White working class young people are disadvantaged by ‘neighbourhood effects’

But the White families, nothing binds them, some are cousins I suppose but they are not seeking anybody out, I can’t think of anything that would bind them together (Demie and Lewis 2010)

In the Caribbean community there is an ethos of hard work, with Church and music providing a strong focal point for families. Whereas the White I probably have nothing but the pub…there is no pride in the White community, no strong sense of a cultural identity. (Demie and Lewis 2010)

There has been on-going debate about whether neighbourhood disadvantages have an adverse effect on educational achievement. A number of area based policy initiatives were implemented in the recent past which were based on the assumption that this was indeed the case: Health, Education and Employment Action Zones, Excellence in Cities, Sure Start and New Deal for Communities. Also in recognition of this, it has been argued that “both school-level and wider interventions are needed to close the gap in educational attainment” (Lupton 2003).

In explaining how the ‘neighbourhood effect’ works, Ainsworth (2002) has pointed to collective socialisation as a process which has by far the most significant impact on young people. Children living in advantaged areas are more likely to have modelled for them value for education, adherence to school norms and hard work. On the other hand in neighbourhoods (and families) where many adults do not work life can become “incoherent” for young people because what they see in their community outside of school does not complement what school may talk about in terms of values such as ‘work for a living’ or hard work leading to success. Instead, the ‘oppositional’ nature of the messages they get in the outside world may actually undermine what the school says.

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Working class pupils’ disadvantage is compounded by poor or lack of internet access

A study of internet access amongst children, by Ofcom, pointed out the important role such access plays in children’s education. It pointed out that by far the highest category of internet usage (75%) amongst 12-15 year olds was for school related work. The study also pointed out the disadvantage suffered by poorer children as only 31% of such children i.e. those in C2DE socioeconomic groups do not have internet access at home and rely on schools and friends for such access, while only 12% of children in ABC1 socioeconomic group do so (2007).

A recent report from Becta (2008) highlighted some of the benefits for children of having home internet access which goes beyond simply being able to do their homework.

Social exclusion caused by lack of internet access

According to Communities and Local Government (2008), those most deprived socially are also most likely to lack access to internet access. “Three out of four of those ‘broadly’ socially excluded lack a meaningful engagement with the internet”. In addition, they were the group categorised as ‘deeply socially excluded’ whose lack of internet access is even greater. They account for some 10 % of the UK population.

Another study into broadband adoption acknowledged that while such access was increasingly a prerequisite for social and economic inclusion, “limited availability, poor quality service, hardware costs, hidden fees and billing transparency” were major issues for low income communities (SSRC 2010). The report went onto point out the critical role played by ‘third spaces’ such as libraries who provide a safety net for access and as providers of training and task based assistance for their communities.

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White working class children face inequality in participating in extra-curricular activities

At a general level, home environment in poorer families can have an adverse effect on education in a variety of ways. “Homes which are overcrowded, cold or in general poor condition can affect education through lack of quiet space for study, disturbed sleep and a general negative influence on emotional well-being” (DCSF 2009b)

Overcrowding can have an adverse impact on education, “directly through a lack of space to do homework and in other more indirect ways such as illness which can result from such overcrowding” (ODPM 2004).

Sutton et al (2007) interviewed 42 children in order to understand their lives. 19 of these were referred to as estate children (the term was chosen by the children themselves); all of whom were White. The other 23, private, children attended a fee paying independent school; 20 were White and 3 were from ethnic minority groups. Although both groups of children viewed education as one of the most important aspects of their lives, their actual experience of education was very different. One way this showed up was in the length of their learning day.

They found that the private school children “had long school days (typically 9.00 am to 6.00pm; some stayed at school until after 6pm), put a greater emphasis on homework and were involved in a wide variety of after-school clubs and activities”. In contrast the estate children had “shorter school days (typically 9.00 am to 3.30 pm), were not as focussed on their homework and were involved in fewer after-school clubs and activities”. This is also confirmed by other research.

