Sniffed out

28th September 2001 at 01:00
Are you a Hannibal Lecter masquerading as Mary Poppins? A King Herod going for that post at the local creche? Well, the psychometric testers are on your case. Amanda Cameron reports on a controversial new twist to the job interview

What if, instead of having to pass the numeracy test, you had to sit for two-and-a-half hours and answer questions on verbal reasoning, personal hygiene and your relationship with your mother? Welcome to the wacky world of psychometric testing, a controversial but increasingly popular part of the modern job interview.

Roy Davis, head of communication at major test publisher Saville and Holdsworth, says interviews usually fall into two sections. "In the first are ability tests, to which the answers are either right or wrong. You measure a variety of skills at a variety of levels." The second is essentially a "personality questionnaire, which should be non-intrusive and work-related. This gives you an indication of the person's likely preferred behavioural style within the world of work."

Psychometric tests are not a new idea. Like many inventions, they started life in Britain but were developed and applied in the United States. Working out of his laboratory at the London Science Museum in the 1880s, Sir Frances Galton personality-tested more than 9,000 people. Over the course of two world wars, American psychologists developed the modern personality test in order to find the right posts for millions of conscripts.

Adrian Furnham, professor of psychology at University College London and an expert on personality testing and theory, suggests two reasons for the current popularity of psychometric testing: "They have better predictability than the oral interview, and it gives their selection process an air of scientific credibility. They're efficient."

For Roy Davis, this efficiency translates into huge savings. With recruitment and training costing the City and industry big bucks, employers don't want to make mistakes. They want to know in advance who will be diligent and hard-working or whose go-getting attitude will descend into naked aggression. After all, no employer wants to recruit the next Hannibal Lecter. However, the Hannibals of this world are nothing if not cunning, and are adept at motivational distortion or "faking good", where clever candidates spot the test's subtext and tailor their answers accordingly.

Occupational psychologist Andrew Sidebottom explains: "There are questions which are planted to measure faking good. Let's say, 'Do you ever pick your nose in private?' I would say that 99 per cent of us do. If a candidate answers 'no', then it suggests he or she is presenting themselves favourably.

"If there are 10 questions which measure faking good and they answer incorrectly to all of them, there's a strong suggestion they will have faked good on other questions. When you get their results, you say, 'This person has a very high score on the motivational distortion scale, we need to treat their results with considerable caution'."

But, "faking good" aside, can the teaching profession use a selection process that started off in the profit-driven world of commerce? Would psychometric testing help governors to avoid appointing a head with King Herod's approach to pastoral affairs? Can you screen for the ability to stand in front of a class of 30 rowdy teenagers?

The Department for Education and Skills certainly thinks so. It has used psychometric tests to sift applicants for fast-track courses. Spokesperson Poli Stuart explains: "They're tried and tested as standard practice for this type of accelerated selection process. It's not a unique way of selection - a lot of public and private sector companies use it. We are happy with what we have seen so far."

Mike Fleming, director of Durham University's secondary PGCE course and a fast-track assessor, is more cautious. Durham does not use psychometric testing to select its PGCE candidates, but will be taking 17 fast-track students in September.

He admits to being sceptical but, having spent two days earlier this year assessing would-be fast-track candidates, says that psychometric testing is just part of the process. "The final part of the selection is two days at a centre where they are scrutinised very, very thoroughly: role-play, face-to-facing, organising in-trays."

Debra Myhill, director of Exeter University's secondary PGCE programme , is blunt in her criticism of psychometric testing. "The kind of skills required for teaching are complex," she says. "There are factual, objective things you can look for in interviewees, such as their degree and subject knowledge, but you're also looking for personal qualities. Do they appear to have the right temperament and enthusiasm. Do they have a sense of presence? I don't think we've ever been convinced that any form of psychometric testing was reliable enough."

Nor does Dr Myhill think governors could use this form of testing to select heads. "I think what they often ignore is how contexts vary. Somebody might be excellent at leading a department where they've got absolute conviction in their subject knowledge but, put in a position of leading lots of other members of staff, they might not function so well."

Mary Sharpe, education personnel consultant for Surrey education authority, disagrees. Since the early Nineties, Surrey has made personality questionnaires available to its governors to help them choose heads. "I think it's a very good, fair way to explore style, preference and behaviour with candidates, particularly given that governors are making the decision as a lay panel," says Ms Sharpe. "The feedback we get is that it adds value to the assessment process."

Are you a fake?

These questions and statements are taken from genuine psychometric tests. Can you out-smart the psychologists? Answer yesno or agreedisagree.

1. Do you like body smells?

2. I would always stop a Year 11 fisticuffs or knife fight.

3. Do you always wash your hands before a meal?

4. I always look forward to staff meetings for their open, honest and informative nature.

5. Was your mother always a good woman?

6. Lunch breaks are essentially for sorting out pupils' emotional problems.

7. Often my bowels don't move for several days at a time.

8. I particularly enjoy covering drama lessons.

9. At times I think I am no good at all.

10. I have never, and would never, miss a playground duty.

If you answered nodisagree to questions 1, 7 and 9 and yesagree to questions 3 and 5, then you're guilty of faking positive. An occupational psychologist would weed out your job application in a flash

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