Have you taken your Citizen Test yet ?

Supposing you could only renew your passport by answering pub quiz questions

“How many national parks are there in England?”
“Which of these is a famous painter? Benjamin Britten Sir John Lavery, Graham Greene…
“Which are 2 buildings designed by the 17th century architect Inigo Jones: The Tower of London, The Banqueting Hall at Whitehall….”

Would YOU pass or fail the test? 

To fail would be painful if you had already paid £75 renewal fee. But what about facing  some £1,300 in costs and you are working single mother on minimum wages? This is the situation of many migrants settled in the UK who aspire to get British citizenship.

As a former TESOL teacher (I used to work  with migrant South Asian women entering the hosiery inudstry in Leicester), I decided to buy the “Official Study Guide” to the “Life in the United Kingdom” citizenship test. 

The Life in the UK Test

It is divided into sections:

  1. A long and illustrious history – 63 pages of information with pictures, Sample questions, all multi-choice (mcqs)
    “Hadrian’s Wall was built to keep out which group of people?”
    “What was the important achievement of James 1?”
  2. “A modern thriving society” – 21 pages, culminating in mcqs such as:
    “Who is the patron saint of England?”
    “Which two are dates of public holidays in England?”
  3. “The UK Government, the law and your role – 27 pages + mcqs
    “What does money raised from income tax pay for?”
    “Who is the Head of State in the United Kingdom?”
    “Who can become a school governor or a member of the school board?”

To my ESOL eyes, section 3 is far more relevant to the lives  of UK citizen aspirants than section 1 and most of 2.

What do migrants feel about this test? This has been researched by a University of Leicester team under Leah Bassel.

The researchers interviewed 158 migrants from over 26 different countries living in either London or Leicester. Unsurprisingly, there were divided opinions:

“Some argue that by proving that they have good knowledge of life in the United Kingdom … migrants can demonstrate that they will obey the law and accept and support the values of the country in which they are becoming a citizen.”

On the other hand, “Others argue that these tests, and the administrative steps that surround them, instead contribute to alienation and exclusion. They object to language requirements, cost, length and the effort required to learn information that is not necessarily relevant to being a ‘good citizen’.”

This argument has been going on in other countries too, with the rise in popular anxiety about migrants (terrorists?) who do not share the language or values of the host society. These countries, like the UK, have adopted processes, usually including language assessment, a citizenship test and an oath ceremony, to ensure that new citizens fit in with the host society.

Any reader of Kent Bylines with special knowledge of such citizenship processes please contribute to the further discussion, as different countries have interestingly different processes, which will be compared in further issues.

In the UK, to gain citizenship these are the requirements:

  • Have five years of residence in the UK
  • Pass the Life in the UK test, a multiple choice test based on the Life in the UK test handbook
  • Prove sufficient knowledge of the English language
  • Meet requirements of ‘good character’ (no criminal record)
  • Participate in a mandatory citizenship ceremony, where one is required to make an oath or affirmation of allegiance

The Leicester research looked at these processes, and also included the interview for a passport which many new citizens are then required to undergo after the oath step. The overarching question to my mind is: to what extent do these processes actually aid integration, or they really just gate-keeping, and revenue-getting (the charges seem higher than any other country looked at)?

Where does the test money go? The test is taken online, so there are software and web costs.

The authorised book is published by The Stationary Office (TSO), which has now been privatised to a “Williams Lea” company, a business support company (print, media). It is written by a sole author, Jenny Wales, who owns 75% of the company, Curriculum Enterprises formed in 1995, in Wiltshire. She lists her profession as “Economist”. 

Life in the United Kingdom

Has Wales ever really connected to ESOL classes and ESOL teachers? Doubtless she was compiling it under firm guidelines from politicians who themselves wanted to ensure that “our Island Story” is presented with a fair balance across the UK nations. Admittedly, the history and culture bits meet this criteria (hence the mcq appearance of Irish artist Sir James Lavery, unknown to this Kent-dwelling reader!).

The earlier versions of the test had more questions about processes that assist migrants in practical day-to-day life in the UK, which is the stuff of ESOL classes, often run in local community colleges. But from 2013, politicians wanted “more emphasis on British history and achievements”.

As Mark Harper, also from Wiltshire, then Minister for Immigration, proclaimed: “We’ve stripped out mundane information about water meters, how to find train timetables, and using the internet. The new book rightly focuses on values and principles at the heart of being British. Instead of telling people how to claim benefits it encourages participation in British life.”

The Leicester report recommends reinstating these useful questions. Furthermore, especially in the responses from migrant women, it is clear that the now abolished route to integration that combined ESOL with the assessment process, with opportunities for networking in class and childcare, is more enabling than the current system of buy the book, pay the fees and get tested online.

ESOL funding is now part of the Adult Education budget, progressively cut over the years, even where demand rises. So integration of migrants might turn on such economics rather than how much of our island story is in the test.

With regard to the parts of the test that are about understanding of UK government and law, it can be asked whether UK-born citizens can answer some of the questions. Citizenship became a compulsory part of the UK National Curriculum only in 2002.

This means anyone over the age of thirty is NOT likely to have a systemic, school-taught understanding of  UK government and citizenship responsibilities – as those of us who have spent pavement time arguing about sovereignty and the British constitution can attest. Now supposing, back to the beginning of this article, everyone applying for a passport had to prove they had passed the same citizenship test?

Outrageous, of course.., but it is time we all became more aware of what hard-working new citizens have had to undergo...