U.K. citizenship test: Too hard for most Britons

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Thu Jan 31 17:58:32 UTC 2008

from the January 31, 2008 edition -

U.K. citizenship test: Too hard for most Britons

The fact that few Britons could pass the test has again raised criticism
that the bar is set too high. By Mark Rice-Oxley | Correspondent of The
Christian Science Monitor


For Rose, a Jamaican woman eager to secure British citizenship, it was the
questions about schooling that proved most baffling. "Half the stuff I
didn't know about," she confessed after taking and failing the citizenship
test that immigrants here must pass to get a British passport. "They are
things that are not relevant to me and my life, like how old a child is
when it does tests at school." If you think that question's tough (answer:
7, 11, 14, and 16), try answering these: What is the population of Wales?
When is the national day for England? And what proportion of young people
in the United Kingdom who became first-time voters in the 2001 general
election actually used their vote?

If, like Rose (who didn't want to give her surname), you were lost for
answers, you'll struggle to get a British passport. It's no disgrace.
According to recent research, only 1 in 7 British citizens would pass the
exam. An online version of the test found Britons less knowledgeable about
their own country than Poles, Finns, Swedes, or Germans. Of more than
11,000 Britons who took the mock test, only 1,585 achieved the 75 percent
passing grade. The fact that few Britons could clear this last hurdle to
citizenship has again raised criticism that the bar is set too high.
Government data show that almost 1 in 3 people have failed the test since
its introduction in November 2005. "This demonstrates that the test isn't
straightforward," says Henry Dillon, the editor of a study guide that
helps immigrants prepare for the so-called "Life in the UK Test." "It is
something you have to study for in the same way you have to do for your
driving test." He adds: "We discovered if you average out the response
into different nationalities, that the Brits were only sixth in the league

Yet officials are sanguine. "It's got to be a genuine test," said a
government spokeswoman. "We're comfortable with the fact that if people
fail the test, they don't get citizenship. The idea is that people
demonstrate that they have an understanding of British society and culture
and that's what will enable them to integrate." The response hints at a
new, tough approach toward immigration in Britain, where the issue has
become highly sensitive amid a surge of arrivals in recent years, and a
sense that immigrants do not always assimilate comfortably with mainstream
society. An authoritative demographic study late last year predicted that
the 60-million strong population would grow by 4.4 million over the next
decade, and that almost half of the increase would be fueled by migration.

New way to evaluate arrivals

To face this challenge, the government is to roll out in the coming weeks
a new system of evaluating would-be arrivals, which borrows from an
Australian system of allocating "points" to migrants and only accepting
those who score highly. Points reflect aptitude, age, experience, earning
potential, and labor-market needs. "It's not about reducing numbers but
about making sure we only have the people that we need, people who fill
shortage occupations or people who are going to bring money to the
country," says one Home Office official, on customary condition of

More-liberal voices are aghast that politicians refuse to emphasize the
benefits of immigration. The government's figures show that migration
added 6 billion (about $12 billion) to economic growth last year, that
migrants are more productive than native workers, and that migrants create
jobs as well as fill vacancies.

"Public concerns about immigration seem relentless," says Danny
Sriskandarajah, a migration expert with the London-based Institute for
Public Policy Research. "We've had high immigration, and with it, high
public anxiety about immigration. The government is looking for ways to
reduce the overall numbers of people coming to the UK, and as they can't
control EU arrivals in any meaningful way, they have turned their
attention to non-EU nations."

The citizenship test was introduced just over two years ago as a tool to
encourage greater integration among those who have been granted
immigration rights.

Controversial in several countries

The idea has proven controversial in several countries, including the
United States, Australia, the Netherlands, and in Germany, attracting
criticism both for esoteric questions and, in some places, for leading
questions about an applicant's cultural sensitivities. A furor in Germany
in 2006 over questions proposed by two states resulted in new national
citizenship standards.

Australia's test came under fire earlier this month when it emerged that
20 percent of applicants were failing. Critics said it should be about
knowledge and culture, about the political system and everyday life  not,
in the words of one detractor, "about what happened 20 years ago in some
cricket match."

But one of the architects of the British citizenship tests, Sir Bernard
Crick, who drew up the booklet that applicants are supposed to study in
preparation, defended the idea of the citizenship test, saying that it was
a worthwhile exercise in educating people about the new country they find
themselves in.

"At least you know they are learning some essential information about the
nature of the UK  there are local councils, local MPs, and the police are
by and large friendly," he says. "A lot of people come from countries
where you wouldn't even go near the police."

He added that it was also useful to assess assimilation in an age when the
self-segregation of communities has become a major concern.

"You don't want to issue passports promiscuously if you think people are
living simply within their own minority communities and have no knowledge
of the wider range of communities," Sir Bernard says.

Citizen test questions around the world


 When did all 18-year-olds get the vote?

 Where does Father Christmas come from?

 What's the minimum time you must have been married before you can


Who was president during the Civil War?

What is the most important right granted to United States citizens?


Which colors are represented on the Australian flag?

Which animals are on the coat of arms?


Britain: 1969; The North Pole; One year.

US: Abraham Lincoln; The right to vote.

Australia: Blue, red, and white; Kangaroo and emu.

Compiled by Peter Smith

Source: UK Home Office, BBC, US Citizenship and Immigration Services,
Australian Office of the Immigration


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