Part 1: Is the Catholic Education system fit for purpose?

Part 1: Is the Catholic Education system fit for purpose?

25 August 2020

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Part 1: Is the Catholic Education System Fit For Purpose?

Jim Foley, a Catholic headteacher for over 20 years and currently Chair of a Catholic Multi Academy, sets out a thought provoking critique of Catholic education in England, and maps out his way forward in Part 2; Catholic Education in England – A System in Need of Reform.

The Historical Context
Since the Second World War there have been thirty five secretaries of state for education in the UK.  From Ellen Wilkinson in 1945 to the present incumbent, Gavin Williamson there would be a large consensus amongst observers about which of the thirty five made the greatest impact and who was the most controversial.  Between 2010 and 2014, the thirty first in that line, Michael Gove transformed the education system as none of his predecessors had ever done before.  Appointed as Conservative shadow education secretary in 2007, he was a man in a hurry.  Along with his special adviser, Dominic Cummings he became convinced that the school system as a whole was in need of root and branch reform and when the Coalition Government was formed following the 2010 General Election he was determined to hit the ground running.  The new government took office on 12 May and almost its first action was to introduce the Academies Act which became law on 26 July 2010.  It was to transform the educational map at a pace and on a scale that had never been seen before.  Such was the furore caused by Gove’s tenure that he was removed from his post by Prime Minister, David Cameron four years later.  By 2014, both Gove and his key adviser, Cummings had left the DfE but by then the changes they had introduced were, as intended, virtually permanent and irreversible.

The 1944 Education Act introduced by Rab Butler is universally seen as a key moment in the history of Catholic education.  Cardinal Griffin accepted Butler’s key objective whilst he in turn recognised the Church’s independence on matters of faith in Catholic schools.  It heralded the introduction of universal education for all and the dual system by which the state and the Church would work in partnership.  Within the framework of the 1944 Act the state accepted the cost of running and maintaining Catholic schools and  financial responsibility for new buildings from 50% in 1944 increasing incrementally to its current level of 90% since 2001.  In practice, the nature of the partnership was not played out at national level but on the ground locally between dioceses and local education authorities.  The Church retained control of matters relating to the faith and its buildings but in every other respect it was happy to accept, like all maintained schools, the expertise and experience of the local education authority.  Between them diocesan schools commissioners and LEA officers worked closely together for the benefit of ‘their’ schools in which each side had a vested interest.  The dual system which endured for over sixty years was to undergo profound challenge with the introduction of Gove’s Academies Act in 2010, a level of change from which it is still reeling ten years later.

The Academies Act posed a major problem for the Church.  Just over twenty years earlier the 1988 Education Reform Act had posed a similar threat through the introduction of grant maintained schools.  On that occasion the Church had shown itself to be badly divided.  Some dioceses recognised their schools would benefit from significant additional investment whilst others were vehemently against the policy on principle.  The 1993 Education Act compounded the problem when it became possible for independent schools to become grant maintained and a number of high profile Catholic schools did so. Unlike Cardinal Griffin in 1944, it was clear that the Church could not speak with one voice.  As Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Hume had little option but to accept the right of each bishop to decide for his own diocese how to proceed.  Far from a single voice there was a discordant chorus of twenty two.  Inevitably, the credibility of the Church’s position was undermined.  Fortunately from the Church’s point of view, the new Labour Government’s 1998 Standards and Framework Act enabled the divisions to heal.  Grant maintained status was abolished and the dual system restored.

The Common Good in Education
Prior to the 1997 General Election, the CES published a booklet entitled ‘The Common Good in Education’ on behalf of The Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.  It followed an earlier publication simply entitled ‘The Common Good’ from October 1996.  The booklet of twenty two pages was subtitled ‘A Commentary on the implications of the Church’s social teaching for the work of Catholic schools and colleges.’  It attracted considerable attention and was widely praised far beyond the Catholic community.  It was a clear example of the Church speaking to its people and society as a whole with one authoritative voice.

The ‘Common Good’ introduced two theological terms but expressed them in plain language relevant to the time.  It said: “Subsidiarity means decisions being taken as close to the grass roots as good government allows.  Solidarity means we are all responsible for each other.”  Subsidiarity was a vertical concept by which power could move up or down as appropriate.  Solidarity was horizontal in nature and implied the responsibility of the individual to care for their family, their community, wider society and humanity in general.  ‘The Common Good in Education’ was published over twenty years ago but it has stood the test of time.  It was the Bishops’ Conference at its best.  It is hard to imagine a comparable statement of such unity and clarity today.     

