Life in the United Kingdom: A Journey to Citizenship

Chapter 2. A Changing Society


Migration to Britain


Many people living in Britain today have their origins in other countries. They can trace their roots to regions throughout the world such as Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. In the distant past, invaders came to Britain, seized land and stayed. More recently, people came to Britain to find safety, jobs and a better life.


Britain is proud of its tradition of offering safety to people who are escaping persecution and hardship. For example, in the 16th and 18th centuries, Huguenots (French Protestants) came to Britain to escape religious persecution in France. In the mid-1840s there was a terrible famine in Ireland and many Irish people migrated to Britain. Many Irish men became labourers and helped to build canals and railways across Britain.


From 1880 to 1910, a large number of Jewish people came to Britain to escape racist attacks (called "pogroms") in what was then called the Russian Empire and from the countries now called Poland, Ukraine and Belarus.



Migration since 1945


After the Second World War (1939-45), there was a huge task of rebuilding Britain. There were not enough people to do the work, so the British government encouraged workers from Ireland and other parts of Europe to come to the UK to help with the reconstruction. In 1948, people from the West Indies were also invited to come and work.


During the 1950s, there was still a shortage of labour in the UK. The UK encouraged immigration in the 1950s for economic reasons and many industries advertised for workers from overseas. For examples, centres were set up in the West Indies to recruit people to drive buses. Textile and engineering firms from the north of England and the Midlands sent agents to India and Pakistan to find workers. For about 25 years, people from the West Indies, India, Pakistan, and later Bangladesh, travelled to work and settle in Britain.


The number of people migrating from these areas fell in the late 1960s because the government passed new laws to restrict immigration to Britain, although immigrants from "old" Commonwealth countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada did not have to face such strict controls. During this time, however, Britain did admit 28,000 people of Indian origin who had been forced to leave Uganda and 22,000 refugees from South East Asia.


In the 1980s the largest immigrant groups came from the United States, Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand. In the early 1990, groups of people from the former Soviet Union came to Britain looking for a new and safer way of life. Since 1994 there has been a global rise in mass migration for both political and economical reasons. 



Check that you understand:


Some of the historical reasons for immigration to the UK

Some of the reasons for immigration to the UK since 1945

The main immigrant groups coming to the UK since 1945, the countries they came from and kind of work they did


The changing role of women


In 19th-century Britain, families were usually large and in many poorer homes men, women and children all contributed towards the family income. Although they made an important economic contribution, women in Britain had fewer rights than men. Until 1857, a married woman had no right to divorce her husband. Until 1882, when a woman got married, her earnings, property and money automatically belonged to her husband.


In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an increasing number of women campaigned and demonstrated for greater rights and, in particular, the right to vote. They became known as "Suffragettes". These protests decreased during the First World War because women joined in the war effort and therefore did a much greater variety of work than they had before. When the First World War ended in 1918, women over the age of 30 were finally given the right to vote and to stand for election to Parliament. In was not until 1928 that women won the right to vote at 21, at the same age as men.


Despite these improvements, women still faced discrimination in the workplace. For example, it was quite common for employers to ask women to leave their jobs when they got married. Many jobs were closed to women and it was difficult for women to enter universities. During the 1960s and 1970s there was increasing pressure from women for equal rights. Parliament passed new laws giving women  the right to equal pay and prohibiting employers fro discriminating against women because of their sex.


Women in Britain today


Women in Britain today make up 51% of the population and 45% of the workforce. These days girls leave school, on average, with better qualifications than boys and there are now more women than men at university.


Employment opportunities for women are now much greater than they were in the past. Although women continue to be employed in traditional female areas such as healthcare, teaching, secretarial and retail work, there is strong evidence that attitudes are changing, and women are now active in a much wider range of work than before. Research shows that very few people today believe that women in Britain should stay at home and not go out to work. Today, almost three-quarters of women with school-age children are in paid work.


In most households, women continue to have the main responsibility for childcare and housework. There is evidence that there is now greater equality in homes and that more men are taking some responsibility for raising the family and doing housework. Despite this progress, many people believe that more needs to be done to achieve greater equality for women. There are still examples of discrimination against women, particularly in the workplace, despite the laws that exist to prevent it. Women still do not always have the same access to promotion and better-paid jobs. The average hourly pay rate for women is 20% less that for men, and after leaving university most women still earn less than men.


Check that you understand:


When women aged over 30 were first given the right to vote

When women were given equal voting rights with men

Some of the important developments to create equal rights in the workplace



Children, family, and young people


In the UK, there are almost 15 million children and young people up to the age of 19. This is almost one-quarter of the UK population.


Over the last 20 years, family patterns in Britain have been transformed because of changing attitudes towards divorce and separation. Today, 65% of children live with both parents, almost 25% live in the lone-parent families, and 10% live with a stepfamily. Most children in Britain receive weekly pocket money from their parents and many get extra money for doing jobs around the house.


