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What makes a good school? What makes a good teacher?


The creation of good schools is a long-term process and a good school is an aggregation of good classrooms in which effective teaching and learning are taking place, writes David Zyngier.

Which of the following may be the most complex or difficult task to achieve?

a.         Sending rockets into the space;

b.         Making an artificial heart;

c.         Making the fastest super computer; or,

d.         Ensuring real academic excellence of EACH student in EVERY classroom in your school?

The answer of course is (d) as all the other choices have already been achieved and even surpassed. Yet ensuring that every child maximises his or her learning and potential in every classroom in Australia is far from being achieved and is becoming more and more difficult.

The Gonski Review was all about how the inputs can be configured in different ways so that all children can have access to the best possible education, regardless of where they live, the income of their family or the school they attend.

As Jane Caro, writer, media commentator, lecturer and co-author of What Makes a Good School? tells us:

Parents spend a great deal of time and energy justifying their choice of school but I’ll let you into a little secret known only to the advertising industry. All purchase decisions (and choice of school is a purchase decision whether you pay fees or not) are made emotionally and then post-rationalised. So all that stuff you tell yourself about reputation, discipline, gifted and talented programs etc. may be comforting but it’s not really why you choose a school.

The differences between most schools are largely cosmetic. Compare two superficially very different girls’ high schools. The first school was a high-fee, prestigious private girls school, the second a bog standard public girls’ high school in the same suburb. Apart from the richness of racial and religious backgrounds in the public school, the difference between the intelligence, literacy and behaviour of the girls in what many would call a ‘good’ school and many a ‘not-so-good’ one was non-existent1.

It takes time

The creation of good schools is a long-term process. A good school is an aggregation of good classrooms in which effective teaching and learning are taking place – quality of classroom learning:

  • Intellectual quality that produces deep understanding of concepts, skills and ideas.
  • A supportive classroom environment characterised by positive relationships where learning is expected and supported.
  • Connectedness and significance: learning needs to be meaningful to students and as much as possible anchored to their needs and passions.
  • Engaging with student diversity: the most powerful lever for disadvantaged students.


Choice makes people anxious and too much choice makes people unhappy.

Market and advertising make us believe that the more you pay the better the school – the adage that if you pay peanuts you get monkeys – however the greater the hurdle doesn’t mean the school is any better.

Jane Caro suggests that the choices can be compared to supermarket shopping – the brand name products compared to the plain label – ignore the superficial marketing hype and fancy exteriors but carefully compare the contents – usually like schools the contents are equivalent.

We’ll always need to dig underneath the advocacy, the labels and the hype. When all factors are taken into account, there is a surprising lack of any significant relationship between different school types and levels of student achievement. Whatever the label, management and governance, most schools teach the same centralised curriculum with similarly trained teachers catering for mainstream students.

Some schools work hard to satisfy deeply held but often dated beliefs about what makes a good school – beliefs held not only by parents but also by grandparents who are often a soft touch for school fees.

It’s all about who you are!

If you want to know how your child will turn out – look in the mirror! The family background and parents have the absolute greatest influence on student outcomes, then the teacher, the principal, school resources and finally the child’s peers.

Choosing the right school

When choosing a school parents operate on two levels. They are concerned about the levels of student achievement in their chosen range of schools but, above this, they want to know about the social profile of the students already enrolled at each school. As parents, our concern about schools is often about who our kids will sit next to in class.

This isn’t an easy task: just about everyone has an agenda as well as an opinion. As Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne said we are all experts when it comes to education, “because we all have been to school!”

The differences between schools don’t amount to a great deal in educational terms. But there is no shortage of schools with special titles or labels that are apparently able to levitate student achievement, produce well-rounded citizens and ease our mounting anxieties as parents. There are endless debates about the merits of single-sex versus co-ed schools, public versus private, specialist versus comprehensive, religious versus secular, nearby versus distant, big versus small – and more recently, locally versus centrally controlled. Once you account for differences in inputs and advantages – including students, teachers and resources – the labels don’t add up to much at all.

The real social and academic differences between our schools are grounded in the family and social profiles of enrolled students. There is nothing new about that, but it is concerning that such differences are widening in our quasi-market school system. Nor is it new that the achievement of students is primarily generated by home background; in this respect Australia resembles the pattern found across the OECD. But Australia is different in a key respect: far more of our disadvantaged kids go to schools alongside their peers, and most advantaged kids are in schools with other advantaged kids. We are compounding, not reducing, the impact of socio-educational status.

