Thursday, 8 December 2016

Learning to Drive - All You Need to Know

Having clocked up thousands of hours of driving tuition over the years, and having had the pleasure of helping many different people, I have put together this “learning to drive” guide for the benefit of anyone looking to embark on the journey towards a driving licence.

In an effort to provide you with a rounded picture of the world you are entering, I go into a reasonable amount of depth, offering advice and opinions about driving lessons, driving instructors and the industry generally.

Much of the content is based on my considerable experience with learner drivers. It is possible that you could speak to another industry professional who has a different view to my own. Provided their opinions are based on relevant experience, that is absolutely fine. 

Ultimately you, the consumer, must make up your own mind and make your choices accordingly.

At the very least I hope this guide gets you thinking about the best way forward for you.

It is important that your options are thoroughly considered before you take the plunge and part with your cash.

Reality Check
Learning to drive isn't always easy.

Rewarding - definitely.
Life changing - for some, yes.
Stressful - sometimes.
Easy - no.

I have lost track of the number of times people have told me stories about friends with zero experience who claim to have passed after just 10 hours of lessons - sometimes less.

Experience tells me the chances of these claims being true are pretty slim.

Think about it logically. Someone with no previous experience starts to learn to drive at 9am, and by 7pm they have become sufficiently expert to comfortably pass the test.

Does that really sound plausible to you?

When you take a look at my website or Facebook page what you will see are lots of happy new drivers holding up their pass certificates.

The photos are all pretty similar. Happy people who are proud of their achievement. That, though, is where the similarity ends.

What those pictures don't show, however, are the individual journeys each person took from the moment they turned the engine on for the first time.

For some lucky people the process was fairly simple and straightforward. For others it was a bumpy ride.

Most passed first time. Some needed a second go, and on extremely rare occasions, some even took 3 goes. That's life unfortunately.

Sometimes, and for any number of possible reasons, things just dont go to plan on the day.

The driving test is the one part of the process that the learner owns completely. No help. No prompting. No reminders. That is a lot of responsibility in what can be a fairly stressful 40 minutes.

Comprehensive training will give a candidate all the necessary skills to pass the test first time, but ultimately it all rests with how they perform on the day.

For a very small number of people I have met, the manual route was just too rocky, so they changed to automatic which is significantly less demanding. Each to their own.

Something to think about
Learning to drive is a serious business. I take my role and responsibilities very seriously, and I expect those I teach to do the same.

Let’s take a look at a few facts and figures to focus the mind.

- 17 to 24 year old drivers only make up 1.5% of the driving population, but are involved in 9% of fatal crashes.

- 16 to 19 year old drivers are 33% more likely to die in a crash compared to age group 40 to 49.

- One in four 18 to 24 year olds crash their car within 2 years of passing their test.

The full report behind these figures was prepared by Brake, the road safety charity. Well worth a read.

Remember, though, road safety isn’t just the responsibility of young drivers. We all have a part to play.

Anyone, at any age, can be involved in an accident, so we all need to do our bit to contribute to a safer driving environment.

I make it my business to produce responsible, capable drivers who have been taught well, and not just the basics to try and scrape through a driving test.

If you are serious about the process, road safety, and becoming a great driver with confidence in your ability, pick up the phone and I will be delighted to talk through your requirements in detail.

If, on the other hand, you want to do the bare minimum in the hope of scraping through, I am not the best person to call. Sorry.

If we aren’t pulling in the same direction from day one, then quite simply the relationship will not work.

The Driving Course – What People Say
"Really tough”
"Best thing I’ve ever done”
“Life changing”
"I totally under estimated what was involved”
“I never ever thought I would get the hang of it”
"All the effort was worth it”

An interesting and diverse set of comments from real people, who themselves are an interesting and diverse bunch.

Every learner driver is unique, bringing with them a unique skillset, their own preferred learning style and reasons and motivations for learning to drive.

Some people begin lessons because their friends have started. Others learn because they are fed up queuing in the cold and rain for public transport.

Others see a driving licence as their passport to a better life – more job opportunities and better earning potential. Whatever your own reasons are, make your choices wisely.

Choosing an Instructor
This is probably the single most important decision you will make, and my advice is to take some time and choose wisely.

Don't jump in with the first bargain basement offer you see. Do your research.

Does the instructor have an online presence? Do they have a verifiable track record? Google reviews? Facebook reviews? Photo's of successful clients?

The number one way to find a good instructor is through word of mouth. It usually follows that if a friend has had a good experience, there is no reason why you shouldn’t as well.

If you do not have the benefit of a recommendation, however, there are several ways you can find local instructors.

You can search either the or DIA (Driving Instructors Association) websites by postcode. Here are the links:

It is important to find an instructor you gel with. This applies as much to me as any other trainer. So why not try a 2 hour taster lesson? If you like what you experience, great. If not, move on.

Don’t delay booking your instructor

If you don’t have anyone in mind, a quick net search will reveal page after page of local instructors.

If, on the other hand, you want to use the services of a particular person, don’t leave it until the last moment to arrange lessons for someone’s special birthday.

Good instructors are constantly in demand, and their diaries will reflect that. Often with little or no short term availability.

My suggestion is to call your preