Sat in front of a computer screen at an unfamiliar test centre, those wishing to qualify for the next stage towards settlement in the UK or British citizenship are given 45 minutes to answer 24 questions by clicking the correct answer. Of the answers, 18 must be correct if the applicant is to pass the test. The test material is drawn from ‘Life in the UK: A Journey to Citizenship’ by the Home Office Life in the UK advisory group. The Home Office website suggests that ‘studying for and taking the test will give you the practical knowledge you need to live in this country and to take part in society’, but since its launch in November 2005 both the book and the ‘Life in the UK Test’ itself have been subject to strong criticism.
The test was introduced to aid integration, to ensure that incoming migrants demonstrated an understanding of the modern British society to which they would become a part of – in essence, to know what it means to be as British as fish and chips, strawberries and cream, binge drinking and benefits. One flaw of the ‘Life in the UK Test’ is the requirement of those preparing for it to arbitrarily commit statistics to memory. Is it necessary to know that the population has grown by 7.7% since 1971? Or that in 2001 0.4% of the population classed themselves as of Chinese origin? One would imagine that after cramming all these statistics into one’s short term memory to pass the test that they are rarely, if at all, used before being quickly forgotten.
Shortly after its launch, the test suffered a strong backlash from historians for its numerous historical errors. Although they have since been amended, the credibility of the test as well as its chief contributor Bernard Crick MP was severely tarnished. (For some examples of the errors see link, below) The second edition of the material, from which the test is drawn is also out of date in some cases. Published in 2007, it states, for example that it is illegal for those aged 16 or below to buy cigarettes. Since then, the law has changed, and the minimum age is now 18. What should someone sitting the test answer when that question flashes up if they have learnt the wrong answer? Goodness knows how many of the ‘current statistics’ littered throughout the guide are outdated as well.
The internet is awash with articles and related comments from British-born citizens furious at the test, blasting it as irrelevant and questioning the sense of forcing migrants to pass a test that the average man on the street would, without preparation, almost certainly fail. A look at some of the material certainly raises a few questions. Should an immigrant coming to the UK in the 21st century really be expected to know that centres were once set up in the West Indies to help train bus drivers? Or that in the 16th and 18th centuries Britain provided French Protestants shelter from prosecution?
What about diverting some of the millions spent creating and enforcing these tests to more worthwhile projects from which those in need will actually benefit? The ESOL course, only a few years old, is already faltering and suffering a huge drop in participants due to budget cuts. Instead of the faceless computerised box-ticking, what about conducting an informal interview to gauge both language skills and knowledge of one’s society. Undertaken on a smaller scale, this would surely prove more relevant and worthwhile not only to the person taking the test but also the local community.