A Momentous Decision
And so fast forward thirteen years and a new Conservative Government was formed in 2010 in coalition with the Liberal Democrats.  Michael Gove was ready and waiting.  The Academies Act became law within seventy five days and the academies revolution was underway.  Ten years earlier the Labour Government had introduced its own academy policy to address the issue of ‘failing’ schools by creating 200 academies.  By the time he left the DfE in 2014, Gove had overseen 5,000 academy conversions. 

The scale and pace of change in the educational world carried huge implications for the Church.  Within six frenetic months and just one full school term after the Academies Act, the Church made a public statement of its position.  On 28 January 2011, in his capacity as Chairman of the Catholic Education Service, the then Bishop of Nottingham, Malcolm McMahon, made a historic announcement.  Bishop McMahon declared that subject to the agreement of the local bishop any Catholic school could become an academy.  It was a historic moment in the relationship between Church and state.  The genie was out of the bottle and it would never return.

Bishop McMahon himself was an early enthusiast for Catholic academies.  The Becket School in Nottingham with three partner primary schools was to form the first Catholic MAT in the country in September 2011.  Under Bishop McMahon the Nottingham Diocese was at the forefront of academy conversions within the Church and today under his successor, Bishop McKinney, it is one of only two dioceses in the country to have converted all its schools into academies.

In 2014, Bishop McMahon was appointed Archbishop of Liverpool.  In doing so he inherited a diocese with a firm position against academisation.  His predecessor, Archbishop Kelly had been against grant maintained status twenty five years earlier as Bishop of Salford and he had been no more convinced of the government’s case for academies in Liverpool.  Archbishop McMahon accepted the settled position of his new diocese and today Liverpool is the only one of the nineteen in England to have an explicit anti-academy policy.

Any objective observer might reasonably wonder what it was that changed Archbishop McMahon’s mind following his appointment to Liverpool.  If a government policy was going to be beneficial to schools in Nottingham why would it not be similarly beneficial to schools in Liverpool?  It is a question that goes to the heart of the problem the Catholic Church has in speaking with one voice.

A Major Problem of Leadership
No sensible business would ever choose an organisational model like the Catholic Church.  In England and Wales there are twenty two dioceses.  They vary enormously in size so that the Archdiocese of Birmingham has 237 schools and Liverpool Archdiocese has 230 whereas at the other end of the scale in the dioceses of Wrexham, Plymouth and Northampton there are 17, 36 and 44 schools respectively.  There is a clear pecking order in terms of seniority so the Archbishop of Westminster is traditionally elected as President of the Bishops’ Conference.  In addition to Westminster there are four more Provinces led by the Archbishops of Birmingham, Cardiff, Liverpool and Southwark.  The remaining seventeen bishops lead dioceses that are geographically assigned to one of the five provinces.  However, crucially, there is no line management structure at all.  Even though the Bishop of Northampton leads a diocese within the Province of Westminster he is not responsible to the Cardinal, Archbishop of Westminster.  He is accountable to the Pope in Rome and only the Pope has the power to remove him.  In due course it will be the Pope (advised by the papal nuncio, his personal ambassador) who will appoint his successor.  When the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales meet they do so as a body of twenty two completely independent leaders.  The authority of the Cardinal and Archbishops within the Conference is entirely titular in nature.  Each individual bishop is entitled to decide for himself, within canon law, whatever course of action he wishes.  It is this ancient canonical authority which makes it very difficult for the Church in England and Wales to function as a corporate body on issues of policy that may divide it.

To those outside the Catholic Church its arcane structures and practices are bizarre and incomprehensible.  To many of us within the Church they can be frustrating and sometimes even infuriating.  But one thing we know for sure.  They will not be changing any time soon.  Even under Pope Francis, the most radical of leaders, there are some things that are set in stone.  The canonical authority of a bishop is one of them. The right of each bishop in England and Wales to decide as he sees fit will not change in my lifetime or indeed the lifetime of my grandchildren.  If we are to see genuine improvement in how the Church operates on the national education stage it will only come as a result of a clear and compelling case for change to which each and every bishop is fully committed.

The Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales meets once or twice a year for four days in Hinsley Hall, Leeds.  Following each meeting a press conference is held and the resolutions that the bishops have agreed are published.  Since Bishop McMahon made his historic announcement about academies the Bishops’ Conference has met twelve times between November 2011 and November 2019.  It would appear that the bishops have never collectively discussed academies during this period.  They have passed resolutions relating to RE and inspection, admissions to Catholic schools, fair funding and standards in schools.  But at no point have they discussed the key education policy of the day.  It seems safe to assume that the bishops collectively have minimal awareness of the position of Catholic schools nationally in relation to academies.  It is a matter that has been devolved entirely to dioceses and that is the central problem.

The Current Position on Academies
A summary of the position of academies within the Church in England and Wales illustrates the level of division.  There are three dioceses in Wales for whom academies are a non-issue for the simple reason that the Welsh Government does not follow an academy policy.  Of the nineteen dioceses in England, as outlined, just one, Liverpool, is explicitly anti-academy.  Three more dioceses are neutral and the remaining fifteen are broadly in favour.  Of those in favour just two have converted all of their schools to academies, Plymouth and Nottingham.  The remaining thirteen dioceses are at various stages on the academy journey so they currently have a mixture of academies and voluntary aided schools.  Overall, it is a very mixed picture which makes it impossible for the Church to speak with one voice on the key education issue of our time.

In order to achieve unity the Bishops’ Conference needs a level of professional support that does not currently exist.  The Catholic Education Service is an agency of the Bishops’ Conference but despite its name its primary functions are political and legal rather than educational.  The CES has an important parliamentary role in lobbying the government to protect Catholic education and in advancing Catholic Social Teaching.  And it provides legal advice to dioceses including the production of a suite of policies for use in Catholic schools.  But the CES itself has minimal educational expertise because it is not designed for that purpose.  It is the servant of the Bishops’ Conference and takes its lead from them.  It does not have a major role in generating policy or indeed, as events have shown, even responsibility for drawing to the attention of the bishops progress on the key educational issue of the day.  The Bishops’ Conference needs  advice and support from education professionals of the highest calibre which is a theme I return to in the next paper.  To expect the Bishops’ Conference to forge a national education policy alone is akin to expecting the government to manage Covid-19 without access to medical or scientific advice.  It is an absurd proposition.  In this case the difference in the analogy is that the government has no choice but to deal with the impact of Covid-19 on a daily basis.  The bishops have not been aware of the growing problem of academisation confusion across the country for the past ten years.  We need our bishops to lead the faithful and care for the flock.  And in turn we should provide them with the professional advice and support they need.     

The Demise of LEAs
The Academies Act profoundly changed the educational map from 2010 onwards.  Naturally, there was a huge focus on the rate at which schools academised and Gove was remarkably successful in achieving his objective.  What attracted fewer headlines but was equally obvious to professionals in the education system was the rapid demise of local authorities under the new policy.  Since the Education Reform Act of 1988 and, particularly, the introduction of Local Management of Schools (LMS) the locus of power had shifted substantially away from LEAs to schools themselves.  LMS had created 25,000 self-regulating businesses who were increasingly confident in purchasing services in the marketplace  previously provided only by the LEA.  Despite the diminished financial power of LEAs those who were perceived by their schools to be successful continued to be very influential.  In the 1990s Professor Tim Brighouse was inspirational in leading transformational change in Birmingham.  And in the first decade of the millennium he achieved a similar impact as Schools Commissioner in the London Challenge.  The Academies Act brought such developments to an abrupt end.  Gove and Cummings were convinced that LEAs were part of the problem rather than the solution.  They were determined to defeat ‘The Blob’, the educational establishment of which LEAs were a key component.  Denied their funding as more and more schools became academies and stripped of their powers, LEAs were soon reduced to basic statutory functions and their key role in school improvement was largely eliminated.

