Proving my roots: The nonsense that is taking the IELTS test in London…

Screen Shot 2015-02-01 at 12.31.22“PUT YOUR PENCILS DOWN! PENCILS DOWN, NOW!!!” Dumbledore boomed. I almost jumped out of my plastic chair, nerves shot to sh*t. I have a problem with authority. I realized in a heartbeat yesterday why I hate office jobs and didn’t like school very much either. As soon as someone tells me what to do, a little voice in my head screams “screw you, no!” and I just don’t want to do it.

Anyway, the blubbering, sweaty-faced man who looked a lot like Dumbledore minus the magic was not taking any crap yesterday during my IELTS test in London. “DO NOT OPEN YOUR BOOKLETS UNTIL I SAY SO, OR IT WILL BE CONSIDERED CHEATING!”

What a waste of time. Seriously. But in order to get my immigration papers for Canada I must, apparently, prove I am capable when it comes to writing, reading, speaking and listening in English. The fact that I’m English, and a writer, and work in social media, and have been getting along just fine here for 35 years means nothing. Nothing. I must pay £150 to have someone “qualify” me.

If you’re wondering what exactly you have to do for your IELTS test, it’s a whole lot of f*cking about quite frankly, standing in queues and being shouted at like you’re 16-years-old, about to take your GCSEs. How long does it take? Well, it’s supposed to take two and a half hours in all, but I was there in that building from 8.30am until 3pm on a Saturday, because once you’ve taken your reading, writing and listening tests, all in a row, in one atmospherically-forlorn schoolroom, you must hang about for your personal allocated slot to do the speaking test, which can start at any time up to 6pm.

I had to speak about traffic for 6 minutes to a crinkly lady in scarlet lipstick. It was quite possibly the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever done in my life.

“What is your favourite colour car?” she asked me, slowly, like I was retarded, before pressing play on her little recorder. She was staring at me intently, scrutinising my words, as though she’d been expecting me to talk in Swahili. I wound up saying silver and comparing it to spaceships, before discussing at length a time in Dubai when I painted my toenails in a taxi cab. I hope I pass.

Let’s go back. So what happens on the day of the IELTS test? Well, when you get to Westminster University, or whichever British Council institution you’re unfortunate enough to be visiting for this bureaucratic nonsense, you will be instructed to line up to register at 8.30am with roughly 200 people, most of them Chinese, Polish and Indian (from my experience anyway) and a few Brits.

The British people will be the ones scowling, moaning, whinging and generally feeling very hard done by at this insult, which is having to be tested like a rat in a laboratory for traces of one’s actual heritage, which one has undoubtedly been living in unquestioned acceptance for a very long time. (Yes I was one of those people).

You have to be there at 8.30, even though the tests don’t start till 10am – because… well, because it’s all designed to be annoying: “DO YOU WANT TO BE IN THIS COUNTRY? YES? THEN YOU WILL ENDURE.”

“Are you Chinese?” the man in tweed asked the girl in front of me, as I waited my turn to register, “because the girl before you was Chinese. Do you know each other?”

I just about managed to hold my snort back. And my words. It wouldn’t have been a great start to inform this tweed-coated toff that there are 1.355 billion people in China, the largest population of any country in the world. I’m sure he didn’t mean to be offensive, but he didn’t ask me if I knew the Queen when I sat down.

Anyway, once registered we were sent to put our stuff in a cloakroom. This was essentially a classroom with one “guard” in the corner: a woman eating a packet of Walkers crisps. I asked if I could please have some kind of ticket for my bag, seeing as I had my purse, laptop and mobile phone in it but I was told no.

“Just find a space,” she said, boredly. “And you can only take your passport and a pencil in with you. Do you have a pencil sharpener?”

I felt my brow crease. “No, I’m not three.”

“Well, you’ll need one, maybe you can borrow one.”

“I don’t even have a pencil.”

“Well you’ll need a pencil.”

“I haven’t got a pencil, don’t they provide them?”

“They might have some left, if you’re lucky,” she said, shoving another crisp into her mouth.

Turns out they did. Dumbledore handed me one begrudgingly when I got to my test room – but not after I was fingerprinted and interrogated at the door. “DO NOT BRING IN MOBILE PHONES. IF YOU HAVE A BOTTLE OF WATER, TAKE THE LABEL OFF!”

I did snort at this one. Not least because I was expected to have my own pencil and water for a pointless test that cost me £150 to take, but because someone might consider a label on a bottle of water to be harmful or a means of cheating. I have no clue.


First up, the listening test. It goes something like this:

Dumbledore presses play:

Shopkeeper: “Hello John, thanks for coming into my shop. How many tangerines would you like?”

John: “I would like four tangerines, please.”

Dumbledore stops the recording. You look at your answer sheet, at the question: How many tangerines does John want?

You answer the question.


On it went for an hour, in a similar vein. Then came the reading. This was a bunch of paragraphs about native bees versus honeybees. We had to read and answer questions based on the text. The guy next to me, who’d told me he wants to be an aerospace engineer, finished in ten minutes. I was suspicious. How the hell can you take a test that’s meant to take an hour in ten minutes?!

“Reading’s kind of my thing” he told me afterwards. Still, that was impressive. I found an hour just long enough, but to be fair, reading about bees was so dull I had to read it three times just to make myself care. NASA needs him.

Next up, writing. We had a list of a facts to work into a paragraph based on environmentally-friendly activities. 150 words minimum. Easy. The second part gave us a topic to write about, up to 250 words: Some people think mobile phones should be banned in public places like public transport, shops and libraries. Do you agree or disagree? Use examples from your own experiences.

I wrote a bit about tracksuit-wearing teens blasting tinny monotony from their headphones on buses, and a bit about how libraries are sacred spaces that in a 100 years time will be something we’ll remember as fondly as things like spacehoppers and Michael Jackson. I’m guessing you could just write “no” and say why, though.

“PUT YOUR PENCILS DOWN! PENCILS DOWN, NOW!!!” Dumbledore boomed again, and that was that.

Irritating, insulting, yet apparently essential. That my friends, is taking your IELTS test in London.


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