Some years back, the rules on becoming a citizen of the United Kingdom were changed. Where previously it was based purely on requirements such as residency and marriage, applicants now also had to pass a computerised multiple choice examination. The examination was supposedly about living in Britain, British culture, and British values, and supposedly ensured that anyone becoming a citizen was equipped with the knowledge they would require to live in the United Kingdom.

Since then, this computerised examination has become a useful tool for lazy journalists and TV programme makers wishing to make some kind of point about immigration and multiculturalism. They will get native Britons to sit down and take the test, react with mock surprise when 90+% of them fail, and then use that to prove some kind of point. The latest of these was the otherwise rather good programme “Make Bradford British”, in which they selected their participants from those who had failed the test. (The idea being to take a bunch of people – white, black and Asian – who apparently needed to learn more about what it was to be British, with their failure in the test being the evidence of this).

There’s one slight problem with this. It’s all complete bullshit. The test has nothing to do with “Britishness” and it never did. The key thing you have to understand is that despite what the government say is its purpose, the test is actually a comprehension test designed to test how well someone can understand written English.

(Social Science / Education) Education an exercise consisting of a previously unseen passage of text with related questions, designed to test a student’s understanding esp of a foreign language.

As with all comprehension tests, you first read a particular bit of text. In this case, it’s the government’s publication: “Life in the United Kingdom: A Journey to Citizenship”. The description of this book’s content includes:

…details regarding the latest changes in UK immigration law.

…full information required for the Life in the UK test including chapters on: How the UK is Governed, Employment and Knowing the Law.

…a chapter on sources of help and information, for example, libraries, the police and the internet.

Then, when you think you’ve adequately memorised the information in the book, you take the test, with that test consisting of a series of questions about the book. If you’re literate, have a reasonable grasp of English, and a fair degree of intelligence, passing the test shouldn’t be too hard, provided you put in a bit of time studying, of course.

When the test was first set up, they could have achieved exactly the same result by using a classic novel as the text – Little Dorrit, perhaps, or maybe Pride & Prejudice – which would no doubt have also produced a tidy saving on consultants. So why didn’t they do that? Why didn’t they just be honest and say that they’d decided that only people who could speak English and be able to read should be able to become citizens? If I had to guess, I’d guess they were scared they might be accused of racism.

(I should point out I have no firm opinion on whether or not citizenship should be restricted to literate English speakers, although I do worry that doing so might sometimes produce harsh and unfair outcomes. But what really annoys me is: a) the hypocrisy in not admitting the test’s true purpose; and b) the way the nature of the test is so persistently misrepresented by the media).

But maybe you don’t believe me that the test is a comprehension test, rather than a test of British knowledge. Perhaps you still feel that this is a test that any native-born British person ought to be able to pass, even if they haven’t read the book that it is based on.

Well let’s look at the questions. If the test was truly based on knowledge of culture and values that a native-born Briton would have acquired, simply by growing up in the United Kingdom, then it would consist of questions like this:

You are queuing at the Post Office, when a man jumps the queue and pushes his way in front of you. Do you:

a) Remonstrate with him.

b) Tut loudly.

c) Do nothing.

(Correct answer, B. Option A would be the actions of an excitable southern European, while Option C would be a spineless act, unworthy of the people whose empire once covered a quarter of the globe).

Instead, you get questions like this:

That a British woman has the right to divorce her husband counts as a knowledge of Britain and its values. When this right was created is a matter of specialised historical knowledge. To expect someone to know the answer to that without having first read the book that contains that fact is ludicrous.

Or how about:

Anyone? I know that the population of the UK is about 60 million. If you asked me what proportion of the population is under the age of 19, I might guess that it would be something like 1 in 5 or 1 in 4. If the options in the above question had been 1 million, 3 million, 15 million and 30 million, then it would be an answer that you might expect people to know. But not the above options, not 13, 14, 15 or 16.

And then let’s go with a third one:

At least this one gives you a 50% chance of guessing right, rather than 25%. But does anyone really expect anyone who doesn’t own a newsagents to know the answer to that? (At what age children can start working perhaps, but exactly how many hours? Really?)

How did I get at all these sample questions? Well I tried doing the sample test on the government’s website. Did I pass? Obviously not. Why would you expect me to pass a test which poses questions about a book I haven’t ever read?

Considering I based through it, got one question wrong because I’d misread it, and had don’t no study whatsoever, I thought 58% was reasonable, actually. (And I’d like to think I’m quite bright).

People just need to stop thinking about this as a test of acquired British values. And next time you see programme makers use the tired old cliché of native-born Britons “failing” the citizenship test, be aware of what you’re watching: lazy, bullshitting journalists who should know better.

I think I’ll end with the conversation I had with a co-worker, when I was discussing this very subject, and the fact that I’d failed the test. I explained my entire theory, including a sample question I’ve previously encountered which asks which proportion of the population of the United Kingdom are Welsh: 2%, 4%, 6% or 8%. (Or something like that). The conversation then went like this.

Him: I still think it’s pretty shocking that 90% British citizens fail this test.

Me: But it’s full of questions like the one about Wales. Do you know what proportion of British citizens are Welsh? Because I don’t.

Him: No. But people still ought to be able to pass this test.

Me: So what you’re saying is that you’re surprised that 90% of people can’t correctly answer a question that you yourself can’t answer?

Him: Well, if you put it like that.

It’s clearly about language. Anyone who denies that is either deluded or lying.

If you’d like to try taking the practice test yourself, you can find it here: