On Monday Prime Minister Cameron gave a speech on immigration. There is a lot I might say about this speech, much of it rather grumpy, but I’d like to concentrate on one short passage – his plans for the UK citizenship test.
So let me say one more thing about the journey to becoming a British citizen. We’re also going to change the Citizenship test. There’s a whole chapter in the Citizenship handbook on British history but incredibly, there are no questions on British history in the actual test.
Instead you’ll find questions on the roles and powers of the main institutions of Europe and the benefits system within the UK. So we are going to revise the whole test and put British history and culture at the heart of it.
I took the UK citizenship test in spring 2008. As a liberal-minded person, I was always rather sceptical about this kind of test, but after reading the book, revising the material and sitting the test, I changed my mind, at least in part. If a country decides to put its aspiring citizens through such an exercise, then the way the UK citizenship test has been designed until now was at least reasonably sensible.
The ‘Life in the UK’ test was introduced in 2005, and its main purpose was to make sure that everybody who applies for citizenship has sufficient English, without giving very proficient Eglish speakers laughable language tests.
You may have come across sites where you can do practice tests, for example here or here. Many native Brits are shocked about some of the questions, and many do less well than they’d expect when they first give it a go. Some questions just appear a bit like random trivia (e.g. the dates for the days of the patron saints of the four parts of the UK), even though they make sense in the context of the chapter in question.
But then, if you read the book, you’d find that most of the material is pretty familiar, and getting on top of the material is certainly possible, although I would not want to belittle the considerable efforts many immigrants make in order to become UK citizens. The one thing that really did change my mind was that they kept the trivia at a minimum and actually included a good deal of pretty useful material. Plenty of rights and responsibilities – what do I do when I lose my job? What are my rights when I get a new job? What are parents’ responsibilities in getting their children an education? How do I use the NHS? I had been in the UK for twelve years at that point, had been working full time for six of those years, and yet, there was a good deal that was useful and even new. I bet there are new citizens to whom this knowledge really makes a difference.
On balance, I’d still prefer countries not to test aspiring citizens – but if they do, why can’t it at least be useful? Cameron seems to be begrudging new citizens some of this information (imagine – some of the questions are about the Welfare system! What will the Daily Mail say to that?!) – surely, it has to be right to give new citizens a good deal of information that native Britons had a chance to find out when they were growing up in this country?
So what about Cameron’s suggestion to include more history in the test? I am a historian, after all - shouldn’t I like a plan to include more history in the test? On the contrary - I really don’t think that this is a good idea, not least because I am a historian.
- Firstly, it shifts the emphasis of the test from usefulness to making people memorise trivia for the sake of it. I bet there will be more questions which native Britons can’t answer without revising the handbook.
- Secondly, it is very difficult to agree on what the ‘crucial’ history of this country is and how it should be represented – the issues around the UK’s contested history (or histories) are particularly complex, even more so when you are dealing with people who are arriving from all over the world.
- Thirdly, isn’t it one of the joys of Britain that citizens here can think freely and interpret that contested past as they wish? Isn’t it a very un-British idea to force new citizens to repeat a particular version of the past or fail the test?
- Fourthly, while I think that history is useful and very important, this is not a way of ‘using’ it. History shouldn’t be memorised and repeated on command; it should be questioned and discussed, probed and contested.
- Fifthly, the historical introduction in the test handbook wasn’t very good…
So, Prime Minister Cameron, please be so kind to keep your hands off the UK citizenship test and don’t even think of standardising and taming our complex, contested history!