Lareau (2003), provides many examples of middle class parents who ‘supplement’ their children’s education through paid-for activities as well as through the many conversations they have with them and teach them knowledge, skills or particular way of seeing the world. Evans (2007) makes a similar point about middle class children whose “every minute of their spare time inside and outside of schools (is) filled with structured activities oriented towards learning valuable skills in art, music, sport and drama and so on”.

Free time- organised activities: Sutton et al (2007) in their study of poverty found that the estate (the term chosen by the poor children to define themselves) children took part in fewer organised activities than the private children and could not always afford to take part in them. “Their ability to travel to and from activities was also limited by cost and lack of transport. By contrast, the private children took part in a wide range of activities organised by the school and their parents”. Compared to the estate children, “for private children their free time retains an emphasis on learning”.

The challenge for school is clearly what opportunities to provide and how for young people whose parents are less well off; to compensate for what their parents cannot provide.

To ensure the cost of activities does not act as a barrier for participation of the most disadvantaged pupils, the extended schools subsidy was being rolled out during 2009. The aim of this was to enable the most disadvantaged young people to participate in activities of their choosing. Unfortunately, as distribution decisions were left to local areas, a number were taking the easy option of dividing the money equally across their authorities instead, as was intended to happen, targeting inversely according to the level of disadvantage.

Benefits of education outside the classroom

It is well known that in order to gain the maximum benefit from their education, young people need to form good relationships with their teachers and fellow pupils. For this, they need well developed interpersonal skills and understanding. However, often these skills are developed outside of the school through participation in activities and programmes. Sadly, this is where poorer children miss out as they don’t have as many opportunities for such participation. Therefore, this calls for compensatory measures so that these essential skills for life in school and beyond could be provided in other ways. Otherwise, the young people in question are unlikely to achieve their full potential in school and go on failing to benefit from many opportunities in life generally.

Ofsted have stressed the importance of education outside the classroom (2008). They point out that it leads to “improved outcomes…including better achievement, standards, motivation, personal development and behaviour. It also provides extra depth to pupils’ learning and experience”. They confirmed that many schools relied on contributions from parents and carers to meet the costs of residential and other visits and had given very little thought to alternative ways of financing them. In the schools visited there was a long tradition of asking parents to make a considerable financial contribution to learning outside the classroom, for example, by covering transport costs and entrance fees.

Chowdry et al et al (2009) points out that “young people who participate in positive activities at age 14 tend to have higher test scores at Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4 and are significantly less likely to be NEET at age 17 than young people who do not participate in positive activities”.

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There are major disparities between middle and working class young people in relation to homework and other OOHL activities

“There was a significant boost to progress for pupils who reported they completed homework on three, four or five evenings a week, relative to those who reported they never completed homework. The more homework done, the greater the impact on their progress.” (Strand 2008) He goes onto point out that “homework was one of the two, out of the eight, variables with by far the largest impact on attainment; academic self-concept was the other one.” …. “White I pupils were one of the two ethnic groups who reported doing the least amount of homework.” (2008)

Wiggins et al (2009) pointed out there are clear associations between parental occupation and educational level and children reading for pleasure. In relation to homework, they found that there are disparities in setting and doing of such work as well as doing extra work. For example, 23% children of unskilled parents reported that homework was not set compared to only 12% for children of professional parents; 49% of the former did all the work set compared to 61% of the latter. In addition, 9% of the former did extra work compared to 13% of the latter. “This suggests that the children of less educated parents are much more likely to be either in classes or schools that do not set much homework (almost half as much). Overall it shows that children whose parents are from higher socioeconomic groups …are more likely to complete all of their homework.. “

It has been recognised by the DCSF that children from deprived backgrounds may find it harder than their peers to complete their homework (2009b). “This can be due to lack of space for study; lack of educational resources in the home such as books, encyclopaedias and other reference material; lack of internet access and parents inability to help with the homework tasks”. Elsewhere, it has been recognised that “parents want to help their children succeed, but do not necessarily know the best way to do this” (DCSF 2009a)

Jonathan Milne pointed out in his TES article (1.2. 2008): “homework falls victim to the economic divide”. This was based on a survey by Kirkland-Rowell which gathered views of more than 75,000 parents whose children attended either a school in the most deprived 20 per cent of neighbourhoods, or one in the 20 per cent of most prosperous neighbourhoods. It showed that on average, pupils in the wealthier areas did 5.66 hours a week of homework, while those in poor areas did 4.35 hours. The gap was most pronounced at Year 11 – the GCSE year – when the better- off pupils did two hours more than those from poorer backgrounds. Those extra two hours added up to 78 hours a year, equivalent to three 25-hour school weeks. In both rich and poor areas, girls did at least an hour more homework than the boys in their classes.

In another article in the TES on homework, (3 July, 2009), it was pointed out that many of the homework tasks were assumed to need resources of time, space and basic materials such as textbooks, pens, pencils and paper which are often not available in poor homes.

Lindy Barclay, an experienced practitioner with White working class young people has also drawn attention to the life outside school of such children. In an article in the TES (9 October, 2009) she drew attention to what goes on during the summer holidays for many of the working class children.

“During the summer, some of the teenagers on our estate live a kind of feral existence. They roam wild and, in some instances, lawless. No rules about being in at night, no restrictions on who they hang around with, no prohibitions on drinking and smoking. They are generally nice kids, but live with few boundaries”.

She does mention the few lucky ones whose time is taken up with hobbies “- fishing, skateboarding, swapping computer games, playing football every day in the park –“ as well as the small “minority whose parents are able to afford to take them on holiday, about 8 per cent according to a recent survey of our students”.

Barclay then draws out the implications of this. “Those students who experience a very different life outside of school are often the most challenging”. Demie and Lewis (2010) point out the life many working class young people lead out of school: “The children are out on the streets in their uniforms after school. The mothers don’t do anything with their children, they don’t go anywhere as a family. There is no family structure.”

Wiggins et al (2009) point out that poorer children are also less likely to: Borrow books from library other than school; Be asked at home almost every day about what their time at school; Attend daytime clubs once a week; Attend after-school clubs once a week; Read for pleasure or Do maths and English homework.

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White working class children are more likely to be NEET than other ethnic groups

“Growing numbers of working class young men in British cities ..will find themselves numbered among the ‘unexceptionally disadvantaged’” (McDowell 2003). It is likely that the vast majority of these are White.

According to the National Audit Office (2008), Year 11 students who were FSM were “twice as likely to be NEET AT 16/17 as those who did not have free school meals”. Using figures for 2007, it was found that while percentage of families where the 16/17 year old was NEET was 7, for families in receipt of FSM the figure was 16. The report also stated that “a higher proportion of White young people are NEET than is seen among most ethnic minority group”.

The above report stated that although the parents strongly wanted their children to have a better education than they had received themselves they tended to have less social capital. This meant that the parents were less likely to be confident in their abilities to advise their children about educational choices. Many of the families were found to be headed by a female lone-parent. The families of NEET young people also tended to report poorer home relationships.

Implications of being NEET

The National Audit Office (2008) has pointed out that being NEET is a major predictor of unemployment at age 21 and is strongly correlated with early parenthood. 71% of women who experience a significant spell of NEET (6 months or more between 16 and 18) are parents by the age of 21 compared with 16% of other young women.

Being NEET has clear financial cost implications for the individual and society at large. According to Godfrey et al (2002), in research conducted for the DES, “life time cost of young people NEET at 16 to 18 was £7 billion in resource costs and £8.1 billion in public finance costs.

According to the Prince’s Trust (2007), “for 16 to 24 year olds, the productivity loss to the economy from youth unemployment has been estimated at £10 million every year in addition to approximately £20 million each week in Jobseeker’s allowance for 18 to 24 year olds”.

The picture painted by the Bow Group (2007) was even more depressing. They pointed out that “out of the proportion of those earning less than £6.50 per hour, 53% have no qualifications”. They pointed out that the impact of educational failure is “dramatic and lasting” through extremely limited life chances and behaviour which presents major social problems. They found 71% of young people NEET had admitted to using illegal drugs compared with 45% who were in education, employment or training while 29% of NEETs had committed a crime compared with only 11% non-NEETs.

