Thom Brooks- ‘The Problems with the Life in the UK Test’

Thom Brooks

Thom Brooks is Reader in Law at Durham Law School.  Brooks works in the areas of criminal law, jurisprudence, political philosophy and public policy. His recent research addresses citizenship and immigration, including the use of citizenship tests.  

The Problems with the Life in the UK Test

Failing the Test

The Life in the United Kingdom citizenship test is an integral part of British immigration policy. One million tests have been sat since its launch in 2005 and about 150,000 people sat the test in 2012. The test is a requirement for permanent residency or citizenship. Applicants have 45 minutes to answer 18 or more questions correctly. There are 24 questions on the test.

I launched a new report about the Life in the UK test in June 2013.  My report is the only comprehensive report about the test available. It was produced independently and informed by several years of research and personal experience. Virtually all past commentators on the test neither sat it nor experienced immigration first-hand. My dual identities as a social scientist and an immigrant came together in interesting ways to reveal serious problems with the test and the purposes for which it is used.  I will briefly summarise key points that may be of interest to sociologists especially through key questions:

Who is this test for?

It is unclear whether the test is what it says it is. Permanent residency or citizenship requires knowledge about ‘life in the United Kingdom’. The stated purpose of the test is to provide practical information about everyday life of relevance for immigrants to Britain. We would expect to find a test handbook with information about topics such as how to report a crime, how to contact the emergency services, how the educational system works or how to register with a GP.

Surprisingly, this information is missing from the test. Its absence is not because it has been forgot, but removed. Earlier test handbooks included this information and yet the newly revised and expanded test handbook has cut it out. Instead of knowing how to contact a GP or the police, new immigrants are instead required to know the approximate age of Big Ben’s clock or the height of the London Eye (in feet and in meters). The test has been revised from testing practical trivia about government programmes and bureaucracy to a test of the purely trivial with a focus on obscure historical dates and modern facts. The new test covers 3,000 facts included in the handbook.

This suggests that the test is not an effort to ensure new immigrants possess a satisfactory knowledge about life in the UK. In fact, many current citizens might readily fail the test themselves. Instead, the test seems more focussed on showing the Government is ‘acting’ on immigration rather than providing a guarantee that immigrants know about living in Britain. The citizenship test seems designed more to satisfy people – the British public – who will never sit it. Worse, most will never know what it looks like or what its effect on people might be.

What is tested (and what is not)?

There is a problematic construction presented in the test handbook about British citizenship that should concern many. I have noted the examples about Big Ben and the London Eye. Other examples include inconsistencies lacking any rationale. Past tests have had a problem with the number of MPs. Both the first and second editions confirmed an incorrect number for memorization: the first edition claimed there were 645 MPs (when there were 646) and the second edition said there were 646 (but soon changed to 650). The new third edition avoids this problem by no longer requiring applicants know how many MPs serve in Westminster. Some may see this as a welcome move. Why think this knowledge relevant for British citizenship? Curiously, all applicants are still required to know the number of elected representatives in the Welsh Assembly, Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly. If any such number of representatives should be known, why the regional assemblies only and not Parliament?

The problems increase when we look at gender imbalance. The Government has introduced questions about British history in the test. This history is broadly white and male. The historical chapter provides dates of birth for about 30 men and only 4 women. Neither of the Queen’s birthdays is included. No women artists or musicians are mentioned. Applicants must know that Damien Hirst won the Turner Prize, but not Tracey Emin. No women scientists are included, such as Dorothy Hodgkin who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964. More surprisingly, the Home Office announcement celebrating the inclusion of history in the test noted the importance of knowledge about the people who have shaped Britain. The announcement notes nine men, but no women.

Gender imbalance is not the only imbalance. The only non-white person to be selected for a special textbox entry is Sake Dean Mahomet, founder of the first curry restaurant in the UK. Consider the dates to be memorized concerning his life: birth (1759), first came to the UK (1782), eloped to Ireland (1786), opened first curry house (1810) and death (1851). Moreover, immigrants are required to know the names for his wife (Jane Daly), restaurant (the Hindoostane Coffee House) and street address for his restaurant (George Street, London).

This closer inspection about the facts covered and omitted reveal a particular self- image of what Britain looks like according to the Home Office. This is an image at odds with the true face of Britain today—so it is somewhat startling to see such a gulf between one and the other. Nor is it an image supported by any clearly discernible rationale. Why the inclusion of some facts, but not others? For example, immigrants are required to know the name of the wife of only non-king in the chapter on British history: Sake Dean Mahomet. What can explain this judgement about relevance for citizenship?

The Test: Barrier or Bridge?

I conclude with a final reflection. My report confirms several problems with the Life in the UK test. Many of these problems could have been avoided through greater care in design and wider consultation. It is surprising that 10 years after its launch we still lack any public discussion about the test and its role for immigration policy. One further problem is the Government seems unclear about the test’s purpose in a more fundamental sense. Is it a barrier or bridge?

If the test is to be a barrier keeping immigrants from coming to Britain, then there are more effective and fair ways to achieve such a goal. Residency requirements can be amended so that applicants must live in the country for a longer period than present, for example.

Instead, we might want to reconceive the citizenship as a bridge. The people entitled to sit the test are the British citizens of the future. We might want to think about how the test might be revised to help new citizens cross the bridge to a common British citizenship rather than as a wall designed to keep them away.

Any such redesign would require a more fundamental reflection about what we might want from such a test and what this might say about the ideas about British identity this reveals. Such questions might be thorny and difficult, but these are no good reasons from avoiding them altogether.

3 thoughts on “Thom Brooks- ‘The Problems with the Life in the UK Test’

  1. Kevin T. Keith says:

    Good points all. The content is obviously biased and absurd, as well as impractical.

    It would be revealing to give this test to a random selection of natural-born UK citizens, and see how many of them could pass it. It seems to me that the proper standard for such a test would the level which the average, or, better, a large majority, of current citizens would attain, so it would be interesting to see how much better than the average UK citizen an immigration applicant is required to score.

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