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So recently I decided to do a review of the top education systems around the world. However, as soon as I began my research, I realized that this is no easy feat. For starters, it is challenging to even evaluate from an objective metric what are the best education systems. There are countless rankings and reviews of education systems that already exist, which are broken down by multiple factors. However, once I began to dive into these rankings, I quickly realized that most of them were entirely subjective. Many rankings based their rankings not on the results of the education systems, but rather on the pedagogies and factors that build the education systems. I wanted to look at the results of education systems first and then see what types of pedagogies and factors went into the making of these education systems. Eventually, I came across the OECD, PISA rankings, which provided me with exactly what I was looking for.

The OECD stands for the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. The OECD works with international governments to promote evidence-based public policy. However, the OECD also happens to collect standardized test scores in language, math, and science and rank participating countries by these scores. This metric gave me exactly what I was looking for an independently verified metric that was purely based on achievement. Now, this is not to say an education system is only as good as its standardized test results; however, I wanted to explore the causality of achievement, not make subjective judgments about national education systems.

When I first came across these rankings, I wanted to base my analysis, on the most recent PISA scores. However, when I looked at how the PISA scores changed over the last ten years, I realized that there was a strange anomaly with the most recent results. For some reason, the OECD has removed several of the highest performing Asian countries from the results, most significantly China, which had been the number one ranked country on multiple years of testing. I attempted to find the reason for this; however, could not locate any reporting on the topic. Because of this I decided to base my research on the 2018 results. This being said, there could have been a perfectly valid reason for removing these countries; however, I didn’t want to base my research on test results that excluded some of the highest performing countries. 

Once I had my rankings, the next challenge that I had was deciding what I could objectively say about an education system that I had never worked in, based on only research. I wanted to look for correlations with the actual structure of education systems and their results. However, the scale of what I was looking at was intensely macro and it became very quickly apparent to me that it would be hard to make any overarching judgments. Education systems might push certain pedagogical and philosophical beliefs, but that does not mean individual teachers follow those beliefs. Every education system is made up of thousands of schools, and tens of thousands, to the hundreds of thousands of individual educators.

 On top of this, the information I could find about international education systems was often sparse and focused on the institutional layouts, which was not wholly interesting to me. Ultimately I have tried to look for the most unique aspects of each of these education systems and also tried to get a broad, generalized understanding of some of the philosophical drivers behind these education systems. 

To make things even more difficult, I quickly realized that there was a very racialized bias in how most authors tackled this topic. While the majority of the top-performing education systems were Asian, most authors tended to describe Asian education systems through pejorative and negative lenses, while simultaneously describing most European education systems as enlightened and advanced. Now, part of this bias likely stems from the fact that I was doing my research in English,  but part of this bias likely also stems from a major philosophical divide between European and Asian education systems. 

While most of the top-performing Asian education systems tended to be very product-focused and more teacher-driven, European education systems tended to be very process-focused and less teacher-driven (see below graphics, to gain further clarification on these concepts). In many ways, the debate between Eastern and Western education philosophy is indicative of a larger debate, between modern and postmodern educational philosophies. This all being said, I did not want to make judgments on countries for the pedagogical philosophies, I wanted to look for the positives in each education system and see what lessons could be learned from these success stories. However, I also did not want to fully ignore the holistic result of these pedagogical differences and tried to include some reflection on these differences as I completed my analysis.

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One factor I was particularly interested in was the economic drivers of educational achievement. I wanted to know how much money these success stories were investing in their education systems as it reflected in some ways how much these societies valued education. Additionally, this research also allowed me to explore how much of a correlation there was between money spent on education vs education results. Finally I also wanted to know how economically efficient these education systems were because, in order for an effective educational factor to be easily reproducible, it also needs to be economically viable. It would be easy for example to increase learning achievements, simply by cutting class sizes in half, but that is also likely the most expensive education intervention. By looking at how economically efficient an educational model was I was hoping to demonstrate how easy or challenging it would be to reproduce those results in other countries.

