table below, which I have compiled from official Government data, shows that on 13 March, at the end of the first week of full opening of schools, 34 English Lower Tier Local Authorities had infection rates of over 100/100,000 population over 7 days – and in most of these areas, rates were increasing. Looking at the full UK data, then Merthyr Tydfil and Anglesey in Wales, plus several Scottish Local Authorities, also have similarly worrying high infection rates.

And, while Lateral Flow Testing in schools may be missing many positive cases, Government data nevertheless shows that the numbers that are being recorded are also on the rise. This is a further indication that, just as was expected, infection rates in schools are, indeed, starting to climb once again.

Despite all the good work that is being done with vaccination, the risk of a further spike in infections remains. We must continue to fight for the mitigations necessary to reduce transmission risks in schools and their local communities.

Sunday, 14 March 2021

Defend the Right to Protest, Oppose Sexual Harassment and Violence

The response to the abduction and murder of Sarah Everard has highlighted the growing determination, particularly amongst young women, to challenge the endemic sexual harassment experienced by 97% of them.

That gender inequality and violence is rooted in our unequal society, a society which trade unionists and educators can help organise to change. But the shocking scenes in Clapham last night haven’t only exposed the growing threat to the right to protest against such injustice and inequality. These events have also exposed the hypocrisy of politicians who either supported - or failed to oppose - the draconian legislation used to declare peaceful vigils as ‘illegal’ and who are preparing to do the same when the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill goes to Parliament tomorrow.

Sexism in Schools

A 2017 NEU survey confirmed the sexism and sexual harassment that young women and girls encounter daily in schools. For example, almost a quarter (24%) of female students at mixed-sex schools reported that they had been subjected to unwanted physical touching of a sexual nature while at school. Sexist language and gender stereotyping were also commonplace. Yet only 14% of students who had experienced sexual harassment said they had reported it to a teacher.

The NEU has called for consistent and ongoing action from schools and Government to challenge sexism in schools. The number of young women that took part in the vigils that did take place over the weekend showed that many are ready to take a stand against the gender inequality and sexual harassment they have suffered.


Women have again been hit hardest by the pandemic. Schools, where women make up most of the workforce, face further cuts and job losses, particularly amongst support staff. Schools have been left to fully open without the mitigations needed to protect safety in cramped classrooms with poor ventilation.

Given the ongoing risk of rising community infections, it has been understandable that some people have questioned whether public protests should take place. But the risks of infection are considerably less in outdoor environments than the indoor ones like schools and workplaces that the Government insists are “safe” to attend. If the Police had liaised with vigil organisers, a safe and socially distanced event could have been held in Clapham.

The Right to Protest

Instead, the Metropolitan Police used the draconian powers handed to them in the Coronavirus Act. Police were filmed manhandling and arresting young women in scenes that showed a complete lack of understanding as to why so many had gathered together.

As Unite the Union have said in response to these events: "Women gathering in memory of a woman whose life was taken were doing so responsibly, in respectful memory. This grief should have been honoured, not violated” “There is also a very concerning move to limit freedom of protest that will be before parliament this week. We urge those alarmed by the scenes this evening to join with us and voices across civil society to speak as one in defence of our rights to peaceful protest, to support democracy and to keep the powers of the police in check."

Trade Unions must use their strength to oppose injustice and inequality

A few months ago, UNITE successfully challenged in the High Court another attempt by the Police to use the Coronavirus Act to prevent legitimate protest, in this case the right to picket outside your workplace during strike action.

Trade unions have always relied on protest to defend our members from inequality and injustice. Unions have also been at the heart of many of the gains won by women against the sexism and oppression inherent in our society.

Trade unions and trade unionists must now come together to support those wishing to protest against sexual harassment and gender violence and to make sure that the right to protest is defended for all.

Monday, 8 March 2021

Williamson's longer school opening plans must be firmly opposed

THIS CALLOUS GOVERNMENT has made clear that its “thank you” to essential workers will be a further attack on our pay and conditions. 

European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice, 2018
For NHS staff, their ‘reward’ has been a derisory 1% pay award. For school staff, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is suggesting schools need to operate with longer days and shorter holidays. 

This proposal is nothing to do with helping children. The Tories’ continued school cuts, alongside their reckless rush to full school opening, show that they regard schools primarily as a childcare service, not an educational one. 

Extending hours will not improve education

Extending hours will not improve education. Children, even more than adults, get tired. Concentration will not be maintained. 

As it is, pupils in England already spend longer in school than the global average. They also get shorter summer holidays too

OECD (2014): How much time do students spend in the classroom?
Compare England with Finland, consistently regarded as one of the highest achieving education systems:

Hours of compulsory general education over 9 years (equivalent to Key Stages 1-3):

Finland: 6327 hours                       

England: 7904 hours

Length of school year:

Finland: 187 days                            

England:  190 days

Length of summer holidays:

Finland: 10-11 weeks                    

England: 6 weeks

Instead of even more time enduring the “exam factory” conditions imposed on our schools by League Tables and Ofsted, school students after the pandemic need a ‘recovery curriculum’ that prioritises their well-being.

