Lisa Birch, WEA Ambassador, on her learning journey

Lisa Birch, former WEA student, gave a rousing speech on the importance of lifelong learning at a recent parliamentary reception.

When Lisa left school at the age of 16, pregnant, and with few qualifications to her name, she never imagined that she would one day be studying for a Master’s degree at university. Without the chance intervention of an outreach worker from the WEA, Lisa’s life could have been very different.

Read Lisa’s speech and become inspired about the positive change that lifelong learning can bring:

I stand here today.  And I know some of you may not really understand the importance of those words.  So let me say it again. I stand here today.

I’ll start at the beginning. I got pregnant when I was 16.  The last year of formal education. As you can you imagine? My exams didn’t go well. Skipping forward.  The next years of my life were just one challenge after another.  I started as a single mum on benefits.  I know what it is to cook your baby’s meals in a kettle because the B and B I was forced into didn’t have cooking facilities. Later, even after I met my fabulous husband Ian, life was a constant struggle.  He worked all the hours he could and we still didn’t have enough to live comfortably. And when my second child was diagnosed with Autism, a whole other struggle was added. Inevitably, my self-esteem, my confidence, were obliterated.  I felt Isolated, I was without power. I was depressed.  I was in a bubble and there was no space to create a different destiny. When I was 38 years old, all that changed. The WEA was active in my neighbourhood. ‘Thank goodness’. The first WEA class I went to was a 2 minute walk from my front door, at the local Children’s Centre which was a safe and familiar environment from home. Even so, I was petrified.  Shaking like that

I’m not kidding you. I walked in with my pink fluffy pencil case and a notebook. But it was so good.  My passion for learning was instantly sparked. I was hooked. Today, I stand here before you as a Ruskin graduate. I have a degree in social and political studies. I’m just finishing up my Master’s Degree. And I’ve just started a job, as the Recruitment and Outreach officer at Ruskin.  The first job in my life that really fits my passions.  A job that means something to me, and hopefully to others. I’m also honoured to be Chair of WEA Oxford Branch. Ruskin and the WEA have given me so much.  Now it’s my turn to give something back. I’m going to guess that some of you here will think that people like me, who’ve managed to achieve despite the barriers, you might think that maybe it’s just that I’ve got chutzpah.  That there was already something different in me compared to many other people in my community, But I STILL live in MY community.  I haven’t left it behind.  And I don’t intend to. I listen, I experience, I see the frustrated hopes and aspirations of all the fantastic people around me, who deserve better. I was there once.  And I can tell you.  All it takes is for the WEA, Ruskin or any one of these fantastic Educational Institutions to be there. To be there, breaking down those barriers. Reaching out with their unique ability to connect. 

I cannot emphasise enough how the unique support and passion of the tutors I’ve encountered has empowered not only me but all others I bear witness to today. And let me be clear, the educational journey doesn’t only change the life of the person who takes it.  It’s deeper and bigger than the individual.  I’ve seen it.  It impact’s massively on our children, our families, our friends, our communities.

 Education changes lives and transforms communities! So Let me just finish by saying it again. I stand here today.

 Thank you.

Lisa delivered her speech at the APPG for Adult Education’s parliamentary reception in July 2016. The APPG has called for a cohesive national strategy for lifelong learning in the wake the report it recently commissioned – Adult Education: too important to be left to chance .

The report is based on independent research from Warwick University and is a comprehensive review of the benefits of adult education for individuals, employers and communities, addressing in particular the most disadvantaged in society.



WEA East Midlands project scoops National Lottery Award nomination

Against the odds, a small community-led WEA East Midlands project has been shortlisted in the heritage category at this year’s National Lottery Awards.

The project – ‘Slave Trade Legacies: The Colour of Money’ – explored the extent to which some UK heritage visitor attractions acknowledge their links to the transatlantic slave trade. Volunteers were given training from a range of expert facilitators and analysed venues with well-known or hidden links to slavery. They also explored how their own ancestors have contributed to the material wealth of the UK including the wealth of certain individuals.

The team has been overwhelmed by the public support they’ve received and will have the entire WEA community behind them when they attend the star-studded awards ceremony in September. Project coordinators Lisa Robinson, a WEA Ambassador and Helen Bates, a PhD student from the University of Leicester, were surprised and delighted at the recent news. They had no idea when they originally planned the project just how much positive interest it would attract from local people and local, regional and national institutions.