Any school can be a good school

Any school can be a good school, one in which effective teaching and authentic learning are nurtured and constantly developed to help students achieve. The challenge for parents is to discover the real depth of student engagement and learning. In the process they have to reserve judgment about such things as raw test scores, student ranks, neat and full workbooks, docile students in neat rows and hours of homework.

Principals and teachers in good schools will talk about effective learning and what constitutes good teaching — in particular how professional teacher knowledge, practice and engagement works in their schools. Good teachers know their students and their subject matter, are themselves learners and work alongside colleagues to improve practice across the school.

  1. Good schools have strong and effective school leaders whose primary focus is on establishing a culture of learning throughout the school.  The school is organised, and resources are allocated, in pursuit of this overarching purpose. The principal, with the support of the school leadership team, drives the development of school policies and sets and articulates goals for school improvement.
  • A high priority is placed on professional learning, leadership and collaboration among all school staff. In highly effective schools, principals are in constant and meaningful communication with the school community and work to build partnerships beyond the school in pursuit of the school’s objectives. The principal must have the respect of students, parents, and staff with a vision, high expectations, and the ability to help others succeed. This person must be able understand people, and motivate them, creating a positive attitude throughout the building.
  • Successful schools have a sense of trust built on the back of an honest and caring leader. Many factors go into helping a child become a productive adult, and there is no way one assessment a year can measure success or failure. The fact that so many people believe that one test on a couple of mornings can determine school quality, teacher quality, and student learning shows an alarming lack of understanding in what makes a good school.
  • This factory model of assessment would have been great 50 years ago, when schools were modelled after and trained students for work in factories. However, that day has long passed. Leaders in education need to look at what it takes for students to succeed and help create schools to educate the students of today and tomorrow.
  1. In good schools learning is seen as the central purpose of school and takes precedence over everything else. They have the highest expectations for and of the school, teachers and students. High expectations are set for student learning, whether in classrooms or other learning contexts.  There is a deep belief in the ability of every student to learn and to achieve high standards with appropriate and sensitive teaching. Class time is used as learning time; classrooms are calm and busy; and interruptions to learning are discouraged. Outstanding schools recognise and celebrate successful learning and high achievement. Only the best is good enough. Quality is expected, and nothing less is acceptable. Passion for excellence is a driving force each and every day. A good school has an involved staff working together, pushing themselves and their students to be the best. Failure is not an option for the teacher or the students.
  2. In good schools, teachers have a thorough and up-to-date knowledge of their subjects and a deep understanding of how students learn particular subjects.  
  • The best teachers work to improve their ability to teach. They read and explore the techniques used by others in a never-ending effort to better themselves and their skill. Effective teaching demands that the teacher be knowledgeable in the subject area. The teachers must have a detailed understanding of what is being taught.
  • This understanding includes an appreciation of how learning typically proceeds in a subject and of the kinds of misunderstandings learners commonly develop. In these schools, teachers know their students well: their individual interests, backgrounds, motivations and learning styles. These schools insist on the mastery of foundational skills such as reading and numeracy, and also work to encourage high levels of critical thinking, creativity, problem solving and teamwork.
  • Teachers in good schools encourage students to accept responsibility for their own learning and teach them how to continue learning throughout life. Students’ abilities and needs are different. To effectively teach all students, the school staff must understand this. The teaching and interactions with students must reflect the needs of each, with the understanding of each as an individuals.
  1. Good schools are characterised by outstanding school cultures. Most importantly students want to be there! Effective schools have a warm climate. Students feel welcome and know that the staff cares about them. Although there is pressure to perform, it comes in a way that promotes learning, with an expectation that students will excel and the support is provided to make it happen. In these schools students have a sense of belonging and pride.
  • They enjoy learning and are engaged and challenged. The school provides a physical and social setting that is safe, well organised and caring.
  • Values of respect, tolerance and inclusion are promoted throughout the school and cultural and religious diversity are welcomed and celebrated. In such schools there is a strong commitment to a culture of learning and continuous improvement and an ongoing search for information and knowledge that can be used to improve on current practice.
  • No two classes, or two students are identical. A good school has teachers that understand this and differ instruction to best help students be the successful. Key concepts are presented in ways to enable visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners grasp it. Students are actively involved in learning with a variety of opportunities to grasp key concepts.
  • Discipline should not be an issue. Students must respect others and failure to do so cannot be tolerated. Students must understand school and class rules and expectations, and adhere to them. When discipline is necessary, it is not vindictive, but just a consequence when a student does not do what is required.
  1. Good schools have well-developed systems for evaluating and monitoring their performance.  
  • They promote a culture of self-evaluation and reflection and collect and use data to inform decision making at all levels.
  • They recognise the importance of providing meaningful performance information to a range of stakeholders, including parents.
  • These schools place a high priority on the early identification and remediation of gaps and difficulties in student learning.
  • They give timely feedback to students in forms that can be used to guide further learning, and they encourage students to develop skills in monitoring their own progress.
  1. Good schools have high levels of parent and community involvement.  
  • Parents are encouraged to take an active role in discussing, monitoring and supporting their children’s learning.
  • Parents are involved in setting goals for the school and in developing school policies. The school itself is seen as an important part of the local community and these schools often find ways to involve business and community leaders in the work of the school, as well as to establish partnerships with other agencies and businesses to advance school goals.
  • Not all parents have the same expectations of schools and parents often have different priorities for their children. But research suggests that parents have a shared interest in seeing their children attend school. They also look to schools to promote values such as respect for others, honesty, tolerance, fairness and the pursuit of excellence.