For their social development, children need leisure time and parents need time with their children. That means better pay and shorter hours, not the other way around. Youth and play services should be funded to provide additional support - but these have been slashed by Local Authority cuts.

School staff workload is already driving them out

The Government knows that over 20% of new teachers already leave the profession within their first two years of teaching. That rises to 33% within the first five years. If the Government succeed in imposing even greater working hours, staff turnover will increase even further, damaging education.

Government figures also show that teachers are already working over 50 hours a week. Support staff are also pressurised into unpaid overtime too. Instead of conditions being made worse, they need to be improved. That’s why one of the ten key points in my DGS campaign is for a National Contract for all school staff that sets a genuine limit on overall working hours, not just teachers’ ‘directed time’.

Organise national action to defend staff and education

Under current contracts, school employers could not enforce a longer working day or year. Any move by Ministers to try and impose changed contracts must be firmly rejected.

Such an attack could not be fought school-by-school. Unions need to boldly respond with a clear warning that, if the Government tries to enforce worse conditions, we will organise national action to defend staff and education.

I've also turned this post into a short campaign video. Please share with your colleagues via this YouTube link:

Sunday, 28 February 2021

Why SAGE advice alone shows a full school return on 8 March in England is unsafe

Even just relying on SAGE advice - a mass return is unsafe

When Boris Johnson was making his announcement of a reckless 'big-bang' full return in all schools in England last Monday, he made a passing reference to the scientific evidence from SAGE that was being posted on the Government website. 

As the evening went on, a long list of SAGE minutes and accompanying research began to appear on a page titled "Scientific evidence supporting the government response to coronavirus". But, when I started to read it, I realised it did nothing of the sort - it leaned clearly towards a phased opening instead!

So, even though I have posted elsewhere about the even stronger advice on wider school opening from Independent SAGE, in this post, which can also be downloaded as a document, I will solely rely on the official Government SAGE evidence. 

NEU reps and members should use this SAGE advice to explain to their employer why they must abide by NEU checklists if they are to meet their legal duties to protect the health and safety of both staff and also pupils, parents and others affected by their actions.

Use Collective Action if needed to apply the NEU Checklist

The latest joint union checklist calls for:

* "a staggered approach which does not increase local transmission rates, allowing schools to adopt phased returns and flexible rota systems"; 

*"risk assessment process [that has] considered all the areas identified in DfE and joint union advice, fully evaluated the risk of harm, including local prevalence and identified the measures to apply in each area"

Some of the key issues that need to be considered are:

  • Local infection rates - see the NEU school covid map
  • Class Sizes
  • Ventilation
  • Social Distancing
  • Face coverings
  • Protection of the most vulnerable 
  • Testing, tracing and isolating

If these measures are not met, then NEU Executive policy, agreed on 24th February, states clearly that the Union will support branch officers, reps and members to:  

* "support workplace groups, employer groups and LA branches in using collective action to seek a staggered reopening, based on local case rates and the scientific advice"

* "use the new checklist materials - with the threat of industrial action and the potential use of Section 44 under advice from the union"

SAGE Advice

* December 2020 - SAGE confirm schoolchildren transmit

The evidence to the Children's Task and Finish Group on 17 December concluded that:

“Accumulating evidence is consistent with increased transmission occurring amongst school children when schools are open”

“Children and young people are more likely to bring the virus into the household than those aged 17+”

“Young people (aged 2-16) are much more likely than those aged 17+ to be the first case in their household (see figures for ‘Relative External Exposure’)  

“2-16 year olds are more than twice as likely to pass on the virus within their household compared to people aged 17+” (see figures for ‘Relative Transmissibility’)

The ONS Infection Survey modelling for December, when schools were fully open, and new variants on the rise, also showed that school aged children showed the highest positivity rates of all age groups.

* December 2020 - SAGE on Ventilation

On 18 December 2020, SAGE issued a "plain language summary" of their advice on ventilation, originally issued in October 2020. 

The subtitles below are mine but the quotes from SAGE:

a) 2m distancing is not sufficient to stop transmission

"The virus that causes COVID-19 is spread through very small aerosols and droplets released in exhaled breath. There is evidence to show that in some cases these aerosols can be carried more than 2m in the air and could cause infection if they are inhaled. This is most likely to happen in indoor environments when the ventilation in a room is poor".

b) The virus can build up in the air in a classroom

"If people spend sufficient longer periods of time in the room, the virus can build up in air and people can inhale enough of it to cause infection. The risk appears to increase when people are performing activities such as loud talking that may cause them to breathe out more aerosols". 

c) The risk will be higher if face coverings are not being worn:

"The risk is also likely to be higher in places where face coverings or masks are not worn, as these reduce the amount of virus that is emitted into the air".

d) Ventilation must be an important part of a risk assessment 

"The ventilation in workplace or public spaces should be considered as an important part of the COVID risk assessment".