Consequently, for these young people being full members of community will be difficult. Many will have few prospects in the job market. Not surprisingly, a proportion will become single parents, involved in drugs and crime and possibly end up in prison. “Low achievement is a misfortune for the individuals concerned and a considerable social problem. The costs to society of not addressing the issues..are high”. (Cassen and Kingdon 2007)

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White working class pupils suffer from some of the worst levels of attendance and exclusion

According to Ofsted (2010), “there is a clear link between attendance and achievement since if pupils are not attending school they will be unable to access the opportunities available to them.”

Young people from poorer backgrounds are significantly more likely to play truant than those from richer families at both age 14 and 16, i.e. 24% from the former group compared to 8% from the latter. Young people from the former group are also twice as likely to engage in anti-social activity as opposed to the latter group i.e. 41% compared to 21% (Chowdry et al 2009)

The National Audit Office (2008) found that on average, secondary schools with very high levels of FSM pupils had seven days more absence per pupil per year than secondary schools with average levels of FSM pupils.

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White working class underachievement is an issue across the country

It has to be recognised that disadvantaged pupils are not only to be found in disadvantaged schools. According to DCSF (2009), about half of FSM pupils are to be found in the third of schools who have the greatest concentration of disadvantage while the other half are spread across the other two thirds of schools.

This lack of concentration is a particular issue for white working class pupils compared to other ethnic groups. According to DCSF (2009b), 70% Bangladeshi pupils and 60% of Pakistani pupils live in 20% most deprived postcodes; only 20% of white British pupils do so. The contrast between the ethnic groups is even greater when we look at those who live in the 10% most deprived postcode areas. While the figures for Bangladeshi pupils is 45%, for Pakistani pupils 40%, it is only 10% for white pupils.

Being a minority in a school can additionally disadvantage white working class pupils. According to Sue Hackman, Chief Adviser on School Standards: “Over and above the usual problems faced by pupils who are disadvantaged these smaller minorities lose out even further. Their needs are less likely to be specifically identified and met and inadvertently their culture and expectations are swamped by those of their more affluent peers” (DCSF 2010b).

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White working class pupils fall behind from the early years

22 months: the problems start soon after birth. According to the DCSF, “the social class gap in attainment opens up by 22 months” and “an FSM child has around 3 times worse odds of achieving good school outcomes than a non-FSM child at every critical point in their education after age 5” (2009a).

7-36 months: Risley and Hart researched into the early life of American children by looking at the upbringing of 42 new babies from a wide range of social class backgrounds. They concluded that by the end of their observation, some babies had heard over 33 million words while others only 10 million.

“This was our most surprising discovery: that the size of the differences between families in the amount of talk to babies is so enormous- and that those differences add up to massive advantages or disadvantages for children in language experience long before they start school”

Age 3: DCSF point out that “at age three, children from lower income households have lower vocabulary scores” and that this continues through the various Key stages. For example, compared to FSM pupils, non-FSM pupils have three times the odds of achieving the expected level in reading and writing at Key Stage 1 in English; 3.5 times the odds of achieving the expected level in science at Key Stage 3 and 3.2 odds of achieving an A*-C grade in maths.

Research from Australia (Smart et al 2008) provides evidence that working class children suffer from poor school readiness. The effect of this stays with them throughout their schooling and leads to them underachieving at the point of school leaving. I wonder how many of our NEET (not in education, employment or training) young people have a similarly poor start in life!

More discouragement

In the context of this paper, it is necessary to point out that the poorer and disadvantaged families were the ones who not only had spoken fewer words but were also more likely to speak discouragement to their children. Risley and Hart (2006) found that some babies had heard over 500 thousand affirmative statements about their actions from their parents while others would have heard less than 60 thousand.

The film Precious provides a depressing tale of an obese black teenager who is pregnant with a second child by her own father while living in poverty with her violent mother. What stood out for one reviewer was not the film’s ferocity and sexual abuse, but the mother’s constant haranguing; she told her daughter that she would never succeed in anything beyond claiming welfare. “She did not just chip away at her self-esteem, she bulldozed it to dust” (Perry 2010).