The Exposure of Dioceses
Over the past decade the demise of LEAs has had serious consequences for Catholic schools.  Since 1944, there had been a clear and effective partnership between diocesan schools commissioners and LEA officers.  The former looked after Catholic matters and their buildings and the LEA did the rest.  From 2010 onwards in the rapidly changing academy world the settled arrangements of the past evaporated with no clear alternative.  Suddenly diocesan education services all over the country were faced with a vastly increased portfolio of responsibilities without any corresponding increase in funding or capacity to meet their new challenges.  It was a deeply unenviable position and it has had serious consequences for the Church.  With bewildering speed following the 2010 General Election the nineteen dioceses in England found themselves in very uncomfortable territory. 

In the past most diocesan schools commissions were staffed by a handful of people.  Often a priest with a particular interest in education or a retired headteacher might fulfil the role of diocesan schools commissioner.  Rarely would the role have been filled following a rigorous recruitment process and even more rarely would it command a salary commensurate with the equivalent position in an LEA.  Following the Education Reform Act of 1988 and the introduction of LMS the pace increased substantially.  Gradually schools commissions evolved into education services with a slightly bigger staff and an expanding engagement with schools and LEAs but the fundamentals of the relationships established since 1944 remained largely intact.  And then came the whirlwind of Michael Gove and the academies revolution.  Diocesan education services, through no fault of their own, were woefully ill prepared for the challenges they now faced.

An Impossible Task
The mission statement of the Diocesan Education Service in Birmingham is to ‘secure, protect and improve’ Catholic education within the diocese.  Going back to 1944, Cardinal Griffin or Archbishop Williams in Birmingham would have recognised the imperative of securing and protecting Catholic schools.  They would be much less familiar with the concept of ‘improving’ them except in a spiritual sense.  The school improvement movement as we now recognise it did not emerge until the 1990s with the publication of research by academics such as Michael Fullan and David Hargreaves and the influence of leaders like Tim Brighouse.  Even though it consumed educationalists, academics and practitioners alike, its application would not have formed part of the remit of any diocesan schools commission or education service.  And yet in 2010, it was suddenly thrust onto the agenda of all dioceses whether it formed part of their mission statement or not.

By the time of the Academies Act, for nearly twenty years Catholic schools across the country, like their state counterparts, were already familiar with a regular cycle of Ofsted inspections and published league tables.  The stakes were high and the consequences for those deemed to have ‘failed’ were severe.  Within three weeks of taking power in 1997, the new Labour Government had notoriously ‘named and shamed’ eighteen schools who they claimed were failing their children and families.  Two of the schools were Catholic, one in Liverpool and the other in London.  It was an exercise never to be repeated but it set the tone for years to come.  Inevitably, the reality of rescuing ‘failing’ schools became fundamental to the work of all dioceses but much of the heavy lifting was undertaken by the relevant LEA whose officers had the experience and expertise to address the complex and longstanding issues involved.

As outlined, from 2010 onwards the capacity of LEAs to support their schools was drastically reduced but the relentless accountability regime of Ofsted inspections and league tables continued unabated.  As some Catholic schools inevitably fell into an ‘Ofsted category’ and the previous support provided by LEAs was no longer available, the pressure on dioceses increased markedly.  There was now a political dimension to the situation.  The Gove solution was simple.  Any school deemed inadequate by Ofsted would have to be converted to academy status.  For state schools there was no argument – academisation was automatic.  Given the political sensitivities dioceses had more wriggle room but the pressure was on and the clock was ticking for any ‘failing’ Catholic school to prove it could provide a ‘good’ education. 

Birmingham with 237 schools is the largest diocese in the country and in recent years has increased its DES staffing.  It has three advisers designated to its ‘School Improvement Team’ but the DES itself would be the first to acknowledge the complete inadequacy of such a team to meaningfully  undertake the huge task of school improvement across such a vast number of schools.  Inevitably, the school improvement team are involved in trying to support a minority of schools who find  themselves in difficulty following an adverse Ofsted inspection or concerns raised through poor examination results.  In 2014, the DfE considerably extended its engagement with schools by creating a team of eight regional schools commissioners who were given sweeping powers to intervene in schools causing concern.  The relationship between dioceses and their local RSC was now of fundamental importance to the future of any Catholic school that was causing concern.

Regional Schools Commissioners
From the outset the appointment of regional schools commissioners was controversial.  Their prime function was seen as delivering on the government’s objective of converting schools into academies.  They were given sweeping powers but little democratic accountability.  Much of their work is hidden from public view and their interaction with the headteacher boards who advise them is unclear.  The tenure of RSCs is short lived.  Of the eight appointed in 2014 none are still in post today.  The West Midlands is now on its third regional schools commissioner.