More information can be found on the NEU website. The NEU advises that risk assessments should:

* Identify any rooms which present a greater hazard either because they are smaller but contain the same number of pupils as larger classrooms, or because there are other factors preventing ventilation, and seek to agree that these are only used by smaller groups, or not at all.

e) Windows need to be open and breaks taken in lessons

"In workplaces that rely on natural ventilation it is important to keep vents open and regularly open windows especially in spaces that are shared with other people. Opening windows (and sometimes doors as well) intermittently, for example for 10 minutes every hour, can be effective at reducing the risk from virus in the air. If this is combined with a break where occupants leave the room (e.g. in meeting rooms or classrooms) this is even more effective".

f) To assess risk, carbon dioxide meters should be used

"It is very difficult to accurately measure ventilation, but in some spaces it is possible to use carbon dioxide (CO2) meters to estimate the effectiveness of the ventilation".

More information can be found on the NEU website. The NEU advises that CO2 monitors should be available so that measurements can be taken in all working areas and that:

* Carbon dioxide levels in a relatively well-ventilated room should be at 600 – 800 parts per million (ppm).  Over 1,500 ppm indicates very poor ventilation and action is needed. Where this is the case action can then be taken, whether opening a window/more windows, or reducing the number of people in the room

The federal "Centers for Disease Control and Prevention" has also just released guidance on ventilation for US schools here.

* SAGE 78 - Start with a partial opening, not a full one

In January, the 78th meeting of SAGE specifically reported on the "Impact of School Reopening

Again, the subtitles are mine but the quotes are from SAGE:

a) Children ARE susceptible to infection

“Evidence continues to confirm that children are susceptible to COVID-19 infection, with primary aged children having lower susceptibility of infection than older children"

b) Opening schools fully will increase transmission more widely in the community – by perhaps 50%

"SAGE has previously advised that the opening and closing of schools is likely to have an impact on transmission and R. The opening of primary and secondary schools is likely to increase effective R by a factor of 50% (for options with full attendance)".

c) Primary school opening may have more effect on increasing community transmission

"Whilst secondary schools may have more transmission within the school, primary schools may have more effect on the wider community (e.g. by enabling adults to go to work or do other activities). It is unclear whether primary or secondary schools have the greater impact on overall transmission".

d) New variants increase that risk further

"Emergence of the B.1.1.7 variant has almost certainly increased the rate of transmission when schools are open".

"There are significant benefits to reducing and delaying the spread of new variants. The most effective way to reduce the likelihood of new variants emerging in the first place is to reduce overall prevalence to the lowest possible level". (from SAGE 79)

e) Partial opening reduces the risk of transmission and also allows the impact of opening to be better assessed

"SPI-M-O’s consensus view is that the opening of primary and secondary schools is likely to increase effective R by a factor of 1.1 to 1.5 (10% to 50%). Options with fewer children in attendance (such as selected year groups or cohorts) are likely to fall towards the lower end of this range".

"An initial limited and cautious reopening of schools (e.g. primary schools only) for a time limited period, in the absence of easing other restrictions, might allow for an assessment of the impact on community transmission".

A call for a phased reopening repeated at SAGE 80

f) Partial opening also allows time for wider vaccination

"The major determinants on the impact of opening schools are the community prevalence and proportion of people vaccinated. While prevalence is falling and vaccinations are continuing, a later opening of schools results in less community transmission and fewer hospitalisations".

"The impact on infections, hospitalisations and deaths is smaller if measures are released when prevalence is lower and if changes are made gradually. Relaxing measures later therefore has two benefits; it allows prevalence to be brought down further, and also allows more people to be vaccinated before R increases. The combined effect of these means a significantly smaller resurgence" (from SAGE 79).

g) Opening decisions should be based on local infection rates

"It is possible that regional differences in R, prevalence, and incidence may mean that some areas could have “headroom” to relax measures or open some schools before others"

* SAGE  79 - Long Covid

The 79th meeting of SAGE on 4 February considered a ONS research paper that pointed out that:

a) A worrying proportion of people are reporting "Long Covid"

"22% of respondents were still reporting at least one symptom at 5 weeks following COVID-19 infection, while 9.8% had symptoms at 12 weeks".

