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.

Richard Lewis/AP/FILE
High bar in Britain: St. Stephen's clock tower, popularly known as 'Big Ben,' is seen in London. The UK citizenship test, which was introduced just over two years ago as a tool to encourage greater integration, has proved too hard for most Britons.

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 tables."

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 anonymity.

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 divorce?


•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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