Sunday, February 19, 2012

Exam Time

Poor Jo. Every night for the past fortnight she’s been tucked into a corner of the sofa with her face buried in a terminally dull book called “Life in the United Kingdom”. As if living here through a fifth freezing winter weren’t bad enough, she now has to study like a fifteen-year-old and prepare to answer completely pointless questions like ”In the 2001 General Election, how many first-time voters used their vote?” For this week my wife takes her citizenship test.

Despite the fact that she’s married to me, has lived here for half a decade, has a child who is beginning to speak with a Geordie accent, and is paying our Exchequer three times the average amount of UK income tax, she must overcome this hurdle to be allowed to stay here for good.

The test, which every prospective immigrant has to take, is purportedly about life in our country. That would be totally reasonable, of course, if it actually were. I’d have no complaint if there were questions of real relevance: like how to pay your TV licence or your ex-wife, or who has the right of way on a roundabout, or does Sainsbury or Tesco has the cheapest hummus, or who should be the next England football manager. Sadly none of these are in the book. Instead it’s an old-fashioned history exam torture, with questions about 16th century Huguenots, the Irish potato famine, and whether Indonesia is a member of the Commonwealth: in short, it’s mostly a collection of dull, dry facts with little bearing on living in the UK today. I don’t know which government official dreamed this up: clearly someone who doesn’t have a life at all.

At least back at school, history lessons gave you a flavour of the past, the human stories and drama behind the facts. This book is all percentages and dates, some with vaguely racist undertones: “How many refugees from South East Asia have been allowed to settle here since 1979?”; “In which year were centres set up in the West Indies to recruit bus drivers for the UK?”; and “In which year did married women get the right to divorce their husband?”

“Now that’s a good one”, said Jo. “Much more of this and I’ll be exercising my historic right”.

There are sample tests you can try out on the internet. I had a go with some of my friends, including one with a first class history degree. We all failed. My Mum, who this week passed her 91st birthday and who still has an inquiring brain that’s as quick as lighting, did pretty well but missed several trick questions like “how many Bank Holidays are there every year?” Has it made her less of a British citizen not to know that there are only four official bank holidays, and the rest are called public holidays? Not a bit of it. Despite having worked through the book myself in an effort to be supportive, I tried it again last night – and still failed.

If the test itself is hard, arrangements to take it are even more complicated. You have to book the appointment online but the test centre in Newcastle was so overbooked that there wasn’t a single date available on any day in the future. The system only takes bookings six weeks in advance and every slot was full.

I rang the “helpline” to complain and a woman said coldly “You’ll have to find another centre”.

“But Middlesbrough and Carlisle are hours from where we live – are you going to pay our petrol costs?”

“I can’t help”, came the icy reply. “But you’re supposed to be a helpline”, I replied. “You’ll have to find another centre”, she said with arrogant finality.

“I’ve thought up a great new question for your test”, I said tetchily: “How far does the average person have to travel to take the ill-conceived, chauvinistic, anachronistic Life in the UK exam?” Not surprisingly, she didn’t know the answer.


Peter said...

And meanwhile we are paying huge amounts to support Terrorists and their families to live in the UK. It is totally nuts.

Sandy said...

Good luck with it! Its a nightmare. I wrote a blog post about it recently. The book is a ridiculous hotchpotch of pointless and useless information. I keep it in the loo which is the best place to study it

Tom Gutteridge said...

Great idea, Sandy. I'm going to start a competition in our loo: I'll make copies of the absurd test and whoever gets the highest score wins... a copy of Life in the UK. Or can you think of a better prize?

Rebecca said...

I live in Lincoln, but wound up taking my test in Nottingham (in November) because the Lincoln office only gives the test every other friday and was booked up for the full 6 weeks each time I looked. I finally went with Nottingham. And that was an adventure. The address the website gives you and the directions were WRONG. I wound up phoning the helpline panicked a half an hour before I was supposed to be there because I was standing outside a private residence -- which was the address I was given for the testing centre! As it turned out, the facility was in a place called "Carlisle House" and was not only on the opposite side of the street, but a block up the street from the address I was standing at. Oi!

The good news is I was in and out of the test in 15 minutes. If your wife has taken the practice tests and knows the answers, she should be able to whiz through it. The Nottingham centre let me leave after I finished and even gave me my shiny pass certificate while people were still taking the test.

Of course, my ILR appointment I had in January was just as harrowing, but at least I'm now a permanent resident with my eye on citizenship!

Tom Gutteridge said...

Thanks for the post, Rebecca, and congratulations. I'm pleased to report that Jo also passed - one of only two in her group.

She reports back that quite a few of the questions reflected neither the book nor the test questions. There was one question about "refuse collection" which completely stumped her, as it's referred to as "rubbish collection" in the sample tests/book, and she otherwise knows it only as "garbage". Which is a pretty good description for the whole Life In The UK Test, don't you agree?