Whatever country you live in, do you know what percentage of the population is Sikh? Or Buddhist? How about the percentage of children in your country who live with both parents? One parent? Step-parents?
What kinds of questions do you think would turn up on a citizenship test? I thought I’d be learning how voting works and how Parliament makes laws. In the US, new citizens learn about George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, so I figured British immigrants would learn about noteworthy prime ministers or about the monarchy. Or the test could include geography, the names and locations of the counties (in lieu of states) and their major towns, perhaps the important rivers or significant peaks. (I can’t bring myself to call what we have here mountains, they’re not in the same league as North American mountains.)
But the test wasn’t what I expected at all. Although everybody calls it the citizenship test, it is officially known as the Life in the UK test, so it isn’t meant to be restricted to the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. While it does cover a bit of civics, it comes down heavily on sociological data, particularly facts about minority groups and children. And most of what you have to learn consists of picayune statistics.
So I learned the proportions of the population that claimed in the most recent census to be Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish, and Buddhist. I memorized the percentages of people in the UK who identify as Black Caribbean, Black African, Black Other, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Other Asian, Chinese, Mixed, White, and Other. They were serious, too: these numbers did actually show up on the test, although in multiple choice questions, which helped.
I studied up on how many fee-paying schools offer education in the UK and what percentage of children attend them, as well as the ages at which school children take national exams, and some regulations about hiring children—kids under 16 can’t work in chippies (fish and chips shops), sell alcohol or tobacco, or deliver milk. I could recite a rough history of the women’s movement in this country, including the year women over 30 got the vote, and the years the limit changed to 21 and then to 18. I could outline patterns of immigration to the UK, which groups came when, and why. Huguenots came from France in the 16th-18th centuries to escape persecution for being Protestants, the British recruited people from the West Indies in the 1950s specifically to drive buses, and so on, but how knowing that helps me be a better British citizen today, I can’t fathom.
In fact, very few of the statistics stick in my mind now, a year later. I do still remember that 45% of British residents belonging to ethnic minorities live in London, where they make up 1/3 of the total population (which means most of the rest of the country is pretty darned white).
The test covers such vital information as when Mother’s Day is (different from the American version, of course), that the Grand National is a horse race, and that Father Christmas dresses in red and has a long white beard. The test designers apparently found it important for prospective citizens to learn that theatre and cinema listings can be found in newspapers.
To be fair, the test does cover a collection of reasonably useful facts for someone entirely new to the culture, although these seem to have been chosen pretty much at random: to buy a house, go to an estate agent (realtor); to dispose of a refrigerator, call your local authority to arrange a collection; if refused a loan you have the legal right to know the reason; medical appointments and procedures are free but there’s a charge for prescriptions. Fair enough. The more of those questions on the test, the more likely I’d find the test, as they say here, easy peasy (though if something is really easy, you might even hear easy peasy lemon squeezy; if you think I made that up, check the Oxford English Dictionary—it’s there.)
As for civics, the test covers the definitions of Prime Minister, Speaker, Opposition, and so on. And I did learn some things probably worth knowing: the difference between the Council of Europe and the Council of the European Union, for example, and a bit about the European Parliament.
I was less thrilled about having to learn the number of seats in the devolved administrations—that is, the Scottish parliament and the national assemblies of Northern Ireland and of Wales—because none of these has jurisdiction where I live. It seemed particularly pointless because at the time I took the test the Irish assembly was not only devolved, but dissolved. (Devolution has to do with giving power back to the countries of the UK by establishing these other parliaments/assemblies; the Irish assembly was dissolved at the time—meaning it was not meeting—because the UK Parliament temporarily withheld that power in an attempt to enforce a discipline it found lacking, since the people in the power-sharing government of Ireland hadn’t been doing much sharing.) If you’re an American, try this analogy: do you know how many seats are in the state legislatures of any three states that border yours? Does it worry you? (Note: if you’re in Alaska or Hawai’i, I’ll give you a pass on that.)
I flat-out didn’t try to learn the list of nations that make up the British Commonwealth (apologies to Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, the Bahamas, and all the rest through to Zambia). After all, there are 53 of them, it was unlikely they’d all turn up on the test, I only had to get 75% to pass, and I’m as certain as I can be without taking a door-to-door poll that my neighbours couldn’t name those countries either. My neighbors, in fact, seem to function very well in complete ignorance of the statistics for how many children in the UK live in step-families.
The day I took the test was fraught. The instructions said late arrivals wouldn’t be admitted and would forfeit their pre-paid fee of £34 (over 50 bucks), so of course a crew showed up to work on in the street outside my house causing a huge traffic jam and preventing me from getting the car out. This made the busses run late, too, so I arranged for a taxi to pick me up on the other side of the traffic jam. I walked to the right spot, but the driver got the location wrong and swept past me and into the tangle of cars, only to turn around and crawl back. When we finally got to Guildford, the driver argued with me about where to find Swan Lane, site of the testing centre, until I finally just got out and ran the rest of the way, arriving on time (almost), but hot and sweaty and in no shape to take an important exam.
I shouldn’t have worried. They allowed me to check in late, and after I finished the formalities, took the exam, and checked my answers twice, I still hadn’t even been there 15 minutes. The whole thing was a piece of cake (or easy peasy, if you prefer). I left with a certificate showing that I had passed, while the other candidates—from Eastern Europe, Africa, and the Far East—were still working; having English as a first language pretty clearly gives you an edge. My husband had just as easy a time when he took the test a couple of weeks later (the vital information about what kind of sporting event the Grand National is showed up on his test). We were ready for the next hurdle: references.
And there I’ll break the story again. I’ll get the next part up in a couple of days—I hope you can come back then.