Dr David Zyngier was a teacher and principal, and now is a senior lecturer in curriculum and pedagogy at Monash University, Australia. His research focuses on teacher pedagogies that engage all students but, in particular, how can these improve outcomes for students from communities of disadvantage. In 2012 he was awarded an Australian Research Council fellowship of $365,000 to research Democracy and Education. He is Co-director (with Dr Paul Carr) of the Global Doing Democracy Research Project, an international project examining perspectives and perceptions of democracy in education to develop a robust and critical democratic education with over 60 researchers in 20 countries. A book based on that research, Can Education make a difference? Experimenting with, and experiencing, democracy in Education, was published in June 2012. The ruMAD Program which he developed with teachers in 2001 was awarded the Garth Boomer Prize in 2009 for its excellence in collaborative teaching and learning. He developed the E-LINCs (Enhanced Learning through Networked Communities) program, winner of two prestigious School’s First Awards, in 2010 $25,000 seed grant and a National Impact Award of $50,000 in 2011. This project researches new approaches and innovative solutions to student disengagement using grass roots partnerships rather than top down government interventions. Dr Zyngier received a $22,000 grant from the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development and a $30,000 grant from the Telematics Trust to pilot an on-line mentoring of graduate teachers in 2010-2012. Dr Zyngier was awarded an Erasmus Mundi Fellowship from the European Union to study in Paris in 2014. He is also on the editorial board of a number of prestigious education journals and a regular commentator for The Conversation and an expert commentator for the Australian Council of Education Leaders’ online journal.



Back to school: Top tips for a healthy Term 3


As the rejuvenative effects of the holidays recede and a new term looms with the promise of heightened stress levels, it’s timely to provide some tips for maintaining the calm of the holiday period during term time. Yes it is possible but it is a daily practice which takes commitment to your own health and wellbeing – you are worth the commitment and your students benefit too!

Wellness tips for calm and clarity in the classroom this term:

Move your body everyday: It relieves tiredness and clears your head. Start with 15 minutes which is just over 1% of your day – totally doable. Yoga is great for bringing you back into your body after the mental activity of a decision-filled day. Many of us are detached from our bodies and the feelings that arise there, leading to a lack of clarity around issues that are causing an emotional response and finding us at the mercy of our environment. Being at the mercy of a class full of students can be soul destroying, hence our greater need to stay connected to our body.

Try some abdominal breathing: It can be hard to sit in meditation. An alternative is lying on your back with your hands on your belly, breathing deeply and raising the belly with each breath. Abdominal breathing activates the calming, parasympathetic wing of the nervous system and improves digestion. Our breath is also an indicator of the state of our internal world.