Lisa and Helen were recently interviewed to talk about what inspired them to establish the project and how it’s been received.

Tell us a little about the project

Our project was not a ‘Black history project’ in the traditional sense of the term, it was a project about shared history and heritage which belongs to all communities. We wanted to give local people the opportunity to challenge historical sites that keep hidden the various contributions that diverse communities have made and in particular the economic contributions that have enabled a site to either exist in the first place and to develop and expand over the centuries.

What activities did the project involve?

The project launched in March 2014 to a full house at Nottingham Contemporary. This immediately gave potential volunteers the opportunity to get on board the project team. Eventually the project was to recruit 40 core volunteers as well as many others who volunteered on a more casual basis. Volunteers were largely, though not exclusively from the African-Caribbean community. Anyone with a passion for the subject was welcome to get involved.

The work of the volunteers would involve visiting heritage sites, giving feedback in order to critically assess heritage sites and influence interpretation materials and guide-training materials. They were, of course, provided with training and development opportunities in order to help them achieve this. One of the main inspirations for the project was the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project at UCL (University College London) and they received training from one of their researchers, James Dawkins.  They also visited attractions such as the National Museum of Slavery in Liverpool and undertook the Bristol Slave Trail with Edson Burton, a local experienced researcher and guide in order to build background knowledge and understanding.

The volunteers embarked on a journey of learning discovering how the transatlantic slave trade impacted on their ancestors and on the wealth of certain individuals and sites in Britain.   Slavery is often viewed today as a practice which was carried out in the Americas but left Britain physically untainted. Heritage sites often focus on Britain’s role in the abolition of slavery and not on the benefits received from enslavement.  This project enabled volunteers to explore the extent of the legacies of slavery and how they can still be traced in Britain today. 

The project teamed up with the University of Nottingham’s Global Cotton Connections Project and visited the World Heritage Site of Derwent Valley Mills World in Derbyshire on numerous occasions. They also visited Boughton House in Northamptonshire in conjunction with the University of Leicester.   Other sites visited included Newstead Abbey which is owned by Nottingham City Council and the William Wilberforce Museum in Hull.

What legacy has the Slave Trade Legacies project left?

The project benefited volunteers by allowing them to develop a collective voice and giving them public platforms to share their reflections with local, regional and national institutions including Heritage Lottery Fund, The National Trust and English Heritage.  Participation in this project enabled volunteers to deliver critically informed feedback on how they perceived their history was being represented and interpreted which was an empowering experience for them. 

This project has enabled volunteers to create useful and meaningful project legacies such as the website and project films which have continued to be shared through academic and community forums such as events in conjunction with UCL’s Legacies of British Slave-Ownership national workshops, the creation of workshops and courses with the Workers’ Education Association (the largest voluntary sector provider of adult education in the UK) and at the international conference of the Society of Caribbean Studies held in 2015 in Birmingham to name but a few. In addition volunteers got involved in a radio broadcast, creating poetry and song and also fed into digital outputs including a blog, social media and a pod cast. 

Whilst it was inherently planned that volunteers should develop transferable skills, knowledge and experience, an unexpected benefit from the project was the building of social cohesion as volunteers embarked on a journey discovering and sharing their heritage together. The discoveries about how their ancestors were treated as enslaved people was often a painful process but it was equally painful when they discovered that heritage sites failed to acknowledge and interpret the site’s links to slavery.  This was less about the challenge of hidden history but about missing or misinformed history. 

The volunteers discovered that they had shared interests and shared heritage, and supported each other particularly through some of the more painful aspects of the learning journey about the enslavement that their ancestors had experienced. There was great peer support from within the group and this often came in the form of inter-generational support with elders in the group sharing stories with younger people who were Black British-born and had little or no experience of visiting the Caribbean.  The elders shared their heritage, detailing how some Caribbean traditions (food, herbal remedies, respect for ancestors and language) have evolved from the experience of hundreds of years of enslavement and still resonate with that history today.

