About the Author(s)

Monique de Wit Email symbol
Division of Occupational Therapy, Department of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Stellenbosch University, Cape Town, South Africa

Sylnita Swartz-Filies symbol
Division of Occupational Therapy, Department of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Stellenbosch University, Cape Town, South Africa

Janke van der Walt symbol
Division of Occupational Therapy, Department of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Stellenbosch University, Cape Town, South Africa

Casey Clarke symbol
Division of Occupational Therapy, Department of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Stellenbosch University, Cape Town, South Africa

Liezl Worship symbol
Division of Occupational Therapy, Department of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Stellenbosch University, Cape Town, South Africa

Carli Smit symbol
Mosaic Community Developments, Walmer Links, South Africa

Darelle van Greunen symbol
Department of Information Technology, Centre for Community Technologies, Nelson Mandela University, Gqeberha, South Africa

Nicola Plastow symbol
Division of Occupational Therapy, Department of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Stellenbosch University, Cape Town, South Africa


De Wit, M., Swartz-Filies, S., Van der Walt, J., Clarke, C., Worship, L., Smit, C. et al., 2023, ‘School readiness in South Africa: Concept analysis and plain language summary’, South African Journal of Childhood Education 13(1), a1396. https://doi.org/10.4102/sajce.v13i1.1396

Review Article

School readiness in South Africa: Concept analysis and plain language summary

Monique de Wit, Sylnita Swartz-Filies, Janke van der Walt, Casey Clarke, Liezl Worship, Carli Smit, Darelle van Greunen, Nicola Plastow

Received: 21 June 2023; Accepted: 06 Sept. 2023; Published: 30 Oct. 2023

Copyright: © 2023. The Author(s). Licensee: AOSIS.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Background: The concept of school readiness is well-defined internationally. However, it is unclear how the concept is defined and used in South Africa or understood by preschool teachers.

Aim: The aim of this analysis was to develop a clear and accessible summary of the concept of school readiness in South Africa for preschool teachers.

Methods: An eight-step systematic approach, including the use of the preferred reporting items for systematic reviews and meta-analysis guidelines, was followed to identify research conducted in South Africa that defined school readiness, and to complete a concept analysis. A subsequent seven-step process was followed to create a Plain Language Summary (PLS) of the contextual definition of school readiness.

Results: Using ATLAS.ti software, we identified 619 quotations related to school readiness. Through inductive thematic analysis we identified 48 unique concept codes followed by eight categories or attributes of school readiness. The contextual definition of school readiness was developed in plain language and is stated as children who are fully prepared for school can engage in meaningful learning, because they have developed the necessary behavioural, intellectual, language, literacy, numeracy, physical, socio-emotional and classroom skills for formal schooling.

Conclusion: A South African school readiness definition, that is consistent with the way school readiness is understood internationally, was developed in plain language. Although the concept of school readiness is not unique to South Africa, the ways in which it is promoted is contextually bound.

Contribution: This PLS may contribute to sustainable and affordable access to culture-centred preschool teacher training content.

Keywords: school readiness; early childhood development; preschool; contextual relevance; South Africa.


School readiness is a pivotal point for a child’s learning trajectory and later success in life (Duncan et al. 2007; Heckman & Karapakula 2019; Ramey & Ramey 2004; UNICEF 2019). Benefits of school readiness include later school achievements, better economic, psychological and health outcomes, as well as multi-generational benefits (Belfield et al. 2006; Black et al. 2017; Heckman & Karapakula 2019; UNICEF 2019). The economic investment in school readiness also outweighs the cost implications of remedial input, grade repetition, teen pregnancy, drug use, high school drop-out and long-term unemployment (Campbell et al. 2002; Heckman & Karapakula 2019). Children growing up in poverty are at higher risk of not reaching milestones, such as school readiness (Sambu & Hall 2019). This is a particular concern in South Africa, where about 60% of children are growing up in poverty (Maluleke 2020), and up to 50% of children entering Grade 1, do not test ready for school (Janse Van Rensburg 2015). One of the main contributing factors is a lack of teacher training (Janse Van Rensburg 2015; Ramey & Ramey 2004).