Any Catholic school that emerges as a concern generally following an adverse Ofsted inspection or poor examination results will come to the attention of the local RSC.  The conversation with the diocese will be simple and direct.  The RSC will want to know what the diocese proposes to do to address the issue.  The pressure will be on, the clock will be ticking.  For the reasons already outlined the diocese will have limited options.  Almost certainly it will be impossible for the DES to provide direct support to the school.  They will be dependent on their networks and the capacity of their schools to help out.  They may be able to turn to a Teaching School or a National or Local Leader of Education but in these challenging times there is precious little spare capacity in the system.

The key factor in the conversation with the RSC is whether the school is currently voluntary aided or an academy.  If it is the former the issue of academy conversion will be high on the agenda.  Unless the diocese has a clear action plan to rescue the school with a good prospect of success it will find it difficult not to accede to the pressure to academise the school.  In doing so it will satisfy the political agenda of the RSC and it will buy the school and itself some time as newly converted academies are given a three year respite from Ofsted inspections.  If it is an academy that finds itself in difficulty the issues are more complex and potentially more serious.  It is remarkable that after ten years there is no evidence that academies improve standards.  An academy is as likely as an LA maintained school to ‘fail’ an Ofsted inspection or achieve poor examination results.

The Memorandum of Understanding
In April 2016, an important document was published entitled ‘Memorandum of Understanding between the Catholic Church and the Department for Education’.  It set out the practices and protocols that should be followed in relation to intervention in Catholic schools, namely that at national level the DfE should first approach the CES and locally the RSC should initially speak to the diocesan education service.  Of course, it is right that there should be a clear understanding on both sides about following protocol and observing professional courtesies but in the law of unintended consequences it may be that the Memorandum of Understanding has damaged rather than protected the interests of Catholic schools.

Rather than being a straightforward code of conduct between the Church and the DfE it may be that the Memorandum of Understanding has in effect become a barrier.  On the diocesan side it can be used to shield Catholic schools from immediate scrutiny and to delay the process of timely professional intervention.  On the DfE side it may be that the local RSC follows a political rather than an educational steer from the DfE in relation to Catholic schools.  In effect it may be that Catholic schools are treated with a lighter touch than their state counterparts.  As long as the diocese is amenable to the academisation of its schools by placing them in MATs it may be that their academy applications are subject to less professional scrutiny than is applied to others.  If that is the case it may buy some relief in the short term for the school and the diocese but it is not in the best interests of Catholic education.  It is imperative that our schools are subject to and benefit from the same standard of professional scrutiny from RSCs as they clearly do in Ofsted inspections.

Much of the work of regional schools commissioners and diocesan education services is shielded from public view and, to a degree, that is understandable.  However, there should be no need for secrecy in conducting a professional review of the effectiveness of the ‘Memorandum of Understanding’.  After four years such a review would be welcome and timely.  The CES and DfE could jointly oversee such a review and gather evidence from DES directors and regional schools commissioners to establish how the memorandum has operated in practice and to recommend any changes that need to be made.  The results of the review should be published and would be of considerable benefit to all concerned.  

A Confusing Picture
Following Bishop McMahon’s historic announcement in January 2011 that Catholic schools could become academies with the approval of their diocesan bishop there was at first a cautious response.  As outlined, Bishop McMahon himself was an enthusiast and a group of schools in Nottingham were to form the first Catholic MAT in the country in September 2011.  In 2012, Birmingham Archdiocese followed suit and in 2014, Plymouth Diocese was the first to convert all its schools with the creation of CAST, as described below.  During the time that Michael Gove was in office at the DfE, Catholic schools (or at least dioceses) lagged well behind their state counterparts in their enthusiasm for academy conversion.  By the time Gove departed in 2014 he had converted over 5,000 schools but just 227 of them were Catholic.  By contrast, in the six years since then the rate of Catholic schools becoming academies has far exceeded that of the state sector.  By 2019, there were 645 Catholic academies comprising 31% of Catholic provision matching the proportion of schools that have academised nationally.  A closer look at the situation at diocesan level, however, shows a very mixed picture.