Practice Mindfulness: Mindfulness is simply described as sustained, present moment awareness. The “sustained” part is the challenge, particularly in a class full of children. Slow down and give your attention to one task at a time at least once a day and be fully present for it. Set aside time to focus on your breath for a minute each day (start with 1 minute and gradually increase). Nominate check-ins throughout the day to consciously relax your body and tune into / deepen your breath – a vital link to the present moment.

Get out into nature regularly: Being in nature has a positive effect on our wellbeing – we feel ourselves slow down, we seem to breathe easier and begin to feel more expansive as the buildings recede. Science backs our intuition, with various studies revealing time-in-nature’s positive impact on stress, depression, tension, anxiety and other negative moods.

Eat Food that Sustains You: Notice how you feel after you eat certain foods and eat those that leave you energised. Pick a meal or snack to focus on making really healthy for a week or two before moving onto another – change happens one small step at a time.

Make rest a priority: Rest is imperative but we tend to push through our tiredness to complete tasks. Start listening to your body’s signals that are telling you it’s time to turn off the computer or finish marking. Create a list of ways you can rest when you need to throughout the day.

Practise Self-Nourishing Acts: Schedule in Self-Nourishing Acts (SNAs) throughout your week that nurture your physical, spiritual and emotional wellbeing. SNAs are activities that help you to recalibrate, relax and renew your energy and purely experience pleasure in your life. Because of the pleasure derived from SNAs they calm the nervous system and quieten stress response hormones. Examples include massage, a walk on the beach or swimming in the ocean.

Practise Gratitude: Part of living a contented life and being satisfied with the present moment is taking time to notice the beauty that is around you every day that is often taken for granted. Once you start noticing it you can express gratitude for it daily. By aligning with beauty our sense of it only expands – where attention goes energy flows.

Switch off your brain on the weekends as well as your phone, computer and TV regularly. Listen to music, read for pleasure or practice Yoga Nidra to recalibrate and renew energy rather than drain it further.

Emma Waters is a primary school teacher of 13 years currently working in the Catholic System in the Diocese of Lismore and formerly in the Broken Bay Diocese in Sydney. She is a mother and a long time yoga practitioner (having studied for several months in India in her twenties), surfer and meditation student.  Emma is passionate about healthy living and finding life balance within the teaching profession – which is always a work in progress. She believes in the healing power of nature and the necessity of stillness every day for students and teachers alike. Emma is the creator of and providing resources for calm and clarity in the classroom.


Home tutoring for students that can take the pressure off teachers


(L to R) Amaya Gallen, Danielle Matheson, Mark Gallen and Sarah Matheson

While in-home learning supports and reinforces what is being taught in schools and fills in the gaps that are missed, encouraging and developing home learning is often challenging for both parents and teachers.

Queensland-based father of four Mark Gallen says many school students face challenges understanding the complete Maths and English curriculum and could fall behind, become discouraged and lose interest in learning. Even though a few wrong answers on tests might not seem serious to parents, especially in junior primary years, Gallen warned that as students move through each year of the curriculum the problems become more obvious.

Recognising a lack of quality resources available to help his school-aged children, Gallen sought an at-home solution for K-12 students who require additional learning support. His newly-formed company, Yolo Tutoring, offers an inviting way to encourage student learning at home with the release of its student software resource, the Maths and English Wiz A-PLUS Incentive Program.

“If all school students thrived in the schooling system the only reason for in-home learning would be to provide additional avenues of learning not provided by the school,” he said. “The fact is though, many students need assistance to grasp the concepts taught in school.

“The curriculum is sequential, with each topic building on the one before, so concepts missed are generally missed forever unless there is intervention in the form of tutoring or in-home learning opportunities.This is true for both primary and secondary students because any concepts they do not understand are not typically revisited in the classroom.”

Gallen says providing in-home learning gives students the chance to gain proficiency of the curriculum in a private setting, away from the distractions and challenges of a classroom environment.

“In an in-home setting, students are active rather than passive, and assume greater responsibility for their own learning,” he said. “They become less dependent on the teacher and take greater responsibility for learning, planning and organization skills.

“Students become accountable to themselves and become independent thinkers, learners and risk takers.”

Gallen said a positive relationship between teachers, parents and students can improve a child’s attitude, behaviour and motivation towards homework and in-home learning.

“Teachers should encourage the parents to continue with in-home learning by mapping out the benefits and giving them useful tips for creating the right environment and balance,” he said.

Yolo Tutoring focus on Maths and English from K-12, science for senior high school and the Maths Doctor diagnostic tool, which enables parents to easily identify learning gaps and support accelerated learning.

Gallen said with the pressures put on teachers to manage large classroom numbers and with ‘mid-point’ teaching strategies focusing on the central 60 per cent of student ability, Maths and English Wiz offers a comprehensive way to support both the bottom 20 per cent and top 20 per cent of students.

Meet Jacaranda learnON, the first online course for Years 7-10


As a pioneer in digital learning, Jacaranda relentlessly seeks new ways to innovate. This year, we are proud to introduce Jacaranda learnON, a collaborative, customisable, media-rich online course designed to improve learning outcomes and extend the physical and social boundaries of the classroom.

With Jacaranda learnON, students and teachers enjoy the following key features and benefits:

  • Everything in the one place: a seamless and engaging learning experience
  • Collaboration: students can collaborate with their peers and teacher, 24/7
  • Visibility and immediate feedback: every student’s performance is visible to the teacher
  • Customisation: students and teachers can add and edit their own content

Jacaranda learnON is available for all core Australian curriculum subjects.

Click here to experience the power of Jacaranda learnON now


Study highlights challenges of primary teachers


A Queensland study has shed light on the challenges primary school teachers face dealing with children starting school with different abilities.

Conducted by Associate Professor Linda Graham from the Queensland University of Technology’s School of Education, the study has revealed teachers forced to teach a curriculum children are not ready for, with some students unable to hold a pencil or even know the difference between numbers and letters.

Graham said the pressure put on students to learn literacy and numeracy at a level they are not ready for could cause them to disrupt the classroom, further increasing the strain on teachers.

“One of the biggest challenges is that teachers are expected increasingly these days to be able to get students to a benchmark standard,” she said. “Since we had NAPLAN, and My School, there’s more pressure on teachers to say the child is going to be reading by the end of the year. Now when you’ve got children who come to school and clearly have had very little exposure to print, if they don’t know the difference between letters and numbers, they are starting from so far back and I don’t think that there’s enough recognition of that.

“The difference between children from advantaged backgrounds and children from disadvantaged backgrounds is incredibly stark. When we started this project last year, even I was taken aback. We have teachers saying they have children who don’t know how to hold a pencil, and even though I’ve been interviewing teachers and principals for years who have been saying that – with myself actually going into schools and doing the developmental assessments with these children, doing language assessments with them, I was stunned.”

Graham said teachers need time to be able to work with these children through more specialised classroom activities.

“These children are often getting in trouble for things that they can’t control and they don’t understand why then begin to believe that their teacher doesn’t like them,” she said. “Depending on the classrooms that these kids go into that can be a very real thing.”

The study is seeking to understand the contributions that the actual pedagogical context makes to different student outcomes. The study consists of 250 Prep students across south-east Queensland, across seven different schools and approximately 18 different classrooms.

“What we’re trying to understand is if you take these children who have got all similar abilities – so we’re developing profiles of children – and we’re investigating longitudinally how those children fare relative to other children who started off like them in a different context,” she said.

“We’re looking at what’s happening in the classroom and we’re already finding that children are doing better in environments where the teachers are a bit more understanding, where the teachers are more pro-active and where there is some real warmth in the relationship.”

So far the study has found that the level of emotional support, the process of relationships in the classroom and the quality of teaching all influence student outcomes in the classroom.

“Principals generally know when they’ve got great teachers and when they’ve got teachers that need to improve and I think that there needs to be far more emphasis on developing teachers – there can’t be teachers who are allowed to opt out,” Graham said.

“We have seen some absolutely outstanding teachers, and the outstanding teachers were the ones who were quite self-critical and were the ones who were very keen to develop – they were the ones who needed the least to develop but were more inclined to do so. But the teachers who are not so outstanding and really needed to develop thought they had a lot of strengths and that they did not need to develop.”

Graham said the teachers performing well in their classroom took on a responsibility to make a difference in their classroom, and that the current discourse surrounding ‘classroom-ready teachers’ is the wrong focus as the study has also revealed mid-career teachers struggling the most.