The framework of peer-led and intergenerational support instigated by the volunteers built a strong volunteer network which became referred to and known as ‘The Slave Trade Legacies Family’. This collective became so committed to working together in the future that they have now founded Nottingham’s first Black History Society – one of the few Black History societies in the UK. They have been invited to contribute a chapter to a new academic publication on community heritage funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and they are planning to submit a funding bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund to continue their activities. 

Events organised in conjunction with this project such as workshops, talks and film screenings have been attended by over 500 people across the East and West Midlands.   The radio broadcast reached an audience of thousands.   The films and project blog continue to be available online and therefore accessible to people across the globe.

Another unexpected benefit of the project was that some of the places that the project interacted with have received constructive feedback on their visitor offer from groups which they traditionally find hard to engage. For example, they were able to influence the interpretation of the new exhibition at Cromford Mill in Derbyshire which is part of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site.  This ensured that the fact that the cotton used at the mill was picked by enslaved labour was included in the interpretation. 

Can you give an example of how the project benefitted or inspired an individual?

Merrisa Marquis was 22 years old when the project started and had recently been appointed as an apprentice at Bright Ideas Nottingham. Of African-Caribbean heritage, she initially believed that she had no connection to the project, saw no relevance of the theme to her own situation and felt a distance and disinterest in the heritage that we were trying to explore.

As part of her apprenticeship, she was instructed to research a play list for the project launch event and to gather music to play at the event that reflected the theme of slave-trade legacies.   Researching and selecting this music list helped her to develop an awareness of how her own ancestors had been enslaved.  It took her on the first steps of her learning journey and consolidated her emotional connection to the project.  This inspired her to fully embrace the project and to volunteer her own time beyond the hours of her apprenticeship. She also encouraged other family members and friends to participate which included other young Black Nottingham City Council apprentices working at different companies.  From somebody who had little interest in the project at the start, she became one of the project’s strongest advocates.  Listening to the music on her play list which reflected the legacies of slavery, inspired her (as a creative performer) to write her own music which she performed at the launch.

As the project progressed she developed new skills, confidence and a passion for heritage. She helped coordinate volunteers, arranged visits and gave presentations at events.  She developed heritage research skills and most importantly she designed the project blog including the visual appearance and the content  Finally she felt motivated to help to develop the script and provide the voice over for the main project film The Colour of Money.   The project enabled Merrisa’s creativity to shine and for her to develop many new skills which has directly led her to securing paid employment with Bright Ideas Nottingham on the completion of her apprenticeship.  The experience of engaging with this project has given her the opportunity to learn a wide range of transferable skills to boost her future employability and has developed in her a greater understanding for her heritage and the passion to share it with others.

So how do readers vote for Slave Trade Legacies: The Colour of Money to win the Heritage Category of the National Lottery Awards?

To vote for Slave Trade Legacies: The Colour of Money please go to:

or telephone 0844 836 9675.

You can follow the campaign on Twitter #NLAwards

Voting runs for four weeks from 9am on Wednesday 22 June until midnight on Wednesday 20 July.  

Also find out more on:




Showcasing the social impact of learning

The Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) is sponsoring the Festival of Learning Social Impact Award because we find the stories of many of our learners inspirational.  They overcome personal, social and educational disadvantages and become exemplars in their communities.

People like Ray Bullock who set up Endurance, which organises residential trips for rough sleepers, recovering alcoholics and people with mental health issues, taking them through their own personal development journey.

Having recently completed an MA in writing and philosophy at Liverpool John Moore’s University, Ray is now building writing skills into the Endurance offer.

Or Johurun Nessa, who joined our biggest environmental project two years ago in Newcastle upon Tyne, called Greening Wingrove, developing links with dozens of local community groups and introducing “community living rooms” which generate great ideas to improve the local neighbourhood.

My reasons are also personal.

My grandfather left school aged 11 and started his learning journey with the WEA in 1911 and went to Ruskin College, Oxford, and to Cambridge University, sponsored by his trade union.

He inspired his fellow workers and my sisters and I to value education, not only for personal gain but for the good it can do in the world.  Social impact can be measured in many ways, but community benefits and intergenerational impact are at the heart of this award.

For more information about the Festival of Learning including how to submit nominations for awards please visit the website The deadline for nominations for 2016 awards is 5pm on 20 May 2016.