Birmingham with 237 schools is the largest diocese in the country.  In 2012, it formed its first MAC (MAT).  In 2016, it declared a diocesan-wide strategy to academise all its schools by January 2018.  It missed that deadline by a long way and set a new deadline of September 2020.  In the event it will have converted 52% of its schools by then.  Eight years after its first academy conversion and four years after announcing its diocesan-wide strategy, Birmingham is nowhere near achieving its objective. 

Westminster has 202 schools and in October 2016, it announced its approval of the creation of Catholic MATs.  To date there are 5 MATs comprising 29 schools with an expectation of a further 6 MATs in September 2020.

Only two dioceses have so far converted all their schools into academies, Plymouth and Nottingham.  The Plymouth experience is described below.  In Nottingham, Bishop McKinney, who succeeded Bishop McMahon, launched a diocesan-wide consultation on a comprehensive plan to academise all 84 of its schools in January 2017 and by September of that year the four proposed MATs were launched.

Looking across the nineteen dioceses of England in 2020 only three could be said to have a plan on academies that they have delivered.  Liverpool’s position is clear.  They do not believe in academies.  Plymouth in 2014 and Nottingham in 2017 have academised all their schools.  The remaining sixteen dioceses appear to be in a state of flux operating a mixed economy.  Many do not have a timescale by which they intend to academise their schools, others struggle to meet deadlines they have announced.  Taken as a whole it is a national picture of incoherence and confusion.      

A Cautionary Tale
In 2014, the Plymouth Diocese became the first in the country to convert all of its schools to academy status when the 36 schools became a single legal entity through the formation of CAST (Catholic Academies Schools Trust).  In October 2016, Ofsted carried out a simultaneous inspection of ten of the schools and judged three to be inadequate and another three to require improvement.  It was a devastating blow to the Plymouth Diocese and a salutary lesson to the Catholic sector nationally.  This was new and uncharted territory not just for the Church but for the DfE as well.  In the state sector the solution would be obvious.  A failing and dysfunctional trust would be broken up and the schools would be reallocated to other trusts in the region.  Given that the schools in question were Catholic and represented the entirety of the diocese’s provision that was not a viable option.  It was unthinkable that the state would remove Catholic schools from a diocesan bishop, a course of action that would be horrendous to the Church and most unwelcome to the government.  There was nothing for it but to address the issues and raise the standards in the schools.   

At a national Catholic academies conference held in Birmingham in December 2019, the Plymouth CAST CEO, Raymond Friel, outlined the long hard journey that the trust had been on.  Appointed in 2018, Raymond was remarkably frank about the issues he faced in turning round the fortunes of the trust.  He felt there were promising signs but was under no illusion there were many further challenges ahead.  Having stabilised the situation he left Plymouth CAST in July 2020 after two years with the thanks of the trust board.  The experience of Plymouth CAST clearly underlines the message that there are no simple solutions.  Whether schools are academies or not they are subject to rigorous public scrutiny and that will not change in the foreseeable future.

Summary
There are 2,122 Catholic schools in England and they are generally well regarded not just by the Catholic community but the general public as well.  On average two thirds of pupils are Catholic with the remaining third coming from other faiths and none.  Many of our schools are heavily oversubscribed and accounting for 10% of overall provision, it is clear that the Church continues to make a major contribution to the education of the young people of our country.

We can look back with pride to the restoration of the Hierarchy in 1850 and their decision to build schools before churches.  We can look back and celebrate the visionary leadership of Cardinal Griffin in establishing the dual system through the Butler Education Act of 1944.  But we must also look back at the past decade as the worst period for the Catholic education system since the Second World War.  The 2010 Academies Act has fractured the dual system beyond repair.  The successes of our Catholic schools today are achieved despite and not because of the leadership of the Church.  Our bishops need a level of advice and support they simply do not have at present.  This paper asks if the Catholic education system is fit for purpose.  In my view, it is clear that it is not.  The Bishops’ Conference, the Catholic Education Service and the nineteen dioceses have failed to provide the national leadership our schools need and deserve.  Only the most honest appraisal and radical action plan will address the scale of the problem.  In the accompanying paper I would like to share some ideas about what a very different Catholic education system might look like.

Jim Foley
August 2020
Email: j.foley1952@outlook.com           

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