"We estimate that during the week commencing 27 December 2020, 301,000 people in private households in England were living with symptoms that had persisted for between 5 and 12 weeks"

b) Long Covid is a risk for both staff and students

* SAGE 80 - Vulnerable staff, vulnerable students

The 80th meeting of SAGE reported that:

a) Occupational risk is higher in environments like schools

"Evidence shows that people who work in some specific occupations and roles have increased risk of being infected, hospitalised or dying prematurely. This is higher in many occupations where people have to attend a workplace compared with people in occupations who can work from home. Occupations which involve a higher degree of physical proximity to others tend to have higher COVID-19 mortality rates"

b) Some communities may be at greater risk

"There is ethnicity-specific variation in testing, with children from minority ethnic groups having lower uptake of testing and being more likely to test positive than those from White population groups. Whilst rates are very low, Asian children were more likely to be admitted to hospital and intensive care for COVID-19 than White children and Black and Mixed/other children are more likely to have had longer hospital admissions"

* SAGE 80 - Full Opening could increase R by 60%

The 80th meeting of SAGE also considered a technical report which pointed out that:

a) Full opening considerably increases risks over partial opening

"[Our] consensus view is that the opening of primary and secondary schools is likely to increase effective R by a factor of 1.1 to 1.5 (10% to 50%). One modelling group has explored this further:

b) A 'big-bang' return compounds the impact of mixing pupils

"The largest relative difference arises from the return of non-exam years secondary pupils (the green to blue step in Figure 2). Rather than this group being key for transmission per se, this largely results from compounding the impact from other groups of pupils who have already returned"

* SAGE 81 - Delaying opening at least reduces risk 

The 81st - and last SAGE meeting before Boris Johnson pressed ahead with his 'big-bang' full return - discussed some detailed modelling of different scenarios for ending 'lockdown':

a) The risk of a "third-wave" after Easter is very real

"All scenarios show an epidemic resurgence which results in a substantial number of hospital admissions and deaths, though there are differences in the scale and timing" 

b) Delaying full opening helps reduce resurgence after Easter

c) The risks are greatest in areas where rates aren't declining - risk assessments must consider local infection rates

"There remain small areas where the number of new infections is not declining. As previously advised, these areas may be at higher risk when nonpharmaceutical interventions are relaxed, especially if they do not have high levels of vaccine coverage including in the most vulnerable groups"

d) Data, not dates!

"Given the level of uncertainty, decisions about changes to restrictions are best made based on epidemiological data rather than based on predetermined dates"

e) We need to get infection rates down further first

"Maintaining control of the epidemic is easier at low levels of prevalence than at high  levels because it gives more time to respond to increases before healthcare systems are overwhelmed; allows test, trace and isolate systems to operate more effectively; reduces the likelihood of needing to make unplanned interventions; and reduces the likelihood of new variants emerging"

* SAGE 81 -  Vaccinations alone won't stop a "third wave"

The SAGE modelling warns Ministers - and us - that vaccination alone is not going to prevent  a further resurgence of infections once schools open, alongside the loosening of  other lockdown measures:

a) There will still be many unvaccinated people - not least schoolchildren - mixing and transmitting the virus

"There are still many people in vulnerable groups who do not have protection; neither directly (because they have not been vaccinated or because their vaccination has not prevented them from becoming infected then ill) nor indirectly from wider population immunity (because many younger age groups have not yet been vaccinated or infected)".

"Only around 79% of the population are adults, so even if coverage amongst them is 79%, only 62% of the population would be vaccinated. As the vaccines do not completely prevent transmission, the reduction in transmission that results would be expected to be lower than 62%. As a result, herd immunity is not likely to be reached in these scenarios without a further resurgence of transmission"

b) When transmission is high, a variant is more likely to evolve that vaccines may not be effective upon

"These models assume that the effectiveness of vaccines will remain high. Emergence of vaccine escape mutants would lead to decreasing efficacy. Whilst new vaccines can be developed, this will take many months".

Saturday, 20 February 2021

Johnson to announce "road-map" on opening schools - but will the NEU Executive be ready with a firm enough response?

On Monday, Boris Johnson will announce his “road map” to easing the ‘lockdown’, rumoured to include a timetable for a full reopening of schools in England on 8 March. Education unions must be ready to respond with collective action to any reckless proposal which puts the Government’s short-term economic interests ahead of the long-term safety of our schools and communities.

In a welcome move on Friday, nine education unions and governance organisations issued a statement warning that a full return of all pupils, bringing “nearly 10 million pupils and staff into circulation in England – close to one fifth of the population”, seems “reckless”. “It could trigger another spike in Covid infections, prolong the disruption of education, and risk throwing away the hard-won progress made in suppressing the virus over the course of the latest lockdown”.

The warning is correct but, sadly, it will take more than joint statements to make Ministers think again. It was the action of tens of thousands of education staff asserting their individual rights under “Section 44” not to attend an unsafe workplace that forced Johnson to back down in January. Education unions now need to have the courage to advise members of their rights once again.

Nobody wants to stop schools opening fully for longer than is necessary. Online learning, certainly if set to the demands of an unchanged curriculum, puts pressure on staff, students, parents and carers. However, as the joint statement says, “it would be counterproductive if there is a danger of causing another surge in the virus, and the potential for a further period of lockdown. Wider opening must be safe and sustainable”.

