Inside Story

Life in the UK: the exam

In London, Ian Henderson finds that Britain’s migration test reveals more about its authors than they would ever have anticipated

Ian Henderson 18 February 2011 2616 words

Essex Road, Islington, with commentary by Banksy. quite peculiar/Flickr

THE low-rise shops on either side of Essex Road in Islington are a glimpse of the real London, quite distinct from the Monopoly board I’ve left behind at Angel Station. The businesses are the same as in every other (not-quite) high street in the thick belt of suburbs that makes up London’s Zone 2 transport area. Here trade two dodgy pubs and their gastronomised sister, three charity outlets, a couple of local “Indians” and the obligatory kebab shop. Here is the hardware store with tubs, mops and plastic-wrapped ironing boards, bags of potting mix spilling onto the pavement. Here are the “off-licences,” London’s corner shops, windows pasted with multi-script signs, fruit and vegetables portioned in plastic bowls on outdoor trestles patrolled by the proprietor’s surly and shivering son. And here, too, is what a casual observer might think is a down-at-heel internet café, with secondhand PCs propped in the window beside a supermarket pot plant resigned to its fate. Only it’s not. It’s a computer centre with a specialty in government-funded adult education and it matches the address on my slip of paper. I’m here to tackle the Life in the UK exam.

By way of frenzied preparation I have memorised the textbook, Life in the United Kingdom: A Journey To Citizenship. The book and the exam have been on a journey of their own since they originated in research on citizenship education by political scientist Professor Sir Bernard Crick. Among Crick’s students at Sheffield University in the 1960s was David Blunkett who, as Tony Blair’s secretary of state for education, appointed Crick to chair his Advisory Group on Education for Citizenship and the Teaching of Democracy in Schools. Citizenship became a “statutory subject” in English schools three years later, in 2001. The following year Blunkett, now Blair’s home secretary, appointed Crick to another job, this time as chair of the Life in the United Kingdom Advisory Group, charged with devising the means to promote “language and political literacy for immigrants applying for British Citizenship.” Another advisory board was established to implement the recommendations of Crick’s committee (as set out in The New and the Old, 2003); passing the Life in the UK exam became a prerequisite for British citizenship on 1 November 2005. A year and a half later the exam also became mandatory for people seeking “indefinite leave to remain in the United Kingdom,” a change that made it more likely to be undertaken by citizens of the Commonwealth working in Britain on the old work permits or with an ancestry visa. The second edition of Life in the United Kingdom: A Journey To Citizenship was also published in 2007.

This potted history of the exam is drawn from Dina Kiwan’s Becoming a British Citizen: A Learning Journey, a pamphlet published as part of Lord Goldsmith’s recent Review of Citizenship. Kiwan, a member of that review team, reveals that “participatory” citizenship (“developing knowledge and skills for active participation”) was the “most dominant” of three conceptions of citizenship among the “key players” originally working under Crick (the other dominant conceptions were “moral” and “legal”). “‘Identity-based’ understandings of citizenship,” Kiwan writes, “were relatively absent, with the Crick report making no explicit mention of the relationship between citizenship and nationality or national identity.” But things changed in the course of the policy’s development and implementation. Kiwan notes that the “understanding of citizenship has shifted significantly over the last five years, with diversity and immigration now considered to be important drivers behind the agenda for citizenship.” Thus, in a recent curriculum review, she and others “recommended that a fourth strand, entitled ‘Identity and Diversity: Living Together’ in the UK be added to supplement the three strands of the original Crick Report.”

The increasing centrality of the nation in citizenship policy, at the expense of emphasising participation in political processes, is exacerbated by the fact that the British government has not funded courses on citizenship for immigrants (and probably cannot do so, for political, to say nothing of financial, reasons); instead, one has a book and an exam. As a result, the information on the structures of British democracy in Life in the United Kingdom became just another set of facts to learn by rote at the border. Immigrant citizenship education, dreamed up as an “entitlement” by advisory groups, ultimately became the “hurdle” they regretted and even feared. And an expensive hurdle at that, if you add up the £10 charge for a copy of the book, the £34 fee to sit the test and the £1250 charge (in my case) for the assessment of my subsequent application to “settle” in Britain.