One of the problems with school readiness in South Africa is the lack of consistency in the terms used to define and describe it and related concepts in government documents and research publications. While school readiness is multidimensional, only some dimensions are commonly referred to and included in published research, for example, cognitive development such as grasp of colours and shapes, or socio-emotional or behavioural readiness. These definitions do not represent the scope of school readiness within our context. This contrasts with the UNICEF definition that includes physical well-being, social and emotional competence and cognitive and communication abilities, overall curiosity and motivation to learn, often referred to as school readiness skills (UNICEF 2012). The UNICEF also includes getting the child, school, and family ready for school. However, in order to do this, there needs to be a common understanding of what school readiness is. This common understanding needs to extend to preschool teachers who may not have a formal qualification but are caring for children in early childhood development (ECD) centres.

The definition of school readiness often referenced in South African publications is from an American publication and is defined as a learner being physically, cognitively, affectively, normatively, socio-culturally and linguistically ready for their school career (Powell 2010). Similarly, Williams et al. (2019) define school readiness within the American context as readiness in the child that includes physical well-being and sensory motor development, social and emotional development, approaches to learning, language development and general knowledge and cognition. Each of these aspects of school readiness in turn includes skills such as early literacy and math skills. These authors concluded that certain qualities are essential for a child’s readiness for school, such as physical and nutritional well-being, intellectual skills, a child’s motivation to learn, as well as their social-emotional capacity and support. Although definitions of school readiness are available in the literature, these definitions may not be accessible to all preschool teachers and parents of young children. In a multi-lingual society like South Africa, a clear summary of the concept of school readiness and each of its components in easy to read and non-technical language would promote a common understanding of school readiness among all key stakeholders.

A systematic review on the relationship between teacher education and the quality of ECD concludes that higher teacher qualifications significantly correlate with higher quality early childhood education and care (Manning et al. 2017). The UNESCO also prioritised the training of early childhood educators in an effort to improve the quality of early childhood education and care, especially for vulnerable and disadvantaged children (Sun, Rao & Pearson 2015). An important component to this education is knowing what school readiness is, and how to develop it. Excell (2016), however, argues that such a framework lacks definitions that are contributed to and understood by stakeholders and thus, to define quality in ECD, research must include participatory methods which in turn must include all stakeholder groups.


In order to empower all South Africans who take care of young children and prepare them for school, there needs to be a common understanding of what school readiness is, explained in simple terms. A plain language summary (PLS) of a contextual definition of school readiness could assist in this process and was created by making use of a concept analysis method. A clear, eight-step iterative process to carefully examine a concept, as outlined by Walker and Avant (2011), was used to explore school readiness within a low-resource setting in South Africa to develop a PLS to present to stakeholders. These stakeholders include teachers and caretakers of young children in low-resource communities in South Africa, as well as experts in education and motor development, such as lecturers in education and occupational therapy. A PLS is typically used for stakeholders in consensus methods to make brief, jargon-free information available to a non-expert audience (Edgell & Rosenberg 2022; Kerwer et al. 2021; Löhr, Weinhardt & Sieber 2020).

Concept analysis traditionally follows an eight-step process, as outlined in the work of Walker and Avant (2011) presented in Table 1. However, to create a PLS of these concepts, a seven-step process as suggested by Dormer et al. (2022) is followed, as presented in Table 2. These two processes were followed sequentially to create the nontechnical literature review.

TABLE 1: Walker and Avant’s (2011) concept analysis process.
TABLE 2: Dormer et al. (2022) suggested steps for plain language summary.
Concept analysis
Selecting a concept

School readiness as it is currently used in South Africa was the preselected concept for this analysis. This term is sometimes replaced with readiness for school.

Determining the aim and purpose of the analysis

The aim of this analysis is to develop a clear and accessible summary of the concept of school readiness in South Africa for preschool teachers in low-resource settings. The purpose of this analysis is to define school readiness in nontechnical terms, within the South African context. Nontechnical terms can also be called PLS.