But education unions, and especially the NEU, need to go further. We must prepare members to use their collective strength if required to resist any unsafe return, based on clear and specific demands about what constitutes a safe wider opening.

Our demands can be objectively based on the advice of experts like Independent SAGE who have analysed the latest scientific evidence and the Government’s own data. For example, they have pointed out how rates of infection have fallen least in January amongst primary aged children – precisely those settings where attendance has remained high. This is yet another indication of the role schools can play in community transmission.

National Executive debates what position NEU should take

Worryingly to me, reports from the initial discussions that took place at the NEU National Executive on Saturday raise concerns that the necessary firm national stand may not be being taken.

An emergency motion put to an Executive Sub-Committee correctly stated that “Independent SAGE has recommended a maximum rate of 100 per 100,000 to commence wider opening” and for that “opening to be properly phased”. However, I understand that it was left to NEC members Kirstie Paton and Nicky Downes to try and add in other key parts of the independent SAGE recommendations through an amendment, namely:

"When the rate is between 50 and 100 cases per 100k, schools should employ ‘red light’ safeguards, including reduced class sizes through prioritising the return of certain year groups and/or through a rota system within years whereby, at any point in time, half of pupils learn in-person and half online", and

"wearing of masks in all classes for all school students, primary and secondary"

The original motion also noted the “importance of clear measures to be taken at a workplace level to minimise the spread of infection during any wider opening, and the successful use of checklists by the union in June 2020”. 

However, in my view, school-by-school action alone is insufficient. It relies on the strength of individual workplace union groups rather than the strength of the wider Branch and District. It risks a fragmented response rather than the universal response required right across a local area if a pandemic is to be successfully controlled. 

Kirstie and Nicky therefore also proposed in their amendment that the NEC:

notes the successful use of Section 44 in preventing an unsafe wider opening in January and calls on members to assert their right to a safe workplace.

NEU members need to be aware that all parts of the amendment were defeated, with only three members of the committee, Kirstie, Nicky and Rob Illingworth, voting for it. The majority of the Sub-Committee, including some other DGS candidates, voted against*. (see footnote 2 below - Saturday's vote took place at an Executive Sub-Committee, not at the full National Executive, so only some NEC members were present)

The debate will, however, be returned to when the NEU National Executive reconvenes on Wednesday with new motions and amendments in the light of whatever Johnson announces on Monday.

Speak to your NEC members before Wednesday's continued debate

I am not a member of the NEU NEC and cannot judge what contributions or arguments were made at a distance today, nor what proposals are going to be tabled on Wednesday. However, I am sufficiently concerned to suggest NEU members reading this post contact their NEU National Executive members and call on them to vote on Wednesday in support of:

a) the Union calling on Districts and Branches to organise members to act to oppose any unsafe wider opening, including advising members of their individual rights under Section 44 should they reasonably believe they are facing a serious and imminent danger to their health and safety.

b) The Union setting out a clear set of demands along the following lines:

Test One

Insistence that:

i) There should be no wider opening until Covid-19 cases are securely beneath the rate of 100 per 100,000 population over a 7-day period in their area.

ii) No school should open with more than 50% class sizes until infection rates are securely beneath 50 per 100,000 population over a 7-day period in their area.

Test Two

Given the greater knowledge that now exists on the significance of airborne transmission, insistence that employers will guarantee adequate ventilation and CO2 monitoring as well as mask wearing in classrooms in primary, secondary and post-16.

Test Three

Guarantees from Government that:

i) a properly functioning test, trace, isolate and support system will be in place in order to maintain low levels of infections and support those who have to isolate or stay at home to provide childcare. 

ii) additional financial support is provided to ensure schools have the additional staffing and resources needed for a safe phased return, providing both online and in-class rota learning, and to put in place a recovery curriculum that meets the needs of all students.

Test Four

In addition to the overarching demands in these new ‘5 tests’, that there are clear agreed risk assessments that ensure acceptable measures are in place in every workplace, particularly in Early Years, Special and other settings where students may not be able to securely follow social distancing and other mitigation measures.

Test Five

Students and staff who are at high risk of severe illness, or who live with people at high risk should be able to work from home, using the teaching and learning methods developed over the last year.

Join the meeting to discuss how NEU members should respond to Johnson's school opening plans

For clarity, two minor amendments made to post on Sunday 21/2:

1) Post-16 in addition to primary and secondary in 'Test Two'.
2) To make clearer that Saturday's vote took place at an Executive Sub-Committee, not at the full National Executive. 

Monday, 15 February 2021

A new ‘5 Tests’ to avoid an unsafe, unprepared, premature school opening

Einstein is supposed to have said that “insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results”.

