45 Minutes

So. I’ve been avoiding it all week, but the saga needs a conclusion now that all those reviews are out of the way.

We turned up at the test centre in the New Town—a corporate IT training centre, by the look of it—half an hour early, but were told to came back later; 10.30 was when registrations started, not the test itself. After a time-killing wander around the block we returned, only to be shown into a waiting room where half a dozen others were sitting silently around a ring of tables. There were no more seats together, so Jane and I sat apart and joined the chorus of total silence. In finest Underground fashion, nobody said a word or met anyone’s gaze. Surely this was sufficient evidence that we had already mastered life in the UK?

An elegant young Polish woman took us into the next room one by one to register our details, which took up the whole half hour. The only reading matter I had with me was my passport, giving yet another opportunity to study its stamps and reminisce about Customs Officers I Have Known. Others were doing the same; I spotted at least one other Aussie passport and an American one.

Registration involved triple-checking the spelling of our names and paying the thirty-four pounds for the test, then clicking “I Agree” to a statement that we wouldn’t disclose any of the questions to anyone else. You won’t be getting any here, then, even if I could remember them a week later. None were that different from the examples in the study guide.

When everyone was registered we were all ushered in to the main testing room and seated in front of laptops. The elegant Pole gave us a five-minute explanation of how to navigate through the questions, then a practice run of four questions, which we could do twice to make sure we knew how it worked. When we felt ready for the exam, we had to call over the supervisor to type in the access code... and we were off. The 45-minute timer started counting down in the top right-hand corner, and I started clicking through the questions.

Forty-five minutes to do 24 multiple choice questions. If we finished early we could leave early.

With 42 minutes remaining, I went back to pick up the four questions I wasn’t 100% sure of. At 41 minutes, I went through them all again to recheck everything, wondering when would be too embarrassingly early to leave. My indecision gave Jane the chance to beat me to it. Now that she was leaving, I finished up, clicked on “Yes I’m absolutely done and promise to be British and Alive”, and made my own way out. The time left on the counter: 39 minutes.

We had to wait a couple of minutes while they printed out our test results, which came on a simple laser-printed page with a red stamp on it. They didn’t give us our scores, which was a shame, but you needed at least 18 out of 24 to pass, and I was sure I’d got at least 21 or 22. Possibly 23. Or 24.

If you’re worried that the test is difficult, trust me: it isn’t. If you’re worried that it’s all an enormous waste of time, trust me: it is.

We couldn’t believe the amount of mental energy and anxiety we’d been forced to expend on something so pointless. To think that this was what has been hanging over us all this time. All it needed was a read through the book and some revision the night before, asking each other sample test questions. But without that we might not have passed—most of the questions were about the kinds of things you wouldn’t normally know the precise answers to. And there’s no reason you should have to, apart from jumping through this bureaucratic hoop.

Jane and I went for a coffee afterwards to fume about what a crock the whole thing was—taking great pains not to disclose any of the questions to each other, in case spies from the Home Office were sitting at the next table or reading this weblog.

I have to keep reminding myself that I am actually grateful that Britain offers us this opportunity to become citizens (and that Australia will let us keep our original citizenship); plenty of countries don’t. I am grateful; but that doesn’t mean I have to find any of this rigmarole great.

My main objection to the Life in the UK test is that it wastes everyone’s time (and money: £10 for the main book, £8 for the study guide, and £34 each has added a total of £80 to our £336 dual application fee). Beyond that, it feels insulting to have to “prove” this kind of knowledge after spending at least five years living in and learning about the UK. I can see no good reason why anyone who speaks English as their first language should have to. Language is the main vehicle of culture, after all, and anyone who has grown up in an English-speaking country already knows the essential facts about the UK—and if they don’t, they sure will after five years of living here. (Not that many of the facts in the test are what I consider “essential”.)

It would make more sense to waive any testing or language requirements for people from countries whose only official language is English, as well as people from other countries who were educated at an English-speaking school or university; in other words, to test only those from non-English-speaking countries who can’t demonstrate any kind of official education in English. And even then, you’ve got to wonder what the point is.

Does this test make us better citizens? No; it makes us cram a bunch of pointless facts the night before the test, which we’ll dump out of our short-term memories the next day—most of which have little to do with citizenship as I would conceive of it. Beyond the basic rights and responsibilities that go with it, citizenship has to do with a sense of civic duty and, if you’re of a patriotic bent, pride—not with whether you can remember how many immigrants live in London. It’s not something you can test in 24 multiple choice questions. Even if you could devise a perfect test of all the things you need to know to be a Good Citizen, any such test holds new citizens to a far higher standard of civic responsibility than anyone else in the country—i.e. anyone who was born here, and anyone who has immigrated but chooses to stay a permanent resident rather than become a citizen. Indeed, trying to become a citizen demonstrates more commitment to British citizenship than most other residents ever have to demonstrate officially. We don’t have to, after all; we could just live here as permanent residents. (Some applicants show the ultimate commitment: giving up their original citizenship.)

So if it isn’t really about making good citizens, what’s it about? Keeping out foreign riff-raff? No; we’re already permanent residents by the time we can apply for citizenship, and the real riff-raff won’t care anyway. Foreign terrorists aren’t going to hang about for five years so they can tuck a red passport underneath the dynamite strapped to their chest, while the people who’ve striven to become citizens aren’t likely to blow up the very people and places they’ve spent all that effort trying to join.

So is it about making it seem as if only those immigrants who measure up to the government’s exacting standards can make the grade, so that the government is seen to be Doing Something about immigration?

Whoops, my 45 minutes are up.

31 August 2006 · UK Culture

"... so that the government is seen to be Doing Something about immigration?"

Immigration, one of the absolutely vital elements of a healthy modern democracy, is perversely seen by populations everywhere as a "problem" about which politicians must urgently, but vaguely, "do something."

Anyway, congratulations on your successful hoop-jumping!

Added by BT on 1 September 2006.

And here, at least, the “problem” is a tangle of distinct issues of official immigration, unofficial immigration, intra-EU migration, citizenship, asylum seekers, terrorism, and disaffected British-born minorities.

The way the tabloids go on about it, you’d never guess that the number of people living in Britain who were born elsewhere was as low as eight percent. (One of the few useful facts I’ve learnt from that test. In Australia the equivalent figure in 2001 was 22 percent.) It must be because most journalists are based in London, which has the lion’s share of migrants.

Added by Rory on 1 September 2006.

You make it sound even worse that sitting the Driving Theory Test.

That, too, felt like a stealth tax, because the test wasn't at all difficult, and it evidently didn't play a vital role in fitting me for driving, because not only did I not pass the practical test, I still hadn't passed it when the time limit ran out on the theory test two years later, so I had to sit that again.

And I _still_ haven't passed the practical, and my second theory test has now run out; so if I ever want to have another go, I will have to sit the new, redesigned one, which is apparently a lot harder.

Actually I don't mind its being harder; at least it's no longer a total formality. But I've already paid the DVLA around 75 in order not to be allowed to drive...

I agree that asking more of immigrants than of people who were born here is pretty daft.

Added by K on 3 September 2006.

By the time you get to come back here we'll have devised an "Australian Values" test. We just need a while to work out what they might be and if we agree on them. But we do know you must agree to them if you are a newcomer.

Added by Francis Xavier Holden on 6 September 2006.

"What are MPs? How often are elections held and who forms the government?"

I would have tripped up. Here in Australia they are called MP3s but I don't know what they have to do with elections.

Added by Francis Xavier Holden on 6 September 2006.

To judge by the past couple of days, wrestling crocs will feature strongly... “Are you now or have you ever been a stingray? Have you known any stingrays?”

Added by Rory on 6 September 2006.


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