Testing times for citizenship exam as Conservatives seek overhaul
LONDON LETTER:WRITER AND academic Bernard Crick, who drafted the UK’s first citizenship test for immigrants in 2006, ignored edicts from on high to include questions about history.
“I refused, both in principle and on grounds of practicality: could any test for immigrants be devised that 80 per cent of our fellow citizens would not fail?”
It was probably just as well, since an introductory essay to the test dealing with the country’s past was so littered with errors that it led to furious protests from historians and seven pages of corrections.
However, if nothing else, it represented the late Professor Crick’s idiosyncratic charm: an early draft of the test posed a question about what an immigrant should do if they spilt a local’s pint in a pub.
The guide to the test, Life in the UK: A Journey to Citizenship, included a declaration from Crick, the biographer of George Orwell, about the UK’s need for migrant labour – this was later removed.
In 2007, the guide was amended to include detailed material on employment law, the status of women in British society and education.
Explaining the reasons for the changes, the UK home office said it had “tried to maintain an appropriate balance between making the text accessible to those with limited language skills” and not sounding patronising to fluent English speakers.
The reference to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales best reflected the attempt “to make it more of a textbook and less of a piece of prose”: it was now described as “a long poem” rather than “a secular poem of a nominally religious pilgrimage”.
Thus amended, the home office’s current guide for intending applicants declares the UK’s pride “in its tradition of offering safety to people who are escaping persecution and hardship”. The tradition, it says, includes a reference to Britain’s willingness to offer shelter to Irish people “fleeing a terrible famine” in the mid-1840s – words that would be questioned in many quarters.
Undaunted by Crick’s opposition to history, Conservative home secretary Theresa May is returning to the issue, having ordered the rewriting of the Life in the UK multiple-choice questions.
Seeking “a more patriotic guide”, May, supported by British education secretary Michael Gove and others, wants applicants to know that the UK is “historically” Christian, with a “long and illustrious history”.
“Putting our culture and history at the heart of the test will help ensure those permanently settling can understand British life, allowing them to properly integrate into our society,” says the home office.
With history taking a more prominent role, other sections of the test would fall by the wayside, including explanations of the Human Rights Act, welfare benefit rules and reading gas meters.