Testing Times

Dates have this habit of rushing up on you like a highlander brandishing a claymore, and tomorrow’s is about to whack me over the head—because tomorrow is when Jane and I do our Life in the UK test. Yes, as those of you who’ve been following the saga will know, it’s now more than five years since we arrived in the UK and over a year since we became permanent residents, which makes us eligible to apply for citizenship—dual citizenship, as Aussies can have nowadays. Which means doing it pronto, before the Home Office or the Australian government change the rules. They’ve already raised the number of years to get permanent residency from four to five, so we were lucky to avoid that.

Unfortunately, there was nothing we could do about this test, which was introduced last November. Some of our friends got in under the line, but no such joy for us. It gets worse: because of this new requirement there was a surge of applications last October by people who’d never got around to applying, leading to an enormous backlog at the Home Office, who now warn that new applications are taking more than six months to be processed—during which they keep your passport. It used to be that you could send notarised copies, but the whole system has been under such strain that they’ve stopped doing that, so once we send our applications in we won’t be going anywhere until next spring. We thought that surely there must be some way to speed things up, but the local Citizen’s Advice Bureau said no, there really isn’t. If we’re lucky we’ll get the results before Christmas; if not, next summer.

In the meantime, we have to do the test:

If you are applying for naturalisation as a British citizen, you will need to show that you know about life in the UK. If you live in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, you can do this in two ways: by taking the Life in the UK Test or by taking combined English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and citizenship classes.

My Spanish isn’t good enough to count as another language, and those classes sound pretty onerous, so that’ll be the test, then. There’s no other way to show that I “know about life in the UK”: not by showing them what I’ve written about it; nor showing them the M.Phil. from a British university with my name on it; nor the simple fact that living here for five years tends to help you tell your Tescos from your Somerfields and your Prescotts from your Blunketts. After all, presence is no proof: I could have been in prison that whole time, missing out on the wisdom of the high street, and how would the Home Office ever have known? No, a test is the only possible way to ensure that applicants from English-speaking settler societies steeped in British popular culture who’ve lived here five years (six, in my case, including the one as a student) do in fact know about life in the UK. And to think I was ticked off when they started requiring proof of English proficiency from applicants from English-speaking countries. We’d never had it so good.

So, this test. Yes, I’m getting around to it; the trouble is, I’ve been getting around to it for months. I picked up the official book and unofficial study guide after getting back from Japan, and found them so irritating that I planned a whole series of posts about the subject for this blog, with accompanying letters to the newspapers and Private Eye; then I passed from anger to weary despondence; then to avoidance, and to writing about more fun things, like Japan; and now the test is tomorrow—um, today—and I’m writing this in the small hours of the morning, because once I’ve done it the fight will go out of me and I’ll just want to forget about the whole thing. It’s 45 minutes long and multiple choice, so it won’t be any worse than a high school test; but by the same token, it won’t be any better than a high school test.

Funnily enough, I’d assumed that the test might actually be about life in the UK, which to me means questions like “what colour is Bagpuss?” and “what is a jaffa cake?” Maybe a few on history for good measure, like “what was a Marathon?”.

Born-and-raised British friends have guessed that it would test us on serious history, like when the Battle of Britain was. I could handle that: Late British History 1815-1951, Hobart Matriculation College, 1984; bet I know more about Lord Palmerston than those civil servants know about Henry Parkes.

And there is actually a chapter on history in the book. Here’s an excerpt:

The Germans prepared to invade Britain but needed to control the air before invasion ships could be launched. But unexpectedly for the German’s plans, British engineers had developed the Spitfire, fighter plane of superior design and performance to those of the Germans; and the British invention of radar gave warning of attacks. The “Battle of Britain” was the aerial battle against the Nazi attempt to destroy the Royal Air Force and its bases as preliminary to an invasion; but victory was a close run thing. Winston Churchill was to say of the fighter pilots: “Never in the course of human conflict have so many owed so much to so few”. (Life in the United Kingdom: A Journey to Citizenship, p. 37)

That’s just part of a 25-page history which isn’t, it turns out, in the test at all. The tested material starts in chapter 2, “A changing society”, which is basically social geography about migration, women and the family (as Jane pointed out, this chapter is very thin, which shows that Britain mustn't change much). Chapter 3, “Britain today: a profile”, is full of population statistics, with a bit about religion, regional differences, and holiday customs and traditions. Chapter 4 is “How Britain is governed”, about the British constitution, the electoral and legal systems, and its place in Europe. And that’s it.

Some of this is simple to the point of stupefaction:

The British Father Christmas is a cheerful old man with a beard, dressed in a red suit trimmed with fur. He travels from an area close to the North Pole on a sledge pulled by reindeer, delivering presents to children. (p. 54)

How could you possibly live here for five years without knowing this? And even if you thought he gave the kiddies a kipper in a sock, how would that make you a bad citizen? Because you might teach your British-born kids the wrong made-up stories about the imaginary man from the North Pole, and they’d labour until the age of six under a terrible misapprehension?