While it probably wasn’t Einstein who said it, many current scientific experts are warning that the UK Government is about to ignore that adage and repeat the mistakes it has made previously over fully reopening schools. We must assess their advice, and the available evidence, and set our own clear demands over how and when more students can return to face-to-face teaching, without risking another repeat surge in infection rates.

If our demands are not met, then trade unions must use their collective strength to make sure Ministers are not able to put health, safety, and livelihoods at risk once again. As we did in January, we must resist any unsafe, unprepared, premature school opening plan.

Assess the evidence – and challenge unsafe conclusions from Government backers

In recent appearances on both BBC Breakfast and BBC Radio 5 Live,  epidemiologist Dr Deepti Gurdasani from the University of London has outlined the scientific evidence that the Government should be basing their actions upon. Her conclusion, supported by those also reached by both Independent SAGE (UK) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (US), is that schools should not open further until infection rates are lower. All of them call for wider opening to be on a phased basis reflecting local community transmission rates, and, even then, only alongside appropriate additional mitigation measurements being put in place, particularly mask wearing, ventilation controls and reduced pupil numbers.

Of course, there will be other scientists arguing differently. On the Radio 5 Live recording, Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of one of the modelling subgroups of SAGE, claims that “the evidence suggests that really schools aren’t contributing significantly to community transmission, particularly primary schools”. His arguments were strongly challenged by Dr Gurdasani, who pointed out that his argument was contradicted by SAGE’s own data.

The Government will claim that their reopening plans have scientific backing. But we must question where that backing is coming from and on what evidence it is based.  For example, a January 2021 ONS Report made the much-publicised claim that  school staff were at no greater risk  than other occupations. It was shown by Dr Sarah Rasmussen to be erroneous. The Office for Statistics Regulation have since written to the ONS about the weaknesses in their conclusions and analysis. 

I am summarising below the evidence which I believe can be relied on for constructing a safe plan for a phased return to fully open schools.

Do schools and school-aged children contribute significantly to community transmission?

The fact that schools are “vectors for transmission, causing the virus to spread between households” should not really be a debate. After all, it was Boris Johnson himself who admitted this when changing his plans over school reopening at the start of January.

i)  SAGE evidence

In case there is any doubt, it’s worth starting with the evidence presented to the Prime Minister by his own SAGE advisers at the end of last year. They concluded that:

1)      “Accumulating evidence is consistent with increased transmission occurring amongst school children when schools are open”

2)      The ONS Infection Survey modelling for December, when schools were fully open, and new variants on the rise, showed that school aged children showed the highest positivity rates of all age groups.

3)      “Children and young people are more likely to bring the virus into the household than those aged 17+”

4)      “Young people (aged 2-16) are much more likely than those aged 17+ to be the first case in their household (see figures for ‘Relative External Exposure’)  

5)      “2-16 year olds are more than twice as likely to pass on the virus within their household compared to people aged 17+” (see figures for ‘Relative Transmissibility’)

ii)  Public Health England Data – and transmission amongst Primary Aged Children

The weekly PHE Influenza Surveillance graphs provide further evidence for the link between school opening and increased transmission. As pointed out by SAGE’s Task and Finish Group Report (above), there is a correlation between confirmed Covid-19 cases and school holidays, with rates dipping during the half-term school closure, for example.

The graphs also point out that, since January, clusters and outbreaks have continued to be reported in those settings where Headteachers have been under pressure to maintain high numbers in class – i.e. Nursery, Primary and Special Needs. Not only is this further evidence of a correlation between school opening and viral transmission, it is also evidence that nursery and primary settings are not protected from such risks either.

This risk of viral transmission in Primary and Early Years settings where pupil numbers are too high is also borne out in the latest positivity rates reported in the latest ONS Infection Survey. Thanks to the present lockdown measures, positivity rates have been falling across all age groups. However, the rate of fall has been slowest in the “Age 2 to School Year 6” age group.

It’s important to recognise from SAGE’s Task and Finish Group report that, while the estimated rates of test positivity and External Exposure are highest of all for secondary-aged children, the rates of Transmissibility are the same across the whole 2-16 age group. In addition, while primary-aged test positivity and External Exposure rates may have been lower than those of secondary-aged children, they were still found to be higher than those of adults aged 17+.

In short, unions and parents should not accept the argument that there are minimal risks associated with the full reopening of primary schools. This is not backed up by the UK data.

iii)  International Data – and the new variants

One argument that will be made by those arguing for a premature unsafe school reopening will be that “there is no firm evidence of school transmission”.  But the reason that UK conclusions are having to be based in good part on correlation, rather than clear cause, is because of the failure to have reliable working track and trace systems that could have provided that UK evidence!

However, there are many international studies that have provided such additional evidence, evidence which must not be ignored in the UK. I have posted links to some of these international studies in previous articles.

A recent British Medical Journal article reports on further international evidence from Israel and Italy. Both raise particular concerns about the greater transmissibility of the new variants of the virus amongst young children.