Identifying all forms of concept usage

The preferred reporting items for systematic reviews and meta-analysis (PRISMA) (Moher et al. 2016) process were followed to identify the dataset for the concept analysis. The following search terms were developed: ‘school readiness’ OR ‘readiness for school’ AND ‘South Africa*’ within any text of the article. The search was conducted in the EBSCOHOST database which included Academic Search Premier, Africa-Wide Information, CINAHL, ERIC and Teacher Reference Centre. A pilot search was conducted to determine the type and accuracy of the information yielded with this approach. The formal search was conducted on 08 November 2022 and yielded 236 results, which included peer-reviewed literature published in English. An additional publication was added through hand-searching of the literature. Covidence software (2023) was used to manage the selection process of the data set. The title and abstract screening were completed by the first reviewer, and the full text screen was completed by two reviewers. The inclusion criteria were developed through an iterative process and included both a focus on the definition or scope of school readiness and a link to the South African context or partner. After the title and abstract screen, 56 articles were selected for full text screening and 41 included for data extraction. We planned to resolve conflicts by reaching consensus between reviewers. However, there were no conflicts during the full text screening phase. Figure 1 represents the PRISMA process for the selection of the data set, and Table 3 represents a list of the articles included in the data set, along with data categories of title, journal of publication and year of publication as extracted from each article.

FIGURE 1: Selection of studies according to preferred reporting items for systematic reviews and meta-analysis.

TABLE 3: Articles included in data set.
Data analysis

All data extraction, analysis and coding were conducted using ATLAS.ti software (2022). The complete data set of 41 articles were uploaded to ATLAS.ti. Any definitions or text related to school readiness were extracted from these articles. The 619 quotations that were extracted were initially coded as school readiness in ATLAS.ti. The 619 quotations were then inductively analysed to identify 48 unique codes or concepts under school readiness. These were then grouped to form eight categories. A contextual school readiness definition was developed for each category, and for the concept of school readiness. Four articles contributed to all eight categories. No single category was represented across all 41 articles. Table 4 represents a snapshot of the analysis process for physical development as an attribute of school readiness.

TABLE 4: Snapshot of the analysis process for physical development as an attribute of school readiness.

To ensure validity in practice, a Microsoft Form was sent to six stakeholders and experts, who formed a reference panel for the validation of the concepts of school readiness within South Africa. These experts were invited because of their expertise in the field of school readiness and early childhood education. The responses were given after the definition of school readiness and related concepts were presented, along with the case descriptions in email format, to each of the experts. The feedback is presented in Table 5. Each panellist could assess their level of agreement with the included statements, by indicating their agreement with the statement using a 7-point scale. Agreeing to a very small extent would be represented by awarding 1 and agreeing to a very great extent by a 7. Three levels of agreements were clustered as follows: low agreement (indicated by scores of 1–3), non-aligned agreement (indicated by a score of 4) and a high level of agreement (indicated by a score of 4–7). Responses for each question were processed and a median response was calculated for each question.

TABLE 5: The ratings of agreement among the panel of experts.
Ethical considerations

Ethical clearance to conduct this study was obtained from the Stellenbosch University Health Research Ethics Committee (No. S22/08/151).

Review findings

The 41 articles included were published in a variety of South African, African and international journals. Eleven journals published one of the included articles each. Two articles each were published in the African Journal of Psychological Assessment, Early Childhood Education Journal, South African Journal of Education and Australasian Journal of Early Childhood. Three were published in Early Child Development and Care, and four articles in Child: Care, Health and Development. Five were published in the South African Journal of Occupational Therapy and 10 in the South African Journal of Childhood Education. The included articles were published between 1994 and 2022, with more than 50% (n = 21) published in the last 4 years (2019–2022).

The cumulative definition of school readiness in South Africa, drawn from these articles, is a multidimensional concept that includes readiness considerations in behavioural, intellectual, language, literacy, numeracy, physical, socio-emotional and classroom domains.

Behavioural readiness refers to a child’s ability to adapt easily and effectively to the classroom environment without emotional disturbance. A child is expected to be able to manage their own behaviour through inhibitory control, self-regulation and normative adjustment.

Intellectual readiness is described as a child’s preparation for the classroom setting through previous cognitive and intellectual stimulation, including the development of sufficient general knowledge to engage in the classroom environment. This includes the cognitive skills of attention, concentration, following instructions, reasoning and problem-solving and memory skills.