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White working class children are largest underachieving ethnic group across the country facing deep seated disadvantages

“It is important not to forget that while White British FSM boys are the worst performing ethnic group (out of boys); White British girls are the worst performing ethnic group (out of girls)” DES ‘Gender and Education’ 2007
“… White working class are not the only underachieving group, they are the largest in number and by many criteria the greatest underachievers” Mongon and Chapman 2008

“White British FSM pupils are the lowest attaining group … with only 17% achieving 5+A*-C (including English and maths), compared to the national average of 45%” DCSF ‘Deprivation and Education’ 2009

“At GCSE (using the 5+ A*-C measure), being eligible for FSM depresses scores by 32 percentage points for white British boys and 34 percentage points for girls. “The effect of FSM is huge for white British children” href=”http://www.education.gov.uk/research/data/uploadfiles/DFES-00389-2007.pdf”>DES ‘Gender and Education’ 2007

“White British pupils are the lowest attaining ethnic group” whether we look at low socio-economic status , mothers having low educational qualifications, entitlement to FSM, living in single parent households, living in rented housing or neighbourhood deprivation. They are also the group who “made the least progress over the course of secondary school” Minority ethnic pupils in the longitudinal study of young people in England Strand 2008

All ethnic minority groups are found to be making greatest progress on average than white students between ages 11 and 16, leading to “poor white students as the lowest performing of all groups at age 16”. The improvement for ethnic minority pupils happens despite English being their second language and despite the fact that they are even more likely to go to poor quality schools (Wilson et al (2005)).

“The great majority of low achievers – more than three quarters- are white and British and boys outnumber girls. Eligibility for free school meals is strongly associated with low achievement but significantly more so for white British pupils than for other ethnic groups…We have one of the highest associations of social class with educational performance” (Cassen and Kingdon ‘Tackling low educational achievement’2007).

“After controlling for socio economic variables, the groups for whom low attainment is the greatest concern are: white British boys and girls and black Caribbean boys from low socio economic class homes. These are the three lowest attaining groups”. (Independent Commission on Social Mobility 2009)

Callanan et al 2009pointed out that “the characteristics most associated with underachievement are being male, being white British, entitlement to Free School Meals, having Special Educational Needs (particularly the category School Action Plus) and living in a deprived area”. She also pointed out that that “Asian pupils were the least likely to be underachievers”.

In relation to achievement in English in particular, according to Ofsted (2009), White FSM British boys were amongst the lowest performers in the country. The standards attained by them were “amongst the lowest.”

Local situation

The picture at the local in one large urban authority is no different. The data points out that “the largest underachievement is amongst pupils from poorer families, the largest cohort of which are white disadvantaged pupils”. The situation has not improved for many years. in the City, with some exceptions, white boys and girls on free school meals are generally the lowest achieving group in terms of 5 A*-C GCSE results. This has been the case for such a long time that everyone has come to see the situation as ‘normal’. Also, White FSM boys and girls, combined continue to make up a larger group than all other ethnic groups put together.

The picture for the past few years in terms of 5 A*-C GCSE results is as follows:

• 2006: White FSM boys were at the bottom and white FSM girls second from the bottom
• 2007: White FSM boys were at the bottom and white FSM girls third from the bottom but least achieving of all girls
• 2008: White FSM boys at the bottom and white FSM girls second from the bottom

It is likely that the above picture is also true for many other areas across the country.

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White Working class underachievement – a case for Positive Action?


The focus of this paper are white working class young people. Normally, and especially in official education documents, they have come to be referred to with a range of labels which focus on their disadvantaged circumstances. However, I have decided to use the term ‘working class’ which I believe is much more positive. As will become clear, it is also necessary to stress the racial identity of these young people in order to distinguish them from other working class young people. This does not mean that they don’t have anything in common with others of their social class. Far from it.

Working class

Like others (Demie and Lewis (2010), Mongon and Chapman (2008)), I have used the term ‘working class’ to refer to those young people whose families qualify for free school meals (FSM).

It is not my purpose to discuss, in detail, the term ‘working class’ here. That has been done much more ably by others. By far the most comprehensive discussion on this was by EP Thompson (1963) and which has come to inform much of the subsequent debate on the subject of social class. In his book, Thompson talks of class happening “when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs… Class consciousness is the way in which these experiences are handled in cultural terms: embodied in traditions, value-systems, ideas, and institutional forms”. Others (Dennis et al 1956, Jackson 1968, Collins 2004 and Evans 2007) have also provided their own focus on the subject. In due course I shall make reference to some of their works.