Israeli figures suggest that the spread of the “UK variant B1.1.7”  has been linked to a sharp rise in new daily cases accounted for by children aged under 10. Similar concerns have been raised by a study in northern Italy where 10% of a village’s population of 1400 were reported to have tested positive for the virus.  60% of those positive tests were from children of primary or infant school age. These young children are thought to have infected other family members.

This potential of greater transmissibility of the new variants amongst younger children is another reason to proceed with caution when it comes to reopening primary schools fully.

Vaccination must be considered separately to transmission

The UK Government must ensure that infection levels are much lower before moving to release lockdown, including starting to fully reopen schools, or we will just see a repeat of the surges seen when this was done previously.

Dr Gurdasani made these key points in her presentation to the BBC on 12 February:

1)      It’s clearly very welcome that lockdown measures have helped lower the Reproduction Number ( R ) beneath 1.0  but the latest ONS Infection Survey still estimates that 1 in 80 people in England are infected and the number of confirmed COVID-19 patients in hospital is still higher than the April 2020 peak.

2)      Vaccinated individuals may still transmit the virus, so measures to decrease and maintain low transmission rates must be in place. These must be considered separately, and in parallel, to extending the level of vaccination across the population. Remember that the vaccine is not yet licensed for use with children.

3)      High levels of transmission also provide more opportunities for mutation and replication of new variants, potentially undermining vaccination response.

4)      A good test, trace, isolate and support system must be in place to address outbreaks and maintain low levels of infections. (‘Support’ includes financial help for those isolating or stay at home to provide childcare).

5)      If the Government adopts such a careful ‘elimination’ strategy, we could return to more normal lives, as seen in e.g. Australia, but, if they don’t, then we may have to endure repeated lockdowns and restrictions for years to come.

6)      We cannot only focus on Covid deaths, again Office for National Statistics evidence confirms that around 10% of those infected are also suffering from “Long Covid” with a range of symptoms remaining after 12 weeks.

7)      Further ONS data on Long-Covid estimates around 300,000 individuals are presently suffering from “Long Covid” symptoms after 5 weeks and that includes a significant proportion (over 1 in 7) of school-aged children.

So when will it be safe to start reopening schools fully?

A range of different bodies have reached the same conclusions about what needs to be done. This should form the basis of a trade union position, with unions also using their collective strength to put these demands into practice, if necessary, to defend safety:

i)   Independent SAGE – “Data not Dates” – A Tiered Approach

I have previously reported on Independent SAGE’s proposals for a tiered reopening of schools, based on the case rates in a local authority area. In summary, their Traffic Light system proposes:

• Schools in a local authority area should begin to reopen when R is less than 1 and the incidence falls below 100 per 100,000 confirmed cases per week.

• When the rate is between 50 and 100 cases per 100k, schools should employ ‘red light’ safeguards, including:

-          Reduced class sizes either through prioritising the return of certain year groups and/or through a rota system within years whereby, at any point in time, half of pupils learn in-person and half online (with necessary provision of IT, broadband etc);

-          Wearing of masks in all classes for all school students, primary and secondary.

• When the rate is between 10 and 50 cases per 100k, schools should employ ‘amber light’ safeguards. These will allow all pupils to access full time in-person classes. However, mask wearing and banning of assemblies will be maintained.

• When the rate is below 10 cases per 100k per week, schools should employ ‘green light’ safeguards. These will remove all safeguards bar mask wearing in crowded spaces, basic social distancing and hygiene measures.

ii)   CDC Strategy for Phased Mitigation – Masks, Those At Higher Risk, Vaccination

In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), part of the US Department of Health and Human Services, has just released a similar set of recommendations to those proposed by Independent SAGE.

Again, the CDC propose a phased approach based on the same “Traffic Light” levels of community transmission. They also stress the requirement for five key mitigation strategies to also be in place. These must be replicated in any serious plan for wider opening in the UK:

1)      Universal and correct use of masks

2)      Physical distancing

3)      Handwashing and respiratory etiquette

4)      Cleaning and maintaining healthy facilities

5)      Contact tracing in combination with isolation and quarantine

It’s important to note that the CDC are clear that “masks should be worn at all times, by all persons in school facilities, with exceptions for certain persons who, because of a disability, cannot wear a mask or wear a mask safely, or for certain settings such as while eating or drinking. Masks should be required in all classroom and non-classroom settings, including hallways, school offices, gyms, etc.”. This applies across ALL school sectors.

Staff should also remember that UK Legislation (The Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992, Reg.4) states clearly that “Every employer SHALL ensure that suitable personal protective equipment is provided to his employees who may be exposed to a risk to their health or safety while at work except where and to the extent that such risk has been adequately controlled by other means which are equally or more effective”.

The CDC also make clear that “students, teachers, and staff who are at high risk of severe illness or who live with people at high risk should be provided virtual options”.