Language readiness refers to the communication and language skills needed for engaging in classroom activities. Included in this is sufficient vocabulary, receptive and expressive language, phonemic awareness and listening and speaking skills.

Literacy readiness includes a sufficient understanding of concepts needed for learning to read and write. Emergent literacy skills such as interest in reading, alphabet knowledge, reading some words and stories and spelling are included. Furthermore, visual perceptual skills such as spatial orientation, foreground, background and organisation of visual information are also essential for literacy readiness.

Numeracy readiness includes knowledge of basic concepts (such as colours, shapes, sequencing and comparisons) numerical understanding, counting and number identification and number line estimation.

Physical readiness comprises the physical and motor development needed to meet the demands of formal education. This development includes motor skills (e.g. gross motor, fine motor), sensory-motor skills, perceptual-motor skills and all writing skills.

Socio-emotional readiness for school readiness means that a child is not only emotionally, socially and culturally ready for school, but also includes socio-cultural and social emotional readiness for the demands of formal schooling.

A child who is classroom ready can meet the challenges of the classroom setting through independence, managing their own activities of daily living, and they have mastered classroom skills and play. They are also classroom ready in terms of their spiritual education and mental well-being.

Identifying a model case

The use of a descriptive model case helps to better understand the concept and contains all the defining attributes of the concept as identified through the analysis (Walker & Avant 2011), which also supports the integrity of the analysis through the illustration of the use of the concept and its attributes.

It is clear that Lihle has all the attributes of a school ready child and that she is ready to face the classroom challenges with eagerness (Box 1).

BOX 1: A model case as represented by Lihle’s case study.
Identifying additional cases

Walker and Avant (2011) propose the description of different cases, such as a borderline case where, for example, a child does not have all the defining attributes of school readiness as well as a contrary case where a child does not have any of the defining attributes of a school ready child.

Although Samuel is a child with much potential and shows readiness for learning in the areas of intellectual, language, literacy, numeracy and physical readiness, it does seemlike his behavioural development, socio-emotional development and classroom readiness have not matured to the required level where he is ready to enter the formal school setting (Box 2).

BOX 2: A borderline case as represented by Samuel’s case study.

Hannah has known developmental delays in the areas of behavioural, intellectual, language, literacy, numeracy, physical and socio-emotional development and classroom readiness (Box 3).

BOX 3: A contrary case as represented by Hannah’s case study.

One of the experts contributing to the development of the case studies warned that identifying borderline cases is very challenging, especially within the South African context. Munnik and Smith (2019a) identified barriers that affect school readiness in South Africa; however, learners are still promoted to Grade 1, regardless of whether they are ready for the formal school environment and for formal learning. Therefore, we included an additional borderline case study as discussed further in the text (Box 4).

BOX 4: An additional borderline case as represented by Mbali’s case study.

Bruwer et al. (2014) argue that there are life-long effects of insufficient language development on formal learning, yet many learners are still placed in formal school situations, where they do not have a sufficient command of the language of instruction.

Identifying antecedents and consequences

Walker and Avant (2011) included both antecedents and consequences as important parts of the concept analysis methodology. Antecedents for school readiness can be described as everything that needs to happen in the first few years of a child’s life leading up to formal schooling and consequences would be the outcomes of either being or not being ready for school at the age of school entry.

Both the Abecedarian project (Campbell et al. 2002; Ramey & Ramey 2004) and the Perry Preschool Programme (Belfield et al. 2006; Heckman & Karapakula 2019) are two longitudinal studies that provided quality preschool interventions for at risk pre-schoolers growing up in poverty. These two programmes highlight the short-term and long-term consequences of school readiness. Both of these studies controlled for other variables, for example, providing nutritional support to both the experimental and control groups. The outcomes of both of these interventions at preschool level were higher rates of school readiness compared to the control group.

