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British citizenship test questions do not reflect the society we live in

3 min read

Having a sense of belonging to this country is without doubt an intrinsic part of becoming British. But the questions asked of applicants do not on the whole seem to me to reflect the society we live in, says Lord Dubs.


Aspiring British citizens are required to answer questions based on examples from an official book called “Life in the UK, A Guide for New Residents”. In order to qualify for British citizenship, applicants must pass at least 18 of the 24 questions asked.

As the son of a naturalised British citizen myself, I was interested to find out what I would need to know about Britain were I required to apply for British citizenship now and I must confess what I found disturbed me.

Almost all the examples given of eminent British people are male. Of the seven British composers mentioned, none are women, of the ten notable British artists mentioned, none are women, of the nine notable authors and writers listed only two are women. Only one female poet is mentioned, one female director and no female actors make the grade for a mention. Some of the questions asked of applicants are sensible enough, but the overall impression given is that women have been broadly airbrushed out of the UK’s successes and cultural reference points. Afterall there are many prominent women; Florence Nightingale, Mary Seacole, Jane Austen, Ada Lovelace, Emmeline Pankhurst, Marie Stopes, Agatha Christie, Octavia Hill and so many others. By omitting them, we are giving aspiring British citizens a distorted impression of the society we live in and who contributed to building and shaping it.

Other questions, however, beg the questions:  how many people of British heritage, born of British parents, would know the answers, and perhaps more importantly, does that matter? Personally I would struggle to give the correct answers to the questions “when was the Giant Causeway formed” or “the Romans remained in Britain for how many years?”

British citizenship is valuable and it is right that those who are applying have some understanding of life in Britain before they take the important step of becoming British. Having a sense of belonging to this country is without doubt an intrinsic part of becoming British. But the questions asked of applicants do not on the whole seem to me to reflect the society we live in.

And many of the questions, like the ones I have listed above, don’t strike me as worthy of inclusion. Indeed, when I asked the minister directly if she could tell me when Henry VIII died, even she had to confess that she had no idea. I was heartened, however, that she acknowledged that “there are points about the Life in the UK test and how much detail and knowledge we can expect people to have”.

I hope that by raising these issues the book’s next edition might better reflect the UK and what it really means to be British. To borrow directly from Baroness Williams of Trafford’s words “I was thinking about the analogy with Trivial Pursuit: if the same questions have been in play for a number of years, this may be an opportunity to update them”. 

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