In order to describe the economic efficiency of these education systems, I was hoping to use a simplified metric that would allow my reader/listener an easy way of understanding each country’s overall economic efficiency in education spending. To the best of my knowledge, no such metric already existed, so I had to create one. I decided to divide the countries average spending per student (rounded to the nearest ten thousand marker), by their averaged out OECD score. The average OECD country spent 9000 US dollars per year, per student. And the median OECD average score was 498. This resulted in an average efficiency number of 18. The higher the efficiency number, the less efficient the education system was, and inversely the lower the efficiency number, the more efficient the education system was.

This all being said, before you read my results. I want to give the disclaimer that almost all of the information presented here is from secondary source material and therefore, may be subject to errors. I apologize to any reader that might potentially find an error regarding their nation’s education system. 

Disclaimers out of the way, here are the thirteen best education systems in the world, organized by a few different metrics. 


According to the OECD PISA score averages:

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According to all of its PISA scores:


As you can see from the second chart, while the ranking changes slightly between subjects, the scores are overall quite similar between subjects, in each country. This in itself suggests two things that are very interesting. Firstly it suggests that literacy scores and general academic achievement scores are extremely correlated. Secondly it challenges the modern understanding of multiple intelligence and learning styles as laid out by Howard Gardner.


According to the Percentage of their GDP Spent on Education: 

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While ranking countries by the percentage of GDP spent on education is useful in that it establishes how much individual nations value education, to a cost amount, it is not necessarily reflective of the actual dollar amounts spent per student. That’s why I also created another chart ranking each country according to their actual dollar amount spent per student.


According to the Average USD Spent Per Student, Rounded to the Average 1000. 

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After making this chart, several things drew my attention. Firstly, this chart made it abundantly clear that ranking countries by percentage of GDP spent on education, was almost useless, as it did not really give a clear picture how much each country spent in terms of real dollars. The varying strengths of each economy made the percentage of GDP a very unreliable metric, when measuring how much money is spent on education. Secondly, I noticed that while there seemed to be much less correlation between money spent, and results than I would have expected. Because of this I actually made a scatter plot below, to see if a scatter plot would make any trends more visibly obvious. The blue dots are based on PISA scores, whereas the red dots are based on money spent. If there was a clear trend the countries with the highest red dots, would also have the highest blue dots. However, no such trend was immediately visible to me. That being said, I am sure a statistician could come up with a formula, to better test this hypothesis. Lastly, the UK is very clearly, a massive outlier in this discussion, to the point of which, I considered removing them from these charts.


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The red dots represent spending, per student in the tens of thousands and the Blue dots represent OECD results. If Spending were a direct correlate of results, the higher the red dot, the higher the blue dot would be.
While this graph suggests that there is no direct correlation between money spent and education results, these results are likely extremely biased by the fact that we are only looking at the top thirteen countries. It might be better to suggest that the lowest spending countries on this list are examples of the minimum amount of money that should be spent on education, for high results.


The lower the efficiency score, the more economically efficient the education system is.

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This metric was found by dividing the number of average USD spent per student divided by the averaged out OECD scores of each country. If we look at the rest of the OECD countries as a whole, an average efficiency is 18. This means that on average all countries in the top twelve were spending more than their other OECD counterparts, per their results. Japan was the only country that spent less per their results than the OECD average. In some ways this chart might give a better indication to the correlation between dollars spent and educational results than the charts that attempted to look at this correlation more directly.

Lastly, I wanted to look for some kind of objective measure to examine how stressful each country's education system was, as many of the highest performing education systems, were criticized for being too stressful. So as morbid as it sounds, I decided to look up the youth suicide rate for each country:


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11: The UK

The UK is interesting in that it is the most tilted towards a product focused education model of any euro-centric education system in the top thirteen countries. The UK starts regular instruction of most common subjects in kindergarten. Moreover, unlike most other euro-centric education systems, the UK starts with the direct instruction of basic academics like phonics, in Kindergarten. At the end of each academic division (including kindergarten), students must take a national exit exam, in order to be evaluated and placed. This being said, the UK does stress an inquiry based learning approach for math instruction, during elementary years, which is definitely a process focused approach. At the end of secondary schooling UK students must take GCSE exams or other national qualifications to graduate. However, students are also allowed to take these qualifications early, at the end of their junior secondary education.