The aim of the paper is to raise awareness amongst education practitioners and policy makers in relation to socio economic disadvantage generally and the specific needs of the white working class young people in particular. Mongon and Chapman (2008) point to the paucity of literature with a direct white working class focus. Gray (2001) quoted in Whitty points out that ” .. we don’t really know how much more difficult it is for schools serving disadvantaged communities to improve because much of the improvement research has ignored this dimension- that it is more difficult, however, seems unquestionable”.

Reay D: 2006 states that this is a much needed area, given the demise of sociology from education courses. She points out that in spite of there being a moral panic over underachieving boys, “most of today’s teacher trainees have not heard of Paul Willis’ ‘Learning to Labour (1977).

Gazeley and Dunne (2005) have also stressed the need for increased understanding of social class by teachers. They found that “teachers often did not feel comfortable talking about the social class of pupils”. People who participated in their research said that there should be input in teacher training courses on social class:
“Those who have developed some ‘social class awareness’ are likely to be more inclusive and tolerant practitioners and less likely to make assumptions based on their own experiences”.
“Further work needs to address the deficit views held by many teachers and student teachers/trainees about working class pupils and their homes.”
“Promoting more positive and diverse images of working class pupils and families would help to raise expectations and promote change”.
Frankel in the TES 2009 points out that it is necessary for practitioners to have a degree of cultural knowledge in order to empathise with the “baggage of many working class pupils”. She quotes the author Gillian Evans saying: “A well-educated middle class person who knows nothing about working class life is not a well-educated person at all”. Reay draws attention to the wider context and points out that social class continues to haunt the English education system; “the area of educational inequality on which education policy has had virtually no impact” (2006).

The DCSF 2009 also stress the importance of staff to be knowledgeable about their working class pupils in their daily context and spell out the kind of knowledge which is necessary. “To be effective when working in schools in deprived communities, staff need to be particularly attuned to the pupils’ experiences outside school. Staff pupil relationships need to be based on mutual respect. This means that to be effective and successful staff need to:
• understand the nature of the locality the children live in;
• empathise with the local community and its values; and
• be aware of the barriers to achievement but not to allow these to lower expectations” (2009)

This is further reinforced in the DES document which outlines the headteacher standards (2004), under the section, ‘’Strengthening Community’: “Schools exist in a distinctive social context, which has a direct impact on what happens inside the school. School leadership should commit to engaging with the internal and external school community to secure equity and entitlement”.

At a general community and societal level there is also a need for greater attention to be paid to the situation of the white working class. With a particular focus on three neighbourhoods within Birmingham, a recent report from the Barrow Cadbury Trust has made a similar plea to policy makers: “…there remain disadvantaged neighbourhoods with a largely white British population, typically suburban areas with much social rented housing. These are often overlooked in discussion of poverty in Birmingham” (Fenton et al 2009).

My hope is that this paper will help to shape the necessary policy and bring about positive change in education outcome for those disadvantaged by social class, especially the white working class. I would also hope that the paper would enable the wider community to have a little more empathy with and respect for those working in our challenging schools.

As for working class young people from other ethnic groups, the “common starting point” for discussion on their underachievement is usually their ethnicity (Fenton et al 2009). However, it is likely their social class is a more significant cause of the problem. This point was well made by Haque and Bell (2001) when they stated: “It is worth noting that when we breakdown the demographic profiles of minority ethnic groups (by parental occupations, parental education type of housing, length of stay in Britain etc) we find that educational achievements and qualifications largely reflect the social class and recency of immigration of minority ethnic families in Britain”. This paper could, therefore, make a contribution to the situation of ethnic minority underachieving young people too especially if the starting point for educational policy development was to shift from ethnicity to social class.

What follows is a series of headings as statements. These are substantiated with reference to published information from government and other authoritative sources. The paper concludes with a series of recommendations; much of this also draws on others’ contribution.

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