Children in the UK do not play outside the home as much as they did in the past. Part of the reason for this is increased home entertainment such as television, videos and computers. There is also increased concern for children´s safety and there are many stories in newspapers about child molestation by strangers, but there is no evidence that this kind of danger is increasing.


Young people have different identities, interests and fashions to older people. Many young people move away from their family home when they become adults but this varies from one community to another.




The law states that children between the ages of 5 and 16 must attend school. The tests that pupils take are very important, and in England and Scotland children take national tests in English, mathematics and science when they 7, 11 and 14 years old. (In Wales, teachers assess children´s progress when they are 7 and 11 and they take a national test at the age of 14). The tests give important information about children´s progress and achievement, the subjects they are doing well in and the areas where they need extra help.


Most young people take the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), or, in Scotland, Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) Standard Grade examinations when they are 16. At 17 and 18, many take vocational qualifications, General Certificates of Education at an Advanced Level (AGCEs), AS level units or Higher / Advanced Higher Grades in Scotland. Schools and colleges will expect good GCSE or SQA Standard Grade results before allowing a student to enrol on an AGCE or Scottish Higher / Advanced Higher course.


AS levels are Advanced Subsidiary qualifications gained by completing three AS units. Three AS units are considered as one-half of an AGCE. In the second part of the course, three more AS units can be studied to complete the AGCE qualification.


Many people refer to AGCEs by the old name of A Levels. AGCEs are the traditional route for entry to higher education courses, but many higher education students enter with different kinds of qualifications.


One of the tree young people now go on to higher education at college or university. Some young people defer their university entrance for a year and take a "gap year". This year out of education often includes voluntary work and travel overseas. Some young people work to earn and save money to pay for their university fees and living expenses.


People over 16 years of age may also choose to study at Colleges of Further Education or Adult Education Centres. There is a wide range of academic and vocational courses available as well as courses which develop leisure interests and skills. Contact your local college for details.




It is common for young people to have a part-time job while they are still at school. It is thought that there are 2 million children at work at any one time. The most common jobs are newspaper delivery and work in supermarkets and newsagents. Many parents believe that part-time work helps children to become more independent as well as providing them (and sometimes their families) with extra income.


There are laws about the age when children can take up paid work (usually not before 14), the type of work they can do and the number of hours they can work.


It is very important to note that there are concerns for the safety of children who work illegally or who are not properly supervised and the employment of children is strictly controlled by law.


Health hazards


Many parents worry that their children may misuse drugs and addictive substances.




Although cigarette smoking has fallen in the adult population, more young people are smoking, and more girls smoke than boys. By law, it is illegal to sell tobacco products to anyone under 16 years old. In some areas, smoking in public buildings and work environments is not allowed.




Young people under the age of 18 are not allowed to buy alcohol  in Britain, but there is concern about the age some young people start drinking alcohol and the amount of alcohol they drink at one time, known as "binge drinking". It is illegal to be drunk in public and there are now more penalties to help control this problem, including on-the-spot fines.


Illegal drugs:


As in most countries, it is illegal to possess drugs such as heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, amphetamines and cannabis. Current statistics show that half of all young adults, and about a third of the population as a whole, have used illegal drugs at one time or another.


There is strong link between the use of hard drugs (e.g. crack cocaine and heroin) and crime, and also hard drugs and mental illness. The misuse of drugs has a huge social and financial cost for the country. This is a serious issue and British society needs to find an effective way of dealing with the problem.


Young people´s political and social attitudes


Young people in Britain can vote in elections from the age of 18. In the 2001 general election, however, only 1 in 5 first-time voters used their vote. There has been a great debate over the reasons for this. Some researchers think that one reason is that young people are not interested in the political process.


Although most young people show little interest in party politics, there is strong evidence that many are interested in specific political issues such as the environment and cruelty to animals.


In 2003 a survey of young people in England and Wales showed that they believe the five most important issues in Britain were crime, drugs, war/terrorism, racism and health. The same survey asked young people about their participation in political and community events. They found that 86% of young people had taken part in some form of community event over the past year, and 50% had taken part in fund-raising or collecting money for charity. Similar results have been found in surveys in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Many children first get involved in these activities while at school where they study Citizenship as part of the National Curriculum.



Check that you understand:


The proportion of all young people who go on to higher education

Lifestyle patterns of children and young people(e.g. pocket money, leaving home on reaching adulthood)

Changing family patterns and attitudes to changing family patterns (e.g. divorce)

That education in Britain is free and compulsory, and that there is compulsory testing (in England and Scotland) at ages 7, 11 and 14; there are also GSCE and / or vocational exams at 16; and Advanced level exams (A and AS) at ages 17 and 18

That there is a government target that half of all young people attend higher education

That there are strict laws regarding the employment of children

That there are important health concerns and laws relating to children and young people and smoking, alcohol and drugs

That young people are eligible to vote in elections from age 18.

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