Having personally taught in the UK, I can say that there is a very intense focus on teacher accountability within the UK education system. Schools and teachers are regularly graded, based off of teacher performance, which in my experiences both motivates teachers to work long and intense hours, but also leaves teachers feeling extremely stressed. I have worked in Korea, Canada and the UK. While working in the UK, I routinely worked over 60 hours a week, whereas when I was working in Korea and Canada, I typically only worked for 40 hours a week. 

10: Ireland

Ireland’s education appeared very standard to me. Their dropout rate is 16. Secondary schooling goes to the twelfth grade and academic streaming starts in secondary school, with a vocational, applied and academic stream. One point of interest is that they do allow students to take their national exit exams either at the end of junior or senior secondary education, similarly to the UK. While most schooling systems have very little results that are truly counted for students, until the end of secondary schooling, Ireland essentially has schooling that starts to count in grade 10. This setup of student expectations is similar to Canada, the UK, and Norway, which are also high ranked OECD education systems. 

Ireland similar to Canada also has a systematic legal framework setup for special education, guaranteeing that support is put in place for all identified students. Ireland has also placed a strong emphasis on equity within their education system spending 430 million euros in 2003 on the establishment of programs aimed to help students affected by poverty.

9: Poland 

Over the past twenty years Poland has been attempting to make comprehensive changes to improve their education system. They have standardized expectations with national exams, but transferred instructional authority to local governments. They created a curriculum that seeks to help the holistic well being of the child by including cognitive and socio-emotional skills. They have invested resources in giving teachers further pedagogical training and given teachers more individual authority over their own classrooms and instructional resources. However, their largest change has been the creation of a lower secondary program, which extended the general curriculum from the elementary years and delayed the period of time, in which students are streamed by their academic levels.

Interestingly, similar to many other top performing OECD countries, Poland does seem to have a high cultural value of education. Indeed, Terry Ryan of the Fordham Institute, wrote an article on this specific topic, back in 2013. 

Unfortunately Poland has been criticized for having too little equity in its results, as its PISA scores are not evenly divided among its different economic brackets, unlike Macau and Estonia.

8: Finland 

Finland was once the only western national to make it to the top five education systems. However, their PISA scores have slipped in comparison to other countries over the past ten years. Finland is also an example of one of the furthest left wing education systems according to the product vs process spectrum and the teacher driven spectrum. While Finland offers very interesting and comprehensive education services to its students, Finland is also more economically efficient than Canada, Singapore, or the UK, and as equally economically efficient as Korea. I point this out, only to prove that Finland's educational success, cannot be directly linked to financial input.

Finland gives the least amount of homework of any country in the world, they have no standardized tests as a part of their regular schooling system. They have no stress on teacher accountability and do not have any kind of rigorous grading systems for their teachers. Student’s don’t start in school until they are age 7 and only go to school for 5 hours a day.

In short, Finland’s school day is short, there is minimal stress, and there is minimal accountability for teachers. However, this might not actually be the reason they are so successful. In our pyramid of scientific principles of teaching, we list quality time under instruction as the most important factor. While the time under instruction in Finland is lower, there are multiple factors that might make the quality higher. For starters as a driving educational philosophy they strive for equity over excellence. By doing this they might be stressing higher emphasis on helping their under performing students, rather than their already high performing students. They also place a high emphasis on cooperation over competition, which according to Hattie is a moderate yield strategy with an ES of .55. 

Perhaps most interesting, Finish students have the same teacher for the first 6 years of their education, which might provide more continuity for students. Every classroom, also has 1 educator for every 7 students in the class, meaning they likely have one of the highest staff to student ratios of any education system in the world. Frankly, I am a little shocked at the fact that they are able to provide this level of support to students at such a low cost. Perhaps this indicates how much money in education systems actually gets spent on the bureaucracies that maintain them, rather than actually educating students.

Finland’s teachers are also more educated than almost any other education system in the world. In order to be a teacher in Finland, teachers must have a master’s degree. Additionally, if a teacher wants to teach special education, they need another additional year of education.

This all being said, one confounding factor in evaluating Finland’s education system, is its extremely low poverty rate and strong social programming. While the Finland education system is obviously strong, its success could potentially be slightly inflated by more students having stable home lives.

