Packing my bags?

Would you pass the citizenship test? I didn’t.

I was prompted to try it by Sandra Gidley MP (who passed – cleverclogs!) and the journalist Maggie Philbin, who have been highlighting the absurdity of the citizenship test on Twitter.

I’m British-born and raised; got a degree from a good UK university; I’m a school governor and charity trustee; I’ve even served over a dozen years as a local councillor in two different authorities. I thought I was a fairly solid and well-informed citizen. Even so, I only managed 15 out of 24. You need 18 correct answers to pass. All those commentators who think it’s an easy ride to come and live here should try the test themselves.

I’ve been to a few citizenship ceremonies in Islington, and marvelled at the different experiences that bring people from all over the world to our borough. Now I’ll have extra admiration for them for having passed the exam.

It certainly proves their ability and determination to learn lots of facts – how useful those facts will be to their life in Britain, I’m not at all sure.

Earlier this year I was in Hackney as a guest of my Kenyan-born friend Julliet at her ceremony. (It was delayed because the Speaker of Hackney was nearly an hour late. ‘African time’ said Julliet’s aunt tolerantly. The Speaker was a cockney.) They gave out sheets with the words of the national anthem. No need: Julliet and her family had sung it every day at school. But I know more than a few lifelong Brits who’d be lost without the lyrics.



  1. Matthew Huntbach said

    Yes, I tried it and got 15/24 as well.

    Some of the questions were things you’d expect a reasonably informed citizen to know, but many were asking for a level of detail which almost no-one would need for instant recall. For example, I know that women got the right to divorce at some time in the 19th century and that there are six hundred and something MPs, but do I need to know the exact date and number to be a good and well-informed citizen? No.

    When you’ve run the sample test, you can go through the answers, and these show you what is really happening here. There’s a book of facts they are supplied with, and what they have to do is memorise these facts. So, I guess anyone who is reasonably good at memory tests could do that. I am pretty good at that sort of thing, so I think had a I read through the book a few times and committed to memory a few of these random figures, I’d pass with flying colours. I don’t think, however, that would particularly prove anything about my Britishness. I suspect I could do similar if I were supplied with a book of facts about some other country I had no wish to be a citizen of.

    The idea, I suppose, is that in memorising these facts in order to be able to recall them, the potential citizen will somehow pick up a more general Britishness. It is a good example, however, of the type of assessment which in trying to be fair ends up as unfair. It can be called fair because there’s no subjective judgment to it. Suppose the applicant for citizenship had to sit down and discuss being British with some assessor who relied on his or her general feelings for the response obtained. Such a person would be able to do a much better job at distinguishing between someone who really had a good feeling for British values but no head for memorising figures, and someone who had a good memory but treated it just as a game, not only not having any sympathy for what’s behind the figures but actually not really understanding them at a deep level. But someone making a personal judgment is being subjective, they may not themselves be fully able to say why they said pass/fail, they cannot fully claim to be entirely free of making judgments based on matters which should not be part of it (appearance, manner etc). There can be no such arguments about a memory test. Plus it’s cheaper to administer.

    This memory test attitude has also infected much school assessment, certainly at GCSE level, but also into A-levels. There has been a move, partly in order to be “fair”, partly in order to be able to administer quickly and at low cost, towards assessments which are memory tests rather than tests of deeper understanding. Some people can cope very well with this, but take them away and ask them to make practical use of what they’ve memorised and they can’t at all – the memorising was just a game, they can hardly link the facts they’ve memorised to anything else beyond passing the test.

    Somehow, this British Citizenship Test sums up New Labour. One can see they are trying to be fair with it. One can see they are trying to bring in a smooth and easily administered system. One can see they want to be all about facts and figures and not about making emotional judgments. But one can see that in doing this they have brought in something which is extremely stupid and won’t really do the job they want it to, and one marvels at their inability to see this.

  2. Paul Convery said

    I agree. I just tried and also scored 15 out of 24. It’s just nuts. They’re just asking applicants to try and memorise facts. The worst kind of multiple choice exam you could encounter. It’s an embarrassment to the UK. I once tried the US practice test and sailed through. It tested fundamental general knowledge of civics and not just a few esoteric facts.

  3. Biscit said

    It’s a covert English comprehension test isn’t it. If you read the booklet it’s fairly easy, but cold only 13 of the questions could be considered general knowledge.

    I think the number of stats quetsions are exagerated.

  4. Biscit said


    The test is a bit dubious as to the value of some of the knowledge. But I think some of the hyperbole over how irrelevant it all is is getting a bit ugly. I’ve noticed a trend of people getting obstreperous and bullying over being expected to know basic things, and rudely make out that you have to be weird to know the things they don’t. It’s the school-bully attitude of “Intelligence doesn’t make you a better person”.

    The preciseness of the numbers are exagerated. You don’t need to know the precice number of MPs we have as it is multiple choice, and the numbers are far enough apart for anyone who knows the figure is roughly six hundred and something (knowing it that roughly is not arcane or obscure but actually common knowledge) will get the question right as the other answers are four hundred and something and five hundred and something.

    There are plenty of questions in there that are common, general knowledge. As I said, there are one or two questions that are in there just to test the reading comprehension and cognitive skills, and this may not be a good thing. But the denegration of facts and knowledge that is going on in the place of making this point is quite nasty and unpleasant to me.

  5. bridgetfox said

    Hello Biscit

    Thank you for your comments. I certainly don’t denigrate knowledge, as a serial exam-passer and quiz-winner myself in the past. And I’m not sure you are being fair to other commenters.

    An ability to remember facts, although valuable, is not the same as understanding what those facts mean.
    I would not want to be driven by someone who had learned the Highway Code backwards but not been behind the wheel before! A test that demonstrates understanding is harder to devise and to assess, but more valuable.

    I simply don’t understand what this test is trying to achieve. If it is an English comprehension test, then they should be frank about that and have exercises to suit.

    If it is a chance for the would-be citizen to demonstrate their ability to cope in UK society, the questions could be a lot more practical.

    If it is about showing an understanding of the shared values that make our society tick, then I would have expected more questions about age limits, conventions, entitlements, and rights.

    Knowledge is good. But I think it is unreasonable to expect a new migrant to show a greater knowledge of the facts of civics and history than most native-born Brits can demonstrate, unless we also make such a test a standard part of leaving school.

  6. […] Consumer ·Tagged bureaucracy, citizenship, Home Office, NHS I blogged before about the UK citizenship test, that many UK citizens would […]

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