English test derailing Irish dream of Australian citizenship

Examination gets international exposure after the case of Tipperary champion rower Kevin Wall

Kevin Wall on Swan River in Perth, Western Australia.

Kevin Wall on Swan River in Perth, Western Australia.


A stringent English language test is delaying or denying many Irish people from getting Australian citizenship.

The test difficulty got national exposure because of the case of Co Tipperary man Kevin Wall.

He just missed out on the Irish rowing squad for the London Paralympics, but, now living in Perth, is recording times good enough to get him to Rio next year representing Australia if he can get citizenship in time.

Two weeks ago he became Western Australia state champion in his category, but Mr Wall has failed the English language test three times.

“For the first time in my life, my disability is not holding me back,” he told The Irish Times. “It’s paperwork and bureaucrats.”

Mr Wall (29), was born with cerebral palsy. “It was said to my parents ‘shove this guy in a wheelchair. He’ll never walk, he’ll never talk.’ I spent over a decade doing speech therapy and physiotherapy. Not alone did I make it to primary school, I made it 15,000 miles to the other side of the world.”

He qualified as a mechanic at Waterford Institute of Technology in 2004 and moved to Australia in 2011.

“How the visa system works is it’s all based on points for whatever circumstances you have,” Mr Wall said.

“ Because I have cerebral palsy, no mechanic has sponsored me, so I’ve had to go on an independent visa, but I was short 10 points. To get those 10 points I have to do the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) exam.

“I have to achieve a mark seven or higher in each of the four aspects, reading, writing, speaking and listening. I have done the exam three times and failed by half a mark each time. I failed in different aspects each time.”

Richard Coates, a Dublin man who has lived in Australia since 1994, works as a migration agent in Adelaide.

He says it is not unusual for tradespeople to have difficulties with IELTS.

“It’s demeaning to them,” he said.

“It’s degrading … because they come from an English-speaking background. It’s also expensive, at around AU$330 (€204) per sitting. It can rise to an average fee of $2,000 before a client achieves what they need to achieve.

“The problem is it’s a test you can only supply one result for. On each of the four bands of the test, the person sitting it must get a specific level. Level seven, which is proficient English, gives you 10 points, and level eight, which is superior English, gives you 20. A lot of Irish and English people, if they haven’t got enough points, will need to pass level seven,” Mr Coates said.

“If they drop down by 0.5 in any of the four bands, they haven’t got the required level, regardless of how well they did in the other three. So they have to go back to do it again, concentrate on the one they fell down on and pass that, but find they have now failed on a band they passed the last time. So they fail again because you are not allowed to combine two tests. You have to pass all four bands in one go. I’ve written to the Australian government twice about this. My argument is that this is unfair, they should allow two sittings to be combined.”

Mr Coates said 90 per cent of the Irish people who do the test fail it at least once.

“It could be grammar, it could be spelling. Most of the people sitting the test are tradespeople. This test is not designed for people with trades, people who use their hands. The test wasn’t designed for someone with general skills.”

David Ingram, a linguist who is one of the designers of IELTS, agreed and said it was not meant to be used as an immigration test.

“It concerns me greatly,” he said. “And as a person who’s spent a lot of his life working in the area of testing, it seems to me that it is unethical to be using tests that have been developed for one purpose, for another.”

Mr Ingram feels so strongly about the issue he has written to an Australian government productivity inquiry warning of a skills shortage unless skilled migrants are able to choose between a wider range of tests.

Despite the setbacks, Mr Wall is confident he will make it to Rio to represent Australia.

“It’s my dream. The more people that get behind me, it will happen. I’m pushing it because every fibre in me wants to row for Australia.”