The Festival of Learning is part-funded by the European Social Fund (ESF) to help publicise ESF activities and outputs. The ESF is a European Union initiative that supports activities to improve employment opportunities, promote social inclusion and invest in skills. The ESF is investing over £2.5 billion in England in the 2014-2020 programme. Funding will be used to

  • help young people, jobseekers and inactive people access employment;
  • tackle barriers to work faced by disadvantaged people; and
  • invest in education, skills and lifelong learning.

You can find out more at

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International Women’s Day 2016

March 8th is International Women’s Day, a time to celebrate the social, economic and political achievements of women across the world, reflect on past struggles and look to the future.

Gender parity is the theme for this year and individuals and groups are being urged to take action in order to accelerate equality for all.

Over my lifetime I have witnessed remarkable developments in terms of gender equality. Women’s lives have been transformed by technology, changes in our economy and in social attitudes so that women expect to compete on equal terms. Yet life chances are persistently unequal.

As Christine Lagarde, chief executive of the IMF, said in the 2014 Dimbleby Lecture, women “face discrimination at birth, on the school bench, in the boardroom. They face reticence of the marketplace – and of the mind”.

Carolyn Fairbairn, director general of the CBI, reminds us that far too few women run FTSE 100 companies and the pipeline of talent gets blocked by men who, more obviously, fit in. These uncomfortable realities have made me reflect on my own journey.

Today I am proud to be chief executive of the Workers’ Educational Association. The adult education charity has been going for more than a century and it is as badly needed today as it was in 1903.

A survey carried out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2013 ranked England and Northern Ireland 14th for adult literacy and 16th for adult numeracy. This low level of adult skills inevitably impacts on the success of the economy as a whole.

According to the charity Go ON UK, nearly a quarter of the adult population lack basic digital skills, a phenomenon that affects women more than men, given time taken out because of childbirth.

Which is why the WEA helps thousands of working people and those in the poorest communities to return to education, whatever their age or income. People like my grandfather, who left school at 11 but who enrolled on a WEA course and eventually won a trade union scholarship to Ruskin College, Oxford, and another to Peterhouse at Cambridge.

Leading an organisation was something that I thought was beyond my grasp when growing up in a small Welsh mining town in the 1960s. When I read economics at Cambridge I was intimidated by the cutglass accents and the seemingly easy social confidence of my fellow students.

My accent wasn’t right and the first time I was invited out for dinner I turned up at midday. My first proper job was at the National Coal Board.

Working in such a male dominated industry in the 1970s was no picnic and, despite coal being in my blood, career opportunities were non-existent for women. Like many mothers, my career stalled after I had children. After my third was born I had to deal with redundancy and the serious illness of my husband. For a while, life was bleak.

Childcare costs plus working part-time meant that I was struggling financially. It is a vicious cycle that affects many women, which is why we have to do more to support mothers in the workplace.

 There is so much work to be done in the fight for equality. Last year, the WEA launched a campaign focusing on the importance of education and lifelong learning, to enable women to overcome the disadvantages they face in society.

The majority of our students are women and many of them use courses as a means to reskill or retrain. We must do more to promote inclusive and flexible workplace cultures.

The importance of this was recently confirmed by the Centre for the Modern Family, a think-tank established by Scottish Widows. Its latest report, published last week, revealed that one in four UK workers would sacrifice pay for greater flexibility.

The UK still has a way to go before men and women are on an equal footing. According to the World Economic Forum it is now ranked 18th out of 145 countries in terms of the gender gap, an improvement from the 26th place ranking it achieved last year.

So what do we do? According to the report no country in the world has achieved gender equality but I think there are lessons we can learn from those at the top of the league table: Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden.

I believe that true equality is possible. According to the World Economic Forum, it will take another 117 years until the pay gap between men and women is closed. Education is at least part of the answer.

We need to learn to be both gender and colour blind. We also need to recognise and reward good practice wherever we see it, learn from our own experience and the experience of other countries and cultures.

Globalisation has the potential to open up opportunities and to encourage wider participation – and global organisations need seriously to address widening and deepening the talent pool if they want to continue to be successful.

Governments need to take tough action where human values of respect and dignity are compromised and we need to tackle head-on the biggest temptation of them all: to set our sights too low and quit the field when the battle is not yet won.