Then there’s the stuff you don’t know off the top of your head, don’t really want to know, and really don’t need to know:

Candidates standing for [UK parliaments] must pay a deposit of £500, which is not returned if they receive less than five per cent of the vote. The deposit for candidates standing as a Member of the European Parliament is £5000. This is to discourage frivolous or hopeless candidates, though many still try their luck. (p. 74)

Every figure in these chapters is testable, so you’d better remember that £500 and five percent—even though the vast majority of citizens will never run for parliament, and will have no more need to know this than I need to know the hours of high tea in Claridge’s. When we foreign interlopers want to infiltrate the British system of government, surely we can look up the figures on the application forms.

But then the whole thing is just figures and dates. The unofficial study guide has a range of test questions to sap the fun from your pre-test evenings. A sample:

  1. What year did women gain the right to divorce their husband in the UK?
  2. How much has the UK population grown by (in percentage terms) since 1951?
  3. What percentage of [the] UK’s ethnic minorities live in the London area?
  4. Where is the Welsh language spoken?
  5. What is the name of the popular tennis tournament played in South London?
  6. In what year did the Prime Minister gain powers to be able to appoint members of the Lords?
  7. When was the first referendum for a Scottish Parliament?
  8. What is the definition of an EU Directive?

The frustrating thing is that I know enough about these things not to want to bother with the details. The stuff about politics and government, for example, feels fairly familiar... possibly because I spent the first ten years of my adult life studying politics. But it isn’t just about having to go through this rigmarole myself—it’s having to watch perfectly normal, educated people who don’t happen to be interested in politics go through it. Strangely enough, people are able to be valuable members of society—this society, any society—without knowing these kinds of things. Here, for example, is all you need to know about those sample questions to be a fully functioning part of British society:

  1. Before 2006.
  2. What difference does it make? You’re here now.
  3. A percentage.
  4. Where in the UK is the English language not spoken?
  5. Do you watch television during summer? Then you know this.
  6. Before 2006.
  7. Before 2006.
  8. What difference does it make? We’re in it now.

The ultimate sign of how pointless this is: at the end of the official book are four chapters of actually quite useful information on everyday needs, employment, sources of help and information, and knowing the law, full of the kind of minor details that can trip you up when you first move to another country—i.e., not when you’ve lived here for five years. This is material that if handed out to new arrivals would be of real value: about getting a National Insurance number, for example. You need those just to get a job here—you won’t last five months without one, let alone five years. So why on earth is it in a book aimed at permanent residents who are applying for citizenship?

Let alone this (p. 99):

Most large towns and cities in Britain have a modern cinema complex showing several different films at the same time.

Thank you, Life in the United Kingdom Advisory Group. We would never have known.

22 August 2006 · UK Culture

In case you haven’t read the “essential guide for the Life in the UK test”, the answers to those questions are actually:

1. 1857.
2. 17 per cent.
3. 45 per cent.
4. Wales. (No! Really?)
5. Wimbledon.
6. 1957. (The divorcing women centenary.)
7. 1979. (Yet somehow, even not knowing that, life goes on.)
8. General requirements that must be introduced and observed within an EU member state within a specific time frame.

Added by Rory on 23 August 2006.

Stay tuned for the post-test dissection...

Added by Rory on 23 August 2006.

Well, I am as British as it is possible to be - born here, lived here all but one of my 27 years, no ancestor for several generations not born in Scotland to Scottish parents - and this was my result on the test:

1. Dunno.
2. Em, quite a lot.
3. Ninety? I dunno, I've never lived in London.
4. Llanystumdwy, but only by the lady in the National Trust office.
5. Ah, I know this one.
6. Pass.
7. A long time ago.
8. Well, I used to know, but...

So evidently I know nary a thing about life in the UK. Maybe they should chuck me out...

Added by Kirsten on 23 August 2006.

Good Lord.

Here's my test for Prague:
1. What time did fashion stop?
2. How old do you have to be to drink legally here?
3. How many heroin users does the average person step over on the way to work in the morning?
4. What percentage of monogamous couples aren't?
5. What's the national breakfast?

Answers are:
1. 1982.
2. Old enough to stand unassisted (to start with) and hold a cup.
3. Four. Any less and I'd complain if I were you.
4. 99% (some are actually working, and too busy for that extra-marital stuff)
5. Pilsner Urquell. In a can. On a tram.

Added by Naomi on 25 August 2006.

Sounds almost like Edinburgh!

(By the way, I’m still planning to do that follow-up post, but wanted to do those concert ones first. More fun than moaning about bureaucracy.)

Added by Rory on 26 August 2006.

A belated note that the follow-up is here:


Added by Rory on 6 September 2006.

Learn more about E-Learning, Politics and Society with Edinburgh University’s online MSc in E-Learning.

←Thank You Falettinme Be MySpaceKnights of Hyperbole→