Why CBSE’s Plan To Psychologically Test Staff Is Extremely Flawed

India is notoriously known as a country where prudent law-making is often coupled (or rather contrasted) with poor enforcement strategies and capabilities. Against the backdrop of a slew of unfortunate incidents involving kids at some well-known Delhi schools (particularly the one involving the death of a 7-year-old boy in the school premises), the response from the concerned authorities, although swift, lacks reflection and does not come across as a move that has been well-thought about.

The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) has released a circular setting various safety measures that schools ought to undertake to ensure the safety of children. One of the measures recommended in the circular calls for the psychological assessment of all staff, particularly the non-teaching staff such as bus drivers, conductors, peon and other support staff – to be performed in  a ‘careful and detailed manner’. A quick call to the CBSE to clarify which psychological assessments are considered valid enough to screen these school employees is met with a non-definitive, opaque response.

Meanwhile, as school administrators are tirelessly contacting psychologists all over the country seeking more information on the available options, there is no consensus even among psychologists about which tests are relevant for this situation. This is because the original CBSE circular has failed to provide any insight into or even allude to the problem that could be addressed or solved using psychological testing. Is the aim of testing merely to generate a personality and psychopathological profile of the school staff? Or is the objective to screen out ‘anti-social’ personality (if that is the only personality trait to be focused on) in order to make hiring (or firing) decisions? Or is it to predict the potential for violence among school employees?

A clinical psychologist usually needs to be aware of the purpose of testing before conducting an assessment, so that they can select the test(s) most relevant to addressing the defined problem. Additionally, the circular does not mention that the same set of psychological assessments should be administered at each school, across the nation.

Only a clinical psychologist who possesses an MPhil or a Doctorate in Psychology and is licensed by the Rehabilitation Council of India (RCI), can legally conduct conduct psychological assessments and reports in India. A task force of expert clinical psychologists and forensic psychologists needs to be established to provide insights on this critical endeavor that India’s education system is about to embark upon in a big way.

Unfortunately, till then, the school administrators who are clueless about appropriate testing procedures will possibly seek guidance from service providers (whether they are licensed psychologists or not) – without investigating their credentials and training required to administer and analyse such tests. The lack of clear guidance from CBSE and the absence of consensus among psychologists (till now) will probably push school administrators into making their decisions purely on financial considerations. This will (and probably already has) opened financial opportunities for non-licensed service providers who will take advantage of the lack of clarity. This can have adverse consequences.

Pradyuman’s death in the premises of the Ryan International School apparently influenced the CBSE to issue a circular calling for psychometric tests in all its schools. (Photo by Parveen Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

As for cost considerations, the CBSE’s recent mandates for various safety measures at schools have already put financial burden on school administrators. In addition, a detailed psychological assessment will be a time-consuming and expensive undertaking. An ideal psychological assessment must include a brief interview, along with a couple of standardised self-report and projective tests. Such psychological tests may cost the school administrators anywhere between ₹1,000 to ₹10,000 per person, depending on the number of assessments utilised. Can Indian schools really afford such an assessment for each staff member, and particularly, the non-teaching staff members – whose basic salary varies depending on skill level but is typically under ₹16,000 (approximately) per month?

It is most likely that the ambiguity emanating from the CBSE circular, along with the pressure to comply, will force schools to invariably choose the least-expensive self-report screening questionnaire, which may not be a detailed or valid test. A self-report screening test is limited when it comes to delivering reliable results – due to personal bias, mood at the time of testing, testing conditions, language, and the reading level of the test-taker. Therefore, a trained psychologist’s clinical judgement is necessary to observe the test subject and to interpret the results carefully.

To make matters worse, the ethical considerations regarding the appropriateness, interpretation, the final decision-making process and confidentiality issues of psychological testing are not even within the purview of the policy makers. The CBSE circular provides no guidelines regarding how the data will be collected, stored and used. Also, there is no guidance on who will own the data – the school, the staff, or the contractual manpower provider (as is the case in many schools)?

Most importantly, the circular has not considered or addressed issues such as data privacy and a host of other legal issues that should have been addressed prior to sanctioning psychological assessment requirements. Consider the following scenario – a clinical psychologist conducts a comprehensive assessment for a school staff member – and shortly thereafter, another unfortunate event occurs. In this situation, despite the school taking adequate preventative measures, will the school or the psychologist be held legally responsible for the outcome?

A psychological assessment can only provide a detailed information about personality traits, emotions, cognition, psychopathology, and behaviour patterns with a certain level of statistical confidence. But it cannot predict future behaviour. This puts the Indian psychologists in a ‘catch 22’ situation – they want to help the schools comply with the CBSE circular but are directionless as regards the specific aim of the assessment, the procedures to be used or the legal implications regarding psychological assessments.

A hasty and a non-premeditated policy is not an appropriate response to an unfortunate event. I hope we can engage in some meaningful public debate and discussion on this policy, as it is a crucial step forward towards ensuring the safety of our children. This needs to be seriously discussed and uniformly enforced.

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Featured image used for representative purposes only.

Featured image source: Parveen Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

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