This blog first appeared in the Sunday Express:






WEA tutor Bea Groves on the value of adult education

“The value of adult education is not solely to be measured by direct increases in earning power or productive capacity, but by the quality of life it inspires in the individual and generates for the community at large. It is an agent changing and improving our society.” (preface to ‘The Russel Report’, 1973)

In the thirty-plus years I have been teaching in adult and further education, I have learned that there are two kinds of taught subjects: those that are concerned with skills or work, and those that are not. The skills orientated subject areas tend to be taken seriously, are usually accredited, and attract funding. Those that are conceived of as ‘liberal adult education’ are often treated as leisure subjects, are non-accredited and are the first to be on the receiving end of cuts. These attitudes have largely come into being since the inception of the skills agenda in the 1980s. This is not to say that there wasn’t a degree of snobbery around some adult education subjects prior to that period, but the Thatcherite eighties were the main decade wherein negative attitudes to liberal adult education became entrenched in government thinking.

My own taught subjects started off at the ‘leisure’ end when I first qualified. I initially taught music appreciation, then history and philosophy. But I also taught ICT, and worked in teacher education. Nevertheless, it was much easier to discuss the ICT with my friends as it had the respect of being a ‘serious’ subject, whilst philosophy… well, it was a rather stuffy academic topic and not really suited to getting anyone a job, was it? How embarrassing! But I loved working in adult education. My WEA teaching was (and is) the strongest influence on my working life, and to this day I still gain more enjoyment from teaching liberal subjects than I do in the skills domain.

But the question remains: does liberal adult education provide any value whatsoever to British society? Is it worth funding?

This depends on how one visualises the purpose of adult learning. If one accepts the need for learning to support the development of society, then it is very clear that prosperity is part and parcel of that development. But how does society become prosperous? Certainly this comes from the capacity of individuals to work and innovate around wealth creation. This capacity means each individual should have an appropriate personal confidence, an understanding of society, a stake in the community, and be able to understand the changes taking place around them (technological, social, political, etc.). Indeed, understanding society itself is a crucial part of creating wealth and enabling its spread as prosperity. The idea that learning is only about the demand for certain immediate job-skills is a nonsense. Such a concept is predicated on short-term demand and supply mythology and doesn’t approach the question of long-term social development. The great irony, of course, is that a prosperous society comes from a wide-ranging background continuum of educational initiatives. These are based around building the strength of individuals to learn, continue learning, and expand their learning throughout their lives… often starting with a liberal subject such as music appreciation, or philosophy, or literature, etc.

It is in this ‘forming the continuum of learning’ that the WEA does exceptionally well. My own experience of this has been through a course I originally entitled ‘Great Thinkers’. I started teaching this many years ago, and it has developed ever since at a variety of venues and with a number of student groups. ‘Great Thinkers’ was about philosophy, politics and the sciences. But it became very clear at the outset that it wasn’t the subject taught that was the main success story of ‘Great Thinkers’ but the manner in which learning took place.

‘Great Thinkers’ is about participation. The students don’t just learn about the subjects taught week-to-week (often quite complex issues), but also about how learning works. They have major control over the course content. They discuss (and vote on) what they want to learn. They also dictate how learning will take place, by suggesting the activities they will be involved in. They manage the subject matter via discussion, and feedback on issues they want to expand or repeat. But what’s more important are their social relationships. Many meet outside of the course, share activities together and have become involved in campaign or voluntary work that has been stimulated by the course. The atmosphere is one of happy informality, but also a deep and focussed enthusiasm for the topic matter. Arguments happen often, and one of my roles as a tutor is to maintain good working relationships between each student. My position with regard to the group is hence one of facilitator, academic resource, organiser and leader. Certainly I am there to make sure the needs of the group are met, but this means a new kind of power relationship with the group that rarely exists in standard adult courses. Essentially, the course exists to enable each student to expand their horizons as they may, and through this process to make decisions for themselves that contribute to social participation… and hence to active prosperity.

If this all sounds familiar to WEA members and tutors, then that is because the Association has long fostered the concept of ‘communities of learning’ within its courses. That this provides a very strong means of encouraging learning is made clear by the work taking place within ‘Great Thinkers’ (now renamed ‘Big Ideas’ by the students!). Indeed, the WEA’s greatest asset is its communities of learning; it’s capacity to create welcoming, attractive and fun courses such as ‘Great Thinkers’. It is not the WEA’s courses themselves that are its selling-point, but the unique manner in which WEA learning takes place.

