Migration Pulse

A test too far: New language tests for migrants

Language tests for citizenship being introduced with the new family migration rules will discriminate against the poorest and most vulnerable. The level of the tests is too high and will potentially prevent many from gaining settlement and citizenship in the UK.
July 6, 2012
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Melanie Cooke and James Simpson

Melanie Cooke and James Simpson are researchers and lecturers in language education, Melanie at King's College, London and James at the University of Leeds. They are both members of Action for ESOL. In 2008 they co-authored ESOL: A Critical Guide (OUP).


The new rules outline unattainable financial requirements, and an extension in the wait before spouses and families can apply for ILR and citizenship. The Government has also decided to raise the level of English language and literacy that applicants are required to have before they can apply. This will have profound implications for migrants who don’t speak English as a first language and for people who have low literacy. We believe this will discriminate against some of the poorest and most needy people in our communities. This is why Action for ESOLis joining MRN and JCWI in the campaign against these draconian changes.

Language and citizenship

The current arrangements, while far from perfect, offer the chance for those with an English level lower than that of the Life in the UK (LUK) test to enrol on a course of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) which includes a citizenship component. If they progress a level, they achieve the language and citizenship requirements for settlement, without having to take the electronic test.

Now, the government will overturn this policy at one stroke – for spouses now, and no doubt for everyone else very soon. From October 2013 applicants for settlement joining family members will have to both pass the citizenship test and provide evidence of passing an English test at intermediate level (see paragraphs 113-117 of the Home Office Statement of Intent).  

Literacy and the Life in the UK test

Language experts and teachers believe this is too much for many to achieve. To pass both the LUK test and a speaking and listening exam at intermediate level is a tall order for those who arrived in the UK with limited English, and perhaps limited literacy in their own expert languages. The LUK test is a multiple choice test that can only be taken in English (or Welsh or Scottish Gaelic), and is taken on a computer. Questions are drawn from one source only, Life in the UK: A Journey to Citizenship. The test is therefore quite transparently one of English literacy and computer skills. The test is particularly tough for all people who have low levels of literacy, not only English language learners. We have interviewed several people from former British colonies in the West Indies and Africa, who at one time would have been invited as workers to the UK, but who have struggled with the LUK test because of literacy.

The new speaking test

Likewise, passing a speaking and listening exam at the proposed level, B1 on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, will be very challenging for some. You might think that five years is long enough for anyone to learn the language of their adopted country. But ability to learn depends on the individual, their context and their life history. Intermediate level may well be realistic for someone who is already literate in their own language and who had formal education prior to migration. Things are very different for someone who, for example, missed out on schooling as a child for whatever reason. To suppose that it is easy to pass an intermediate-level speaking and listening exam fails to take into account the impact on learning a language of being able to read and write in your first language. Research is beginning to demonstrate the benefits of (1) schooled experience and (2) knowledge of literacy gained as a child on an adult’s ability to develop their second language speaking and listening. For many migrants, both these factors are missing. Consequently for many people the bar is now simply too high, and the new language requirements will be unattainable.

Access to English is crucial for everyone living in this country. But rather than promoting English language learning for those seeking settlement, the new measures will greatly reduce opportunities for many who might otherwise have been able to develop their English language proficiency to become fully integrated British citizens. We argue that these changes are discriminatory and it is difficult to see them as anything more than an attention-grabbing strategy, which will be to the detriment of the poor and vulnerable.


This is one more unsurprising restriction introduced by Cameron May and Green against NON EU nationals to reduce net immigration numbers as per the Tory manifesto of 2010.
The Cameron Govts actions and U turns show he is very much motivated by public opinions.
The Govt itself promotes anti immigration racist policies which in turn motivates the right wing popular press to print anti immigration biased articles.
I individuals try to introduce objective explanation and discussion into some news papers it is met by a barrage of red arrows!
Yet Roma migrants who have just been moved by the police from London tourist spots have free entry to the UK without any pre entry English or Life in the UK tests!
The policy is perverted and racist aimed at the group of NON EU spouses of UK citizens!