“The three highest performing teachers in our sample were early career teachers,” she said. “We had two teachers that had over 30 years of experience and the three early career teachers, one of whom was in their first year out of university, were up there with the 30-year teachers.

“That’s a problem that we need to solve – when there’s been some burnout and there are some teachers that are still in the classroom when maybe they shouldn’t be – what do we do about that? Harassing universities about teacher education isn’t going to solve anything.”

Digital marketing success, step two: How your website will work


In my last article here on Education Matters, we discussed the importance of planning for your schools digital marketing. In this article, we’ll discuss the ‘functionality’ of your website; how it will work, what it will do, how can we help our audiences achieve the goals we’ve set out for

Most people inevitably dive into discussions around the schools visual elements, before they discuss what a website will do. As much as design and aesthetics are very important, how your website will function, and what information it contains is just as important, if not more so.

Create those goalposts

We’ve defined our audience and goals in the previous article. Now is the time to pin those up, and take a good hard look. How can we create a website that not only makes these audiences do these goals easily, but actually encourage them to do so?

For example, let’s just say a goal is to have prospective student families enquire about enrolments. Rather than bury this down to a secondary or tertiary level, we need to ensure this is right at the top, and prominent throughout all navigation.

You may wish to consider an attractive focus area on the homepage with an active headline such as ‘Enquire about school places today’ and ensure that every page has a standard navigation menu (a must have) with ‘enrolment enquires’ as a major menu item.

Navigation design

Navigation consistency is vital. Having a navigation menu which changes on different pages confuses website visitors, who are looking for consistent locations of elements. The advent of touch devices such as iPads make navigation menus even more important – drop down menus are difficult to manage on a touch device, so stick to simple navigation with secondary menus within sections if required.

Form design

The enquiry format is likely to be a web-based form. Pay particular attention to any forms within your website – do they have the absolute minimum of fields as mandatory to be able to process the enquiry, are they designed and do they have clear instruction?

We’ve found that reducing your form by a few fields often equates to more forms being completed.

Think of your own behaviour; if you go to a form that is complex and requires lots of information, you are more likely to pick up the phone or worse still, not make any contact.

Event calendar

We find that school website visitors are big fans of event calendars. You can create an interactive calendar that allows people to search for an event, see a week or month at a glance, and even have these events sent in RSS format, so they could subscribe to updates. Event calendars are useful for prospective families as well; they show a dynamic community with lots of events, if they are kept up-to-date.

Adding ways to pay online

Many schools deal with lots of different payments, such as school fees, uniforms, event tickets and even school lunches and more. For many, the lack of alternative payment options, such as credit cards, actually put a burden on families to either withdraw cash from their banks, or find the cheque book which gets barely any use nowadays.

Adding a secure payment form on your website is far easier than you are likely to expect. We have seen many clients increase their invoice payments, or reduce their average days to pay significantly by having an online option. Better still, in most cases, having an online payment form means less administrative time.

Improve the enrolment process

An objective many school websites has is to provide information about enrolments and to encourage enquiries about future enrolments. Rather than a ‘download this year’s fees and call us for more info’, we can be far more effective than this.

Consider adding an enquiry form which links to an email auto responder, which fires off a personalised cover letter and attaches a PDF of your school overview documents, or you could have the email siphon into a central enquiries list for processing.

Using this process means you could set up auto responders at intervals, and create reminder lists, such as a few weeks out of enrolments closing for next year. At the very least, a web form could ask information that saves your administrative staff time in dealing with new enquires, such as child age, year to be enrolled, previous school and the like.

Parents & Community Section 

Most content management systems allow you to have multiple users being able to edit different sections of your website, based on security levels. Using this, you should consider offering your P&C a page or section of the website that they can edit and post content to. This will mean better engagement with parents, and keeps your website more current.


In this article, we’ve gone through some thoughts on how your website could work. Now that we’ve determined the functionality, and how we’ll engage with your audience and meet the goals we set out in the previous article, in my next article, we’ll take is to start considering what content and tone your school website will have.

Miles Burke is an Author, Public Speaker and Managing Director of Perth-based digital agency, Bam Creative. His team has created websites and digital marketing campaigns for dozens of schools, and their work has been featured in the media, won plenty of awards and most of all, helped schools demystify the digital marketing space to attract enrolments and better communicate to their communities.