About the Author: Bea Groves is currently a tutor for WEA North East Region. She has worked for the WEA as volunteer and tutor since 1980. She is WEA Ambassador. She is also President of the ‘Tutor Voices’ national network for adult and further education teachers.

10 reasons to Save Adult Education

This is a re-post from Ann Walker, former WEA Director for Education

Please sign and share the link to the petition to Save Adult Education. Evidence shows successive and massive funding cuts over recent years and a decline in numbers of adult learners in part-time education.

Why does this matter?

There are countless reasons, but here are some:

  1. Education equips us for life, but the world keeps changing after our compulsory school leaving ages. Adults need to adapt to social and technological changes if they are to keep up with developments. What is the cost of leaving people behind?
  2. Being able to read and write English fluently and to use numbers accurately are basic skills, not only for jobs but for understanding how public services work, being a savvy consumer, reading health information, taking an active part in society and for leading a dignified life. What is the cost of low levels of adult literacy and numeracy?
  3. All government services are now designed to be ‘digital by default’. How does this work for people who can’t use technology effectively? What is the cost of digital exclusion?
  4. Young people leaving school now without specific grades in GCSE English and Maths have to reach those standards. How will they be supported if full-time education didn’t meet their needs and adult learning is being starved of resources? What is the cost of limiting adults’ educational opportunities when need is evident?
  5. Many school leavers with low attainment levels will become parents of children who follow the same pattern. Educating the parents through family learning partnerships is shown to break the cycle and improve attainment levels for both generations. What is the cost of continuing cycles of educational inequality?
  6. Education is not just for work. It promotes health and wellbeing, reducing isolation for older people and keeping their minds active, while harnessing the benefits of their experience and knowledge.What is the cost of not enriching older people’s lives through learning?
  7. Low levels of participation in voting means that democracy is not representative. Learning about how political systems work is important if we are to engage people in civic life.What is the cost of disenfranchised citizens?
  8. All aspects of life depend upon adaptability and active minds. Learning to learn is a skill in itself. What is the cost of failure to adapt?
  9. Education is a means to address inequality in many forms.What is the cost of inequality?
  10. Learning is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Art, literature, history and culture should be available to everyone and not only those who can afford them. What is life without interests and pleasure?

Adapting to a changing workforce: maximising the potential of older workers

A new report published today by the Centre for the Modern Family examines issues surrounding older workers, whose numbers have increased significantly year-on-year since the government’s abolition of the default retirement age in 2011. According to their ‘Older Workers’ study, in October 2014 there were more than 1.1 million over 65s still in employment in Britain.

Demographic change, i.e. the UK’s ageing population, is one of the most powerful forces shaping our society and in particular our workplaces. We are living longer, healthier lives; with many opting to remain in work once they reach the former default retirement age of 65.

Reasons for choosing to remain in employment are varied. Some feel that they still have much more to give to their particular role or organisation whereas for others their decision may be financially motivated. Wanting to retain the same lifestyle, the cost of caring for elderly relatives or supporting younger family members are often cited as common factors for staying in work. In terms of the individual benefits, the Department for Work and Pensions estimates that an average worker staying in employment for an extra year can ‘boost their pension pot by £4,500, in addition to earning an extra year’s salary’.[1]

So what should we do to respond to this change? I believe that the productive potential for older workers is enormous and something which employers must give greater priority. Investment in training later in life is part of the solution to retaining older workers, who come with a wealth of experience, and closing our ever-widening skills gaps.

Think tanks such as the Centre for the Modern Family are right to highlight this important issue and suggest ways in which we can adapt our workplaces to suit today’s needs. Indeed, finding ways to modernise our ways of working could pay huge dividends in the future. Further support in the run-up period to retirement, mid-life career reviews, skills audits and offering flexibility working where possible may help keep valuable older workers. Earlier this year, Dr Ros Altmann CBE estimated that if half the 1.2 million older workers – who are currently economically inactive but would like to work – re-entered the labour market we could boost GDP up to £25 billion a year[2]. The time to act is now.



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