In return, participants who tested ready for school when starting their formal education had, on average, significantly higher cognitive test scores as young adults, scored higher when tested for reading and mathematical skills, they completed more years of education and were more likely to attend a college. These participants also had a lower likelihood for grade repetition, dropping out of school and had lower rates of teen pregnancy and drug use. Multi-generational benefits were also noted with long-term follow-up, with no further interventions to the treatment group or their children. These included their own children testing ready for school when entering Grade 1. According to Atmore (2019), South African ECD policymakers also claim that interventions can prepare children for formal schooling and enable them as adults to become active participants in the economy. Beyond this, it can reduce poverty and serve as a mitigation strategy for a variety of social problems.

Results of the validation of the South African school readiness attributes

A Microsoft Form was sent to six stakeholders and experts in the field of school readiness and early childhood education. The questions included in this form can be found in Table 5. One panel member has less than 5 years’ experience in the field of early childhood education, two have between 5 and 10 years’ experience and three members have more than 10 years of experience in the field of early childhood education. All six of the panel members completed the MS Form. The results (Table 5) show high agreement for the relevance of the new contextual definition of school readiness for research, for practice and for clients. The results also confirm high agreement with the fact that the definition has given them a better understanding of the concepts of contextual school readiness. The panel members were in high agreement that the model cases were meaningful and that they described and clarified children’s school readiness attributes. The panel members were also in high agreement that this conceptual school readiness definition can be used within the South African context. The results of the validation process confirmed the definition and description of the attributes of school readiness within the South African context and no changes were made.

Plain language summary
Step 1: Rationale and scope

Dormer et al. (2022) emphasised the importance of including the purpose of creating a PLS. For this concept analysis and PLS of school readiness, the needs of the intended audience were considered in terms of their available infrastructure and resource needs and how this PLS would be disseminated to the target community. Thus, the purpose of a PLS of a contextual definition of school readiness is to provide accessible school readiness knowledge to ECD practitioners, within low-resource communities in the Western Cape. The format of this information should be similar to how the intended audience typically access knowledge, such as through social media, community newspapers and radio.

Step 2: Identify your target audience

The White Paper 5 (Department of Education 2001) defines an ECD practitioner as anyone whose roles and responsibilities include teaching or providing care to young children, with or without formal training for such services. The term ‘ECD practitioner’ is thus an inclusive one for caregiver, teaching assistant and preschool teacher. However, the target audience for this school readiness definition has been pre-defined as ECD practitioners or Grade R teachers without a formal teaching qualification.

Step 3: Consider dissemination channels

It is very important to consider both print and online channels for the dissemination of information. Therefore, two publications were chosen for their publication of content both on websites and physical copies of the information in the form of a community newspaper and a magazine.

Step 4: Identify key-stakeholders for co-creation – Create a plain language summary team

Two stakeholders created the first draft of the PLS, an occupational therapist and a speech language therapist, both with extensive knowledge on the topic of school readiness, as well as experience in the field of ECD. The following stakeholders had an opportunity to review the PLS and give feedback on the second and third (final) drafts of the PLS: five occupational therapists with expertise in research in the development of motor skills for school readiness, as well as with community research projects and carer training and one ECD lecturer.

Step 5: Write the plain language summary

School readiness means a child has developed most of the foundational skills, knowledge and abilities that they need to easily and successfully transition into formal schooling (Box 5). School readiness supports future progress in school and life. A PLS for the South African school readiness definition is presented in Table 5.

BOX 5: A plain language summary of the South African school readiness definition.
Step 6: Disseminate information

An informational article on school readiness, containing the PLS of the definition of school readiness developed through this concept analysis, will be written and published in a local community newspaper with a circulation of 20 000 print copies as well as a regional child magazine with a print circulation of 40 000 copies.

Step 7: Track dissemination and measure success

An email address is provided for any questions or suggestions to the authors of the informational article containing the PLS. Dissemination and impact will also be monitored through future communication via email, as well as citation tracking and downloads of this peer-reviewed publication.

Implications and recommendations

School readiness has been established as an important milestone in any child’s life, as it determines the path to later success in life (Duncan et al. 2007; Heckman & Karapakula 2019; Ramey & Ramey 2004; UNICEF 2019). An increase in available research addressing school readiness and the contextual factors affecting school readiness promotion, within the last 4 years, highlights not only the importance of this milestone, but also the urgency in improving school readiness rates within our context (Janse Van Rensburg 2015).