On Vaccination, they state that: “Teachers and school staff hold jobs critical to the continued functioning of society and are at potential occupational risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2. In order to support safe school reopening, state, territorial, local, and tribal (STLT) officials should consider giving high priority to teachers in early phases of vaccine distribution”.

“Access to vaccination should nevertheless not be considered a condition for reopening schools for in-person instruction. Even after teachers and staff are vaccinated, schools need to continue mitigation measures for the foreseeable future, including requiring masks in schools and physical distancing”.

iii)  Parents United – Open Letter, Ventilation, Close the Digital Divide

The 'Parents United' campaign, with the backing of some of the scientists mentioned above, have issued an open letter that draws on much of the evidence outlined above and calls for a similar tiered approach to that recommended by Independent SAGE and the CDC in the US.

It also raises these important additional demands:

- mitigate risk in high infection rate areas with smaller class sizes to reduce contacts, and the risk of airborne transmission. This could be achieved by the use of rotas, or by hiring more spaces and more mental-health and education staff. 

- acknowledge airborne transmission as a significant route of transmission of Covid-19, and provide school-specific guidance and funding for mitigation, which must be drawn up in consultation with aerosol science specialists and building ventilation consultants.  Mitigations likely to be suggested include reduced class sizes, increased mask use, installation of ventilation systems or the use of portable HEPA filters, and C02 monitoring.

- continue to disapply section 444 of the Education Act (so that parents are not fined over a lack of school attendance owing to Coronavirus health concerns) and ensure that a comprehensive, fully resourced online learning program is available to every family who wish to continue supporting their child’s learning from home.

- close the digital divide by providing laptops and broadband to children who need them to support learning from home - whether or not this is by choice.

    iv)   Infection rates not yet low enough in most Local Authorities even for partial opening

While infection rates thankfully continue to fall, if the “10/50/100 cases per 100,000” tiered "Traffic Light" criteria are applied in the UK, then no Nation and no English Region is yet (on 15/02/21) even in the ‘red light’ zone of under 100 per 100,000 cases over a 7-day period.

The latest official data can be found from It shows that it’s possible that by early March, the date that the UK Government may be looking at to reopen schools fully, some Upper Tier Local Authorities (UTLAs) could be in a position to safely open – but only at an initial phase of reduced numbers. Even that depends on other mitigation measures to reduce the risks of transmission also being in place.

As things stand with a month to go , as the map on the UK Government Coronavirus Data website shows, infection rates in over 3/4 of UTLAs are still too high even for the partial opening suggested by Independent SAGE, and others, once a rate of 100/100,000 is reached.

The NEU must demand no school or college reopens fully unless our demands are met

Earlier in the pandemic, the NEU clearly set out ‘5 tests’ for Government to meet before schools could safely reopen. These were not in place sufficiently in September and, thanks to Government failure, our schools and colleges DID “become hot spots for Covid-19”, just as the NEU had warned would happen in our "5 tests".

In January, to avoid our members facing a serious and imminent danger, we had to urge members to invoke their “Section 44” rights to a safe workplace. We now urgently need to put forward a new set of “5 tests” that must be met if we are to avoid those serious dangers being repeated once again.

A new set of ‘5 tests’, based on the analysis above, could be:

Test 1 : Lower numbers of Covid-19 cases

No wider opening until Covid-19 cases in a Local Authority are securely beneath the rate of 100 per 1000,000 population over a 7-day period. No more than 50% in-school attendance* until Covid-19 cases are securely beneath the rate of 50 per 1000,000 population over a 7-day period.

Test 2 : Mitigation Strategies must be in place: Social Distancing, Masks, Ventilation

We insist not only on secure distancing and bubble protocols, but also, given the greater knowledge that now exists on the significance of airborne transmission, adequate ventilation and C02 monitoring as well as mask wearing in classrooms in primary and secondary schools.

Test 3 : Test, Trace, Isolate, Support

Guarantees that a test, trace, isolate and support system will be in place in order to respond to outbreaks, maintain low levels of infections and support those who have to isolate or stay at home to provide childcare. We also demand additional financial support to ensure schools have the additional staffing and resources needed for a safe phased return and to put in place a recovery curriculum that meets the needs of all students.

Test 4 : Whole school strategy

In addition to the overarching demands in these new ‘5 tests’, we insist on clear agreed risk assessments that ensure acceptable measures are in place in every workplace.

Test 5 : Protection for the vulnerable

Students and staff who are at high risk of severe illness, or who live with people at high risk should be able to work from home, using the teaching and learning methods developed over the last year.

This time, for the sake of the health, safety and welfare of staff, students, and our wider school communities, we must insist these tests are fully met.

* I have amended the wording of "Test One" from the initial "No full opening until ..." in order to leave no room for misinterpretation. This is based on the Independent SAGE proposals detailed above.


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