But that’s just history and hard logic: as I sit down before my screen to take the exam my responses are far more personal. For a start, as someone who has long paid intellectual attention to what belonging means in Australia, I’m wryly aware that I’m now assisting Britain to become a “settler nation.” And as a lecturer in Australian literature, I appreciate the poetry of pursuing “indefinite leave to remain.” Strictly, the “indefiniteness” of the leave refers to the fact there’ll be no predetermined end-date on my visa; but “indefinite” also suggests ambivalence on the part of those who’ll grant me permission to stay. To the Home Office I might be a layabout guest taking advantage of excessively polite hosts. And then there’s the paradox revealed by misreading “leave to remain.” I leave to remain is exactly how living in Britain sometimes feels for Australians: like we left our country only to find ourselves in an uncanny version of home.

But all this literary analysis is just distracting me from the exam instructions and my principal feeling as I stare at the screen: fear. You see I haven’t had to memorise figures for over twenty years, and chapters two to six of Life in the United Kingdom are full of them. And these are the chapters that will be tested in the exam.

It is not only the population of Britain (“just under 60 million” in 2005) but its rate of growth since 1971 (7.7 per cent) and the percentage of that population in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (8 per cent, 5 per cent, and 3 per cent respectively). It’s the percentages and numbers who are “white” or of various ethnic minorities, in London and in other parts of Britain. It’s the numbers of followers of each religion and of those who claim not to be religious at all. It’s the ages at which one is tested at school for what certificates in different parts of the country. It’s the age at which Britons can vote, drink, smoke and bet (on horses or on lottery tickets). It’s knowing the age at which children can work without a licence, and that they can’t work “for more than four hours without a one hour break,” “more than two hours on a school day or a Sunday,” “more than five hours (13–14 year olds) or eight hours (15–16 years old) on Saturdays (or weekdays during school holidays),” “before 7 am or after 7 pm” or “before the close of school hours (except in areas where local bylaws allow children to work one hour before school).” I’m a literary scholar, get me out of here!

It is not much use, in a multiple-choice exam, to know how Oliver Twist contributed to changes in the laws governing children’s work, or the ways in which Dickensian sentiment was radical and new in Victorian London. It is not much use to have been brought here to teach Britain’s youth the story of their country’s stories, of how they were stretched and warped over the distance of half a globe; how they came to be taken up by peoples strange to British traditions and unfamiliar with British lands; and how those people came to tell their own stories, which in turn found their way back to London and even to places like Essex Road.

Here in the basement exam room I am one among many characters written in such stories. So is the woman to my left, a Jamaican (all of us must have a passport on the desk). Our twenty-first-century Commonwealth, at least in Essex Road, is now but a shared subjection to the Life in the UK exam.

To my right is a woman from Croatia, whose presence reminds me that we are also learning about life in Europe. It raises the question, highlighted in Life in the United Kingdom, with which I test all my British-born friends: tell me the difference between the “Council of Europe, the European Union, the European Commission and the European Parliament.” None can answer, none wins the prize. I tell them they could ask at the Citizens Advice Bureau: but only as a joke, for Life in the United Kingdom asks you to remember two or three places you can go for information about every government service, and the Citizens Advice Bureau is one place to go just about every time. It is so much the examinee’s “best friend” that its officers might even help you find a real one.

