Friday, September 16, 2011

The UK citizenship test: is it fit for purpose?


While there is much comment on how immigration might be controlled, there is too little discussion of detailed policy. Readers may know that I recently acquired British citizenship. There are many recommendations I would offer on how immigration might be improved, but first there is an urgent need to revisit the citizenship test.


The citizenship test asks questions related to a textbook entitled Life in the United Kingdom: A Journey to Citizenship (hereafter "Life in the United Kingdom"). This text was published on 26th March 2007 and it is a second edition. The preface still bears the face of the then Home Secretary, John Reid (Lab), who was to announce his leaving Tony Blair's cabinet only a few months later. Applicants need not guess at what the questions might look like: there is also a separate Official Citizenship Test Study Guide with 200 practice questions. Both are easily found in local bookshops.

Each test is different with randomly selected questions from the Official Citizenship Test Study Guide that test knowledge gained from reading the Life in the United Kingdom text book. Anyone that wishes to apply for a permanent work visa (or "Indefinite Leave to Remain") and/or citizenship must pass this test or register on a several month ESOL course (which teaches English and citizenship with continuous assessment). The test takes 45 minutes and there are 24 questions. An applicant must be correct on at least 18 questions to pass the test. The fee - just over a year ago - was £32.28 (and paid in cash only), but has now risen to £50.

The questions are all multiple choice. Some questions have two choices (e.g., A or B), some questions have four choices with one correct answer (e.g., A, B, C or D), and other questions have four choices with two correct answers - and you must get both correct answers to get the question "correct" overall. Confused yet?

Citizenship test subjects

Life in the United Kingdom has nine chapters:

1. The making of the United Kingdom [e.g., UK history]
2. A changing society [e.g., migration, children]
3. UK today: a profile [e.g., population, religion, customs]
4. How the United Kingdom is governed [e.g., UK and EU politics]
5. Everyday needs [e.g., housing, health, education]
6. Employment [e.g., how to find work, childcare]
7. Knowing the law [e.g., rights and duties, human rights]
8. Sources of help and information
9. Building better communities

Test questions only come from chapters 2-6. All other chapters are excluded (1, 7-8). On the exclusions, Life in the United Kingdom states: ‘You do not have to study the other chapters in order to be able to pass the test, but we hope and believe that they will be of interest and practical value to many readers’ (page 4).

It is most curious that chapter 1 – on rudimentary British history – is entirely excluded. Life in the United Kingdom states: ‘To understand a country it is important to know something about its history….Any account of history, however, is only one interpretation. Historians often disagree about what to include and what to exclude’ – and so the test has excluded all discussion of history (7). The test book also states: ‘[Oliver Cromwell] also finally put down the Irish rebellion which had begun in 1641, using so much violence that even today the memory of Cromwell is still hated by some Irish Catholics’ (15).

It is also curious that chapter 7 – on rudimentary legal knowledge – is excluded as well. This chapter covers the following topics:

• Reporting a crime
• Racially and religiously motivated crime
• Police duties and making complaints about the police
• Search and arrest procedures
• The UK’s court system and legal advice
• The Human Rights Act and equal opportunities
• Marriage and divorce
• Child protection
• Consumer protection

Test questions

The test booklet contains a few sample test questions. These are samples of the kinds of questions that you might get on the test. One easy example:

Where is the Prime Minister’s official home in London?
A. Downing Street
B. Parliament Square
C. Richmond Terrace
D. Whitehall Place

Of course, the answer is A.

But now see the last sample question, a question on the test (and on my actual test):

Which TWO places can you go to if you need a National Insurance number?
A. Department for Education and Skills
B. Home Office
C. Jobcentre Plus
D. Social security office

The answers are C, D. There are several problems with this SAMPLE question ON ACTUAL TESTS FOR CITIZENSHIP, namely, A and D do not exist! Furthermore, I phoned the Home Office – who arranged my interview at the Department of Work & Pensions – to get my National Insurance card. And it gets worse…as the test uses old census data (from 2001), etc.

By what percentage is the average hourly pay of women lower than men’s?
A. 5%
B. 10%
C. 15%
D. 20%

The correct answer is D, but should be C. Consider further questions:

In 2001 the population of the UK was nearly (p. 38):
A. 56 million
B. 58 million
C. 60 million
D. 62 million

The correct answer is C -- there were about 60,000,000 in the UK ten years ago -- although the present population is over 62 million. There are also out of date questions about demographics by religion and ethnicity, but also on basic matters of British politics (you’d think British politicians endorsing this test would be aware of):

How many parliamentary constituencies are there? (p. 54)
A. 464
B. 564
C. 646
D. 664

The test's answer code states that the correct answer is C. However, this is false: there are actually 650 parliamentary constituencies with new proposals to reduce this much further still. Now let's look at EU politics:

How many seats does the UK hold in the European Parliament? Page 56
A. 58
B. 68
C. 78
D. 88

The test claims that the correct answer is C (e.g., the UK holds 78 seats), but the correct answer is 72 and closer to B. Nor do the mistakes end with politics. For example, consider the following:

Young people from families with low income can get financial help with their studies when they leave school at 16. This help is called: (page 72)
A. Education Support Grant
B. Further Learning and Training Support Allowance
C. Education Maintenance Allowance
D. Post-16 Education Allowance

The "correct" answer for the test is C. However, the current government has scrapped EMA - so no such support exists in fact.

Curiosities on the test

There are also further questions that merit special mention. Perhaps all of the below should be on the test. I raise them because they are perhaps either especially tricky, baffling or perhaps even bizarre.

Women in Britain first got the vote in:
A. 1882
B. 1918
C. 1928
D. 1945

This is a tricky one. The answer is B, but note that it was not until 1928 that women could vote at same age as men. Now try this:

Which of the following countries is NOT a member of the Commonwealth? (page 53)
A. Mozambique
B. Seychelles
C. Singapore
D. Indonesia

The correct answer is D. But does this knowledge speak to one's merits for British citizenship?
– correct is D. But on a UK citizenship test?

A quango is (page 54)
A. A government department
B. A non-departmental public body
C. An arm of the judiciary
D. An educational establishment

The correct answer is B. Quangos? On a UK citizenship test?


There is much more we could say about the test. There are quite a few questions regarding demographics. These are all based on 2001 census data now out of date. It is worth noting that there are now several questions noting non-existent government departments, etc.: passing the test involves knowing facts about life in the UK in March 2007 and disregarding how the country has changed since (two governments later).

Perhaps all new citizens should take a test. I think it is a concern that this test would have such factual inaccuracies plus lack engagement with knowledge we might expect such a test to cover, such as British history and basic elements of British law, such as human rights.

I raise these points in this post because I imagine the situation unknown to many in the general public. It is high time the test was redesigned at the very least.

And, yes, I'd be happy to provide concrete suggestions to government for how it could be much improved if contacted.


Richard Baron said...

Thom, that's hilarious, if depressing. I guess this is what happens if you do not allocate resources to maintenance of the test. You have to write the book in 2007, and then test knowledge of what that book says, rather than of the facts. The system does what it was designed to do, and the Civil Service is happy. The fact that the system does something silly is neither here nor there.

I wonder whether other countries do this better. You can see samples from the German test at either of these locations:

Thom Brooks said...

Indeed, it is! It makes you wonder is being tested... Many thanks for sending me the German tests: I haven't seen them before although I have seen the US test (which has its own problems, but at least the answers are correct).