Although the context of high-income countries and low- and middle-income countries may be vastly different, and the road to school readiness may differ significantly as well, the concept of what school readiness entails is very similar in scope and qualities. In this concept analysis, the definition of school readiness that was developed was broad, and included eight different areas of competence or attributes that children need to attain before they start school. Some of these areas of competence are similar to the way in which school readiness is defined more broadly. However, we also found that only four articles included all eight attributes in some form within their definition. This suggests that most publications focus on only a few contributing attributes and presents a limited scope of contextual school readiness within the South African context.

There were no unique features of the definition of school readiness within the South African context. This is surprising because of the unique context of South Africa, but also confirms that there are qualities that are essential for a child’s readiness for school just as Williams et al. (2019) suggest. These findings were significant because the attributes of school readiness do not seem to be context-bound. However, this does not suggest that the promotion of school readiness within a specific context is not context-bound. It is recommended that the definition of school readiness developed through this concept analysis will be used in future publications as the standard, contextual definition of school readiness in South Africa.

The new understanding of school readiness that has emerged from this article is important because a stable, non-contextually bound set of attributes included in a child’s readiness for school now shifts the problem of low school readiness rates in South Africa, to the process of promoting school readiness and thus the lack of quality in preschool education in South Africa. The National Integrated ECD Policy (Republic of South Africa 2015) has a goal to provide comprehensive quality, age and developmental stage appropriate opportunities for learning by 2030. This must be accessible for all children from birth until formal school starts and will form the foundation for socio-emotional, physical, intellectual and language development through play and other related, recognised methods for early learning. Their fourth objective is to ensure all caregivers, teachers and ECD practitioners have the required knowledge and skills to provide quality services to children. Manning et al. (2017) established the link between the quality of teacher education and the quality of ECD education and care. This is also confirmed by Ramey and Ramey (2004), and echoed by most of the articles identified for this concept analysis. Teachers’ and caregivers’ sustainable and affordable access to culture-centred teacher training content must continue to be a research priority.

Another key outcome of this research was the development of a PLS to open opportunities to collaborate with teachers to identify which components of school readiness they are already working on and increase awareness of those that are frequently neglected. The PLS also opens opportunities to collaboratively develop strategies to improve school readiness in specific schools or areas using a culture-centred education approach. This would entail developing culture-centred teacher training content for each concept within school readiness within South Africa. It also requires a careful approach to the dissemination of information to a wide audience, through magazines, newspaper articles, YouTube content, mobile applications and government publications.

A systematic approach to the concept analysis of school readiness within the South African context as well as the development of the PLS of the new definition was taken. Stakeholders were included and they contributed to the development of the case studies, as well as the PLS definition. Limitations included the fact that the coding of all quotations, concepts and groupings was done by only one researcher, although experts in the method of concept analysis were consulted during each phase of the analysis.


The aim of the study was to investigate the concept of school readiness within the South African context, as well as to develop a PLS for dissemination to stakeholders. The process resulted in a new definition of school readiness in South Africa that included the following concepts: behavioural, intellectual, language, literacy, numeracy, physical, socio-emotional and classroom readiness. This new definition was used to develop a PLS that will be used in future research studies within South Africa, as well as be disseminated through various sustainable channels to promote teachers’ access to knowledge and ultimately improve the quality of ECD in South Africa. Future research can strengthen and further refine this PLS of school readiness in the South African context by testing and validating the PLS of school readiness with the intended end-users and within the intended context.


Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no financial or personal relationships that may have inappropriately influenced them in writing this article.

Authors’ contributions

M.D.W. is the primary author contributing to all stages of the research and the writing and editing of the manuscript. S.S.F. also contributed as the primary author for writing and editing of the manuscript, as well as the validation of the data. J.V.D.W., C.C, L.W. and C.S contributed to the validation of the data, as well as the editing of the manuscript. D.V.G. contributed as the supervisor to the editing of the manuscript and N.A.P. contributed as the supervisor to the conceptualisation, methodology, validation and editing of the manuscript.

Funding information

This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author, M.D.W., upon reasonable request.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any affiliated agency of the authors.


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