One tangential note of interest in regards to Finland's education system, is the fact they also offer three years of postgraduate study in individual trades, as an alternative for university, making it one of the best countries in the world for vocational education. 

8: Taiwan

Taiwan’s education system is directly aimed towards helping students perform better on standardized tests. In other words they are a product based teaching model. However, It offers an exam free stream in secondary school focused on the arts, for students less interested in academics. Students in Taiwan similar to many other asian countries often study at a private school, after the  regular public school day is finished, often spending up to ten hours a day studying. Schools in Taiwan have also been reported to have access to technology that would be considered less typical in western schools, with science classrooms equipped with 3D printers, laser cutters, and other top of the line equipment. Lastly the Taiwan education system is often described as having high expectations and high stress. 

8: Canada

Canada is likely the only country I feel entitled to discuss with any real authority, on this list as they are my personal country of residence. That being said, opposed to New Zealand, or the UK, Canada has a provincialized education system, which means education looks radically different, depending on where you live in Canada. Canada is also one of the least economically efficient countries in terms of its education spending, which means, its successes would be likely hard to replicate in other countries. 

Similar to many countries on this list, Canada has three academic streams in secondary school: University bound, college bound, and vocational. However unlike Belgium, students cannot switch back and forth between these streams, without starting their secondary education over from scratch. However, Canada’s educational streams are much less organized and formalized than Australias. 

Interestingly Quebec, which is a province of Canada, uses the same system as Norway, for dividing secondary school into two parts. In the Quebec secondary school model, students start lower secondary school in grade 7 and continue till grade 11, then if they want to go to post secondary education, students must take two more years at an upper secondary school. This being said, Ontario which is right next to Quebec, does not have these additional years of secondary school and yet, overall has significantly higher education results. 

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Canada’ education system is it’s litigious special education system. Most of its provinces have large amounts of special education legislation, designating students with identified special needs as protected classes, with specific educational rights. Indeed, Ontario alone has several hundred pages of legislation pertaining to special education. This special education system gives parents significant strength as advocates for their children and ensures that students identified with special needs are given significant support.

Overall, having taught in Canada for six years, I can say with some degree of confidence that Canada’s education systems have a strong bias towards process driven pedagogies. 

7: Korea

Korea has an education that is very similar to Japan. It is both economically efficient, and has high educational results. Similar to Japan, Korean parents also spend a large amount of personal money, sending their students to private tutors and after school programs, in addition to sending their students to public school during the day. In fact many parents spend as much as 25% of their personal income on their children’s education. Interestingly, Korea does not hold students back for failing grades. However, its universities are highly competitive and sought after, meaning that students need high grades to go to university. Having personally taught in Korea, I can say that it is very clear Koreans place a high cultural value on education and that it is a product driven education system.

6: Japan 

Japan has one of the most economically efficient models of education in the world. It has the highest efficiency score, within the top thirteen OECD countries. However, some of this economic efficiency might stem from the fact that Japanese parents often spend large amounts of their income on tutoring and after school, private schools. Indeed, this is a practice that is popular in many Asian nations, where students often attend a second school, which parents privately pay for, after their child is finished, for the day at their public school. However, this is not to say that Japan has no socialialized practices within their education system. In fact, Japan is one of the only countries on this list to provide all of their students with a free lunch. Not only do Japanese schools provide their students free lunches, these lunches are prepared by a professional nutritionist to be healthy. By providing free lunch to their students, Japan ensures that their students are not hungry and ready to learn.

Interestingly, Japan like the UK has a very high stress secondary school system. Student’s acceptance is based entirely on one final exam at the end of secondary school. This system has received a lot of criticism, for being too stressful for students; however, some of this criticism might be based in Western bias. 

5: Estonia

Finland was once the only euro-centric nation to exist within the top five countries within the OECD PISA rankings. However, recently Finland’s performance has dropped and Estonia has taken their place. Estonia does have several unique components to their education system. For starters, kindergarten in Estonia starts at age 3. Similar to Canada and Norway, Estonia begins primary education with a play-based model and slowly transitions to a more traditional educational model. There are no tests in kindergarten, instead students are graded qualitatively on their readiness for regular schooling. 