Cameron sees all these red arrows as potential voters for the 2015 general election.
Yet surprisingly in two BBC Question Time progams, one from Middlebro and the other from Derby, when Govt restrictions against NON EU spouses were put to the audience they were loudly critised by the panel and audience together.
Even Louise Mensch joined in the comdemnation of the tests being put on NON EU immigrants!
That of course failed to make the press, who were more interested in her drug use story.
The 2012 Democratic Audit has found that British democracy is in terminal decline!
Corporate power, unrepresentative politicians and apathetic voters leave the UK unstable.
So until the truth lands on the living room carpets of UK voters they will continue to 'sleep'!
Question is how can they be woken from their slumbers to realise the danger to UK democracy coming down the track!

Blog on :)

I remember Mel doing an ESOL pre-election Question time hosted by Tower Hamlets College UCU in which she contrasted the UK 'mess' with Australian policy.

The Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP) is available to eligible migrants, from the humanitarian, family and skilled visa streams. Free English language courses are available to eligible migrants who do not have functional English. All AMEP clients have access to up to 510 hours of English language courses, in their first five years of settlement in Australia. Participation in the program is voluntary.

I still think this should be a basic demand for Action for ESOL: Free English class entitlement with a recommended number of hours based on learners existing English levels.

As outlined in Australian reports and research it is even cost-effective if that's your only compass

...and the link to the program and some of the research. Interestingly the 510 hours entitlement is supplemented by additional hours for those with limited L1 literacy (400hours) and for those seeking work (200hours including 50 on work placement).


The Matrix advise to Liberty of Sept 2010 quoted the Australian model and recommended it should be implemented in the UK.
Liberty asked the Govt for Consultation the Govt ignored Liberty and implemented the Pre entry English tests in Nov 2010.
To apply the Australian model immigrants have to be in country. Cameron May and Green don't want immigrants in the UK at all.
Cameron made the Tory policy clear in May 2010 pre election pledge that the policy was to reduce net immigration.
Cameron May and Green can't touch EU nationals so they target NON EU nationals and to achieve results they are raising the barriers even higher.
If you look on the Free Movement website you will read that now even Barristers can't understand the new rules!
So that gives May a clear run to interpret the rules any way she pleases! Loaded dice you bet!
Objective the 2015 election when the Tory Party want to tell the electorate 'we reduced immigration'! Its a numbers game Immigration - Emmigration = NET IMMIGRATION!

Yes – things do seem to be different in Australia. When Melanie and I wrote our book about ESOL – ESOL: A Critical Guide (OUP, 2008) – we quoted the Sydney-based academic Prof Anne Burns as saying that the provision of English to adult speakers of other languages in Australia is ‘priveleged on a world scale.’ The right to free English language tuition that is available to all adult migrants from the point of entry into a country, regardless of their immigration status, and for access to ESOL should be a statutory entitlement, is central to the Action for ESOL Manifesto, which you can find at …
See paras 7 & 8 - the right to learn the common language of the UK. We associate this strongly with linguistic human rights.

There is empirical research to support the contention that free provision from the point of entry for all has learning benefits. Work we carried out under the auspices of the NRDC at Leeds and King’s College London, the ESOL Effective Practice Project (2003-2006), found that ‘Relative newcomers (those who have lived in the UK for five years or less) make more rapid progress than long-term residents.’ The report recommended that ‘Newer arrivals need adequate provision now so that they do not become the future long-term residents facing more barriers to learning.’ You can download the report and exec summary here: http://www.nrdc.org.uk/publications_details.asp?ID=89 .

The economic benefits of having an English-speaking workforce are of course very difficult to measure. In some recent research we carried out in Leeds, the Harehills ESOL Needs Neighbourhood Audit (HENNA) project, interviews with employers and other ESOL ‘stakeholders’ testify to the importance of competence in the langauge. In the project report we wrote: ‘Stakeholders perceived English language needs at a number of connected levels. Firstly, the ‘basic English’ needed to carry out everyday tasks. Secondly, English for specific activities, e.g. health professional/patient encounters, bidding for and taking up residence in council properties, going for job interviews, working in a particular factory and so on. And finally, on a more abstract level, socio-cultural knowledge, e.g. of how local systems and procedures work.’
The HENNA research is available at http://www.education.leeds.ac.uk/research/projects/henna-project