IN FACT, a thousand bureaucrats could probably give us the answer to the European question, and I have such people very much in mind as I ascend the steps from the exam room. I am wholly uncertain about seven of the questions I have answered – you can get six wrong and still pass – and I’m asking myself again, why are all these facts and figures in the book? The mystery deepens when you look at the chapters that are excluded from the test. Chapter one, “The Making of the United Kingdom,” is the history chapter. It’s the most interesting by far for the endless fights among historians, administrators and politicians to which it must be heir. (In the first edition of Life in the United Kingdom this chapter was also notorious for its howlers.) Ironically, the thing that chapter one etched in my memory is a fact and a figure: “The period after the Norman conquest is called the Middle Ages or the medieval period. It lasted until about 1485.” I cannot help but learn this by heart. It’s the “about” that makes it funny.

Also excluded is chapter seven, “Knowing the Law,” which deals with your rights before the police, what legal aid is available to you, what a civil court is, human rights and so on. It’s precisely what I would want a disempowered immigrant to know. Chapter eight, “Sources of Help and Information,” is not part of the test either – as if once you have residency no one wants you to find help. It reminds me that the exam is not a formative assessment: if you pass they don’t tell you what questions you got wrong. And chapter nine, “Building Better Communities,” is also not in the test: it has information on tolerance, jury service, helping at school, volunteering and charities. It’s by far the friendliest chapter: framed as if life in Britain is a permanent Red Nose Day. No need to examine that for truth.

So why have we had to remember so many numbers and lists? Partly, I think, because Life in the United Kingdom, as it has emerged from its assembly line of academics, advisers, politicians and bureaucrats, is a book that mistakes its own readership. The former home secretary, John Reid, announces in the first sentence of his foreword that “[s]ome people will have bought it out of interest, or a wish to know more about the United Kingdom’s history and institutions.” Of course we know that the vast majority of “people” to have bought it wanted to know about the Life in the UK exam as an institution, simply because they needed to pass it to stay in the country. But sustaining Reid’s delusion shows us whom the Life in the United Kingdom book is really intended for: the British-born citizens of the United Kingdom, or at least those already in the national tent.

For there they can be assured that Britons treat women better than foreigners do (in chapter two, “A Changing Society”); that there really aren’t that many people of colour or religious zealots in Britain, but we know who and where they are (chapter three, “UK Today: A Profile”); that bureaucrats have to keep track of a vast number of complicated agencies and functions to make the country run smoothly and fairly, or indeed run at all, particularly now we have Europe to contend with (chapter four, “How the United Kingdom is Governed”); that you’ll end up renting though you’re better off buying but in any event council tax is worth it (chapter five, “Everyday Needs”); and that migrants are good for the economy if cumbersome to govern (chapter six, “Employment”). Ultimately the book tells you just how difficult life in Britain really is – to administer, that is. Admirable intentions aside, in the end Life in the United Kingdom is not a spur to participation in democracy but a collective biography of those who govern.

And as a recent speech by Prime Minister David Cameron revealed, those who govern are still anxious about those who seek “leave to remain,” or even some who already have that right, especially if they happen to be Muslim. Under the guise of wishing to strengthen British citizenship he attacked multiculturalism, and particularly British Muslim organisations, which he portrayed as hostile to religious freedom, women’s rights and democracy. Happily, he left Australians alone.

Stepping out onto Essex Road I caught the Number 341 bus towards the Strand, where I work. From the front seat of the upper deck, that spot where childhood dreams can best be realised, I looked out onto London as the low winter sunlight streamed between the Barbican Towers, across Lincoln’s Inn Fields and down by Chancery Lane. But suddenly I no longer saw the bricks, mortar and gardens, or even this great city’s myriad stories. Instead I saw the metallic workings of the dullest of machines, a complex of steel cogs, wires and vents, the umpteen dreary services on which there is always a bureau to advise. It struck me that the Life in the UK exam had revealed to me a London I had never seen before in seven years’ residency. To hold it all in place is a lacework of desks to which, in the coming years, the people will turn again and again while their rights to residency are examined. And usually, the fact of our being there in the first place means that we will be found wanting.

Today, though, I passed. •