Most interestingly, in Estonia there is only 1 stream in secondary school and students are not divided accorded to academic ability. While many teachers would balk at this idea, many proponents of the Estonian education model, would claim that this is a strength of their education system. Similar to Norwegian teachers, Estonian teachers are generally trusted to manage that curriculum independently. Estonia also prides itself on having education results that are not linked to economic demographics, similar to Macau. Lastly Estonia has a formalized online learning system, in which most homework is done online and graded online. Despite being the highest performing euro-centric education system, Estonia, has a fairly average efficiency of 22, making it far more economically efficient than Canada.

4: Hong Kong

Hong Kong has a very opposite model of education to Finland. It has a high focus on homework, it is notoriously stressful. There is a heavy focus on repetition, textbooks and exams. However interestingly, school in Hong Kong is only half a day long. Students are expected to do at least half of all studying at home, outside of school. Considering Hong Kong’s extremely high educational results, it could suggest that a model of education, where students are provided direct instruction at school and are expected to practice at home, is a more than viable model of education. Hong Kong, also similar to many other countries on this list places a high value on equity. Education funding in Hong Kong works opposite to the No Child Left Behind Policy in the USA, in that schools get more funding, if their results are lower. This funding policy means Hong Kong’s funding is need based, not result based. Hong Kong has a very high drop out rate of 19 and expects students to complete six years of secondary education. One final note about Hong Kong, is that they disproportionately fund secondary schools more than elementary schools. While this is completely normal for all education systems on this list, the margin by which Hong Kong did this, was significantly higher. 

3: Macau

Macau, similar to many countries' top performers in the OECD, has 6 years of secondary school divided into junior and senior divisions. This system provides Macau students with 1 additional year of secondary education, more than most other countries in the world. Students In Macau who would like to go onto university, must pass exams, based off of China’s secondary school exams. According to the OECD, Macau provides the most equitable results in terms of how its education results are distributed across economic demographics. Macau does not have it’s own centralized education system, and participants must choose to attend a school that is either based off of the British, Portuguese, or Chinese school system. Please see the section on the British and Chinese education systems, for more information about Macau. One final and tertiary comment on the Macau education system, is that they have been criticized for providing minimal vocational training. 

2: Singapore

In many ways Singapore, similar to many other Asian nations, presents a model of education, which is opposite to the Finnish model. In Singapore 70% of parents sign their students up for additional private schooling on top of their public school education. They have significantly shorter vacation periods than most other education systems. The curriculum is highly scripted and based around exams. There is a heavy focus on memorizing, direct instruction, repetition, and homework. Math teachers focus on a procedural view of math. There is little emphasis placed on meta-cognition strategies or conceptual understandings of math. In many ways Singapore is the perfect example of an education system on the far right of the teacher driven, product orientated perspective. 

This being said there is also clearly a large cultural focus on the importance of education in Singapore. They have one of the most expensive education systems in the world and yet parents still pay their public schools a small tuition fee and then send their students for additional private schooling after their regular school day is over. Both parents and the government are spending large amounts of capital, on the education of Singapore’s youth, suggesting a high cultural value of education.

1. China

The fact that China was number 1 in the world in terms of educational results surprised me, as I have never before seen any rankings aside from the OECD ones, list China as even in the top ten. However, China’s results do speak for themselves. China’s educational results are by far the highest in the world and their lack of international recognition for that success, is likely a reflection of western bias.

Personally I found the high cultural value that China places on education the most interesting thing about their education system. China actually calls education the “true religion of the people” and has a strong cultural value of education dating all the way back to Confucius. Chinese students also spend much more time in school than in most other countries. Students go to school from 7:30 am to 4:00 PM. Students also typically go to a private school, after their regular public school day is finished. When students get home from school they usually do homework until it is time to go to bed. Chinese students essentially spend the majority of their time studying. In terms of educational philosophy, the Chinese system appears to place a strong emphasis on achievement. Personally I think it would be fair to say they are to the right of the process vs product spectrum of teaching philosophy. 