James no one denies that English is a great benefit for anyone living in England.
But the Govt policy on Pre entry English tests only applies to the NON EU spouses of British citizens. Therefore these tests are discriminatory and racist.
I am a born and bred British national who worked in the middle east with nationals from many countries. We spoke one common language 'Oil Field English' and we kept the oil and petro dollars flowing! It was every day working international English and very effective!
I have taken the sample English test and I knew in Jan 2011 that my NON EU wife who has a BA Degree in Business Studies and worked for two International Companies as a Stock Controller would fail the test. The test isn't designed to pass applicants but to fail them!
My Doctors Practise Manager a mature born and bred British national failed the Pearson Computer test. So have many other British nationals! Similary the Life in the UK test!
My wife lived in the UK for 27 months we have a joint British bank account her name was on the Council Tax bill. We have credit cards which we both use in the UK and overseas!
My wife speaks English to talk to all our neighbours including a retired Judge and with our immediate neighbour a retired Deputy Head who she still emails as she does her English teacher! She studied English for two years in the UK, But thats not enough for the UKBA!
We know these tests are being made more difficult with one purpose to fail applicants! The reason is that this Tory Govt is committed to reducing net immigration number as per their pre 2010 election maifesto so that at the 2015 election they can claim to the voters they kept their 2010 manefesto to reduce immigration!
Meanwhile the UKBA has lost 150,000 failed asylum seekers!
These tests are all about politics and not educating and properly testing NON EU applicants!
The Education industry should be concerned with the restriction on Foreign students and the lost fees and then students and colleges relocating overseas.
In a House of Lords debate it was stated that by 2015 Britains economy will lose £25Bn in foreign fees. A Uni of E Anglia Prof on stated on Newsnight for every 10 foreign students they generate 6 British jobs!
I suggest the real problem is Govt immigration policies. These tests are only a symptom of the trouble ahead! This Govt has one aim to be returned to power in 2015 at any cost!
Go to the Far East and compare Singapore TV and Australian TV teaching English its better than the BBC. In Thailand they have Phillipino teachers teaching Thais English!
Problem with Britains its an Island and its population are developing Island minds and letting the outside world overtake them.
So ELITIST academia needs to wake up before all its colleges and jobs go overseas!

I took the Life in the UK test to apply for settlement (I am America -so non-EU - but a native English speaker- and my husband is English) when I called the UKBA to ask about the Life in the UK test, he said that most of the people in his office failed the test the first time! He said it was vital to study the Life in the UK test handbook, he admitted that he thought many British nationals would not be able to answer most of the questions unless studying the book.

Jessica you are not the only US national who has had the same problem.
There are also Australians and New Zealanders & others who have found the same problems.
I worked with Americans in Saudi and we had no problems communicationg and understanding each other. In fact I worked with americans from all over the US from Texas to Michigan and we had no problems. They understood me and I understood them completely.
But how about a Glaswegian or a Liverpudlian, a Geordi, or other parts of the UK get on?
I bet they would fail as easily as I would or my Doctors British Practise Manager!
Its called the 'BIG SCAM' and its being perpetrated by the British Govt. If it was a business the OFT would be on them like a tonne of bricks for false practises!
How can a British Minister the Home Secretary T May lose her case in Court and the Judges say whe is trying to 'side-step' Parliamentary Scrutiny and continue to get away with it?
IT of course being as the Mr Justice Foskett said in July 2010 when 'English UK' won a High Court Judicial Review against the Home Secretary's decision to raise the level of English which students must have.
Mr Justice Foskett said ''I do not doubt that the change in the new guidance does operate to change materially the substantive criteria for foreign students''.
The Chief Executive of English UK said '' this judgement upholds our basis case that the Home Secfreary was wrong to introduce a substansive change''.
I fail to see the difference in the rulings of Mr Justice Foskett, Lord Justice Sullivan, Mr Justice Burton and Lord Justice Sedley in the matter of the Home Secretary T May's introduction of higher language barriers in previous cases than in her latest increases in language tests for NON EU nationals who wish only to join their British spouses and lead the Family Life they are entitled to under ECHR Article 8 and the UK Human Rights Act!

The latest update on the May / Green immigration policy is as we know the Supreme Court Judgement of 22 July where all nine Judges unanimously ruled May's regulation was unlawful!
There is now four cases in which nine Judges have ruled that May is using unlawful means to implement her anti immigration policies!
What degree of lawful authrority therefore has T May got to continue as Home Secretary let alone continue to defy the Law of England and Wales?
If May is allowed to continue to ignore the Courts, incl the Supreme Court, has she any standing at all to be a Minister of State whoes sworn duty is to uphold the Law Freedoms and Democracy of this country.
May is in effect a dangerous law breaker who is supported in Office by PM Cameron!

Poor applicants, I feel so sorry for them. I am from Hungary, and I have been working in London for 5 years. I have a "non skilled" job, what is pay 4 times more money what I use to earn in Hungary as a qualified teacher. Let me tell you something. If you want to have any degree in Hungary you must have two state accredited language certificate from two European languages; one of therm at B2 level the other at B1 level. And after your degree you can even earn 400 Pounds a month if you are lucky enough and find a job.

I think learning the language of the country you live in is very important. I also think that learning about the country you will move to would be a good step, But doing this to a high standard before you arrive seems a bit odd. It is best to learn a language in the country itself, and preferably from a native. I knew a Frenchman who learned English in Nepal and it was very, well, unusual. Perhaps we Brits should learn Catalan before going to Tossa del Mar, or Ibiza, and be refused entry if not up to standard.

These changes have created a major problem for myself and my husband. We fall into the applied before july 2012 group which means we have to apply for settlement after 2 years and not 5. This means that not only do we have to the life in the uk exam (which we did know about and had planned for ) but the english course as well. There has been no communication from the uk boarder agency to us or probaly any of the thousands of people these new rules will effect. the average ESOL course is 9 months finding the B1 course seems impossible and even if my husband completes the course the end of it is too late for when our visa expires. So what do we do???? Why is there no communication from the boarder agency they check my husbands status for his work so know where he lives and the extend of his visa situation but deglect to tell us these changes. We want to live our life not be constantly worrying about what rule will be changed next!!! The government have not thought this out properly at all. Perhaps the thousands of pounds spent by people like us (ordinary working class) keeps certain people in work. I'm just glad i found it now because maybe i could do something about it . If anyone out there knows were i could find a course that teaches to level B1 in less than 9 months i would be greatfull.

Many language learning websites provide crash courses for those interested in learning a foreign language within a short span of time. I wonder if they use some trick to teach an altogether new language within few days.

Unfortunately, the antics of this disgusting government meet with the approval of the section of the electorate who vote i.e. the Daily Mail and points Right readers, who blame Jews...ooops I mean. immigrants for every perceived problem. An odious relative of mine recently vomited a diatribe about immigrants, blaming them for the tax he pays...before spending the rest of the year on a cruise and holidays abroad. Poor soul. I agree that the Life in the UK test is incomprehensible to most natives, let alone foreigners, and the English test is designed to keep people out. I think there has to be a massive change i public opinion, which is fed by ignorance and prejudice in the media, before we can hope for an easing of the rules.

My wife who comes from outside Europe has been job hunting £10 a day in London while on training.Birmingham £400 a month 6 days a week,3 of them until midnight.On her behalf I tried the job agency.Travail said there is nothing out there.The best we can offer is one week temporary as most firms use their internal labour to cover the jobs.With the expected influx of European immigrants,who consider temporary employment,zero hours,part time,with working on to cover your lunch breaks to be better than what they had,there will be even less than nothing.£18,600 will be well out of the reach of many.This is Cameron`s vote winning strategy to cut down on immigration,but only for those outside Europe.

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My wife is currently studying to pass the Life in the UK test. The odd thing is that she keeps reading me questions and I have no idea about any of them. In fact as an Australian I did not even need to leaner the road rules here, I just swapped my licence for an UK one at the post office. It is stupid there are different rules for different people.

Why does my wife have to answer questions that I suspect the vast majority of British people could not answer?

Why does the wife of my Polish friend have the right to live and work here without any form of test or visa? Yet my wife has to pay? Does this not mean our government is discriminating against their own people? How can a British person's partner require a visa but a European person's partner is free to do as they like?

I can understand the need for border controls, but these are discriminating!!

language of GB is English. I believe that, any person want to get the citizenship should be able to understand the language in various forms. For that there should be sufficient tests medical billing codes and they need to pass it. We are not going to make mistakes like USA for sure.

I have just taken the UK test (online practice site) and received 75% which is great, this means I pass.
I am British, of above average intelligence and I only got 75%? The test is ridiculous, who knows, or wants to know this information? I am married to a Dutch man and even though his English is excellent there is no way he would be able to pass this test.
I am actually quite disgusted!

I agree that to live in the UK you need to have a good understanding of the English language, however please tell me how question 23 is relevant?
All dogs in public places must wear_______ a) a collar with the name and address of the owner, b) wellington boots for big puddles, c) sunglasses on a sunny day to avoid eye damage or d) a raincoat in wet weather?????

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