Take Home Points: 

Ultimately, it is really hard to look at any of this information and find any definitive trends for how to improve educational results. All of this information is very broad, generalized, and unspecific. However, I do have a couple of hypotheses, and generalized extrapolations that I would like to make based off of this research.

1. Generally speaking the more product focused an education system was, the more likely they were to appear towards the top of the OECD rankings. The only education system that was a significant exception to this was, Finland. However, Finland also provided the highest staff to student ratio of any country on this list, by a very significant margin. Even more importantly, Finland’s position within the top 3 has since dropped to rank 8, tied with Canada, and Taiwan. That being said, I do think there is clearly an important trade off between product focused and process focused education systems. Generally speaking, I think it is fair to say that the more process focused an education system is, the less stressful the education system is for the students. Moreover, the more product focused an educational system is, the higher the educational results are. This being said, I think there is likely a balance that absolutely must be struck in an ideal education system, between being product based vs process based and consequently between, stress and achievement. 

However, I also think it is important to note that some of this philosophical debate is divided across racial lines, in that western nations tend to be more process focused and Asian nations tend to be more product focused. Moreover, some of the claims that Asian education systems are too high stress, is likely based in racial bias. 

Tangential to this topic, is the overall western interpretation of the overall value of process based education in regards to educational achievement. Many modern education scholars have tried to push the narrative that process based pedagogies are superior for educational achievement. However, the trends in this list clearly do not support this hypothesis. While this list is by no means extensive, or in depth enough to disprove any individual hypothesis, this trend is also in line with large-scale quantitative research on the topic, such as John Hattie’s. Again this is not to say that process based pedagogies do not have a place in education, but rather claims that process based pedagogies, in general, increase educational achievement, should be greeted with some degree of skepticism, by western educators. 

2. Many of the education systems on this list placed a higher emphasis on equity. Hong Kong used needs based funding, Canada had an extremely sophisticated special education system, multiple countries did not allow for private schooling, multiple countries provided free day-care. Almost every country that made this list had some kind of educational policy that promoted greater equity, which leads me to hypothesize that greater educational equity leads to greater educational results. 

 3. The criticism of stress levels in product focused schools might be exaggerated. While the countries with the highest youth suicide rates were product based not process based, the countries with the lowest youth suicide rates were also product based. Which suggests to me, that whether or not an educational system itself is product based, might not be the only determining factor of whether or not an educational system is stressful. Other factors such as bullying, poverty, and overall economic opportunity, could be bigger drivers. That being said, if we average out the youth suicide rate of all the product based countries, we get 139.3 per 100 000. Whereas if we average out the youth suicide rate of all the process based countries we get 51 per 100 000. Now that being said, Canada, China, and Japan were major outliers. If we remove the outliers we get 13.3  per 100 000 for product based countries and  6.8 per 100 000 for process based countries. While this is not to say that product based education systems are not more stressful, in fact I would argue that they are, in fact if we look at this data as a whole, there is a clear trend in which product based education systems, are correlated with higher youth suicide rates. That being said I do think some of the criticism of product based education systems is over exaggerated, because of racial bias.

4.. Most high performing education systems involved students spending more time in school. Whether it was additional years of primary schooling, secondary school, after school tutoring, or additional homework. The vast majority of countries on this list were increasing the time which their students spent studying. Indeed to this point the country that had the highest educational results was the country were students spent the most time studying. While, there were notable exceptions to this hypothesis such as Finland. Overall this trend seemed strong. Which leads me to make the somewhat obvious claim that more education = more educational results!

5. While there was no direct correlation between education spending, most countries on this list spent more money per student on average, than other countries in the OECD. Leading me to believe that while money spent on education does not directly result in educational results, a strong educational system is almost always expensive. 

6. The countries that made this list, especially the top of this list, had a high cultural value on education. For example, China, which was the highest performing country on the list, refers to education as “the one true religion of the people.” Unfortunately, this is also likely the hardest idea to replicate in another country. While cultural values do seem to have a direct impact on educational results, they are also hard to systematically build, especially from the perspective on any individual teacher.

Interested in learning more about this topic? Check out our podcast series on it:

Written by Nathaniel Hansford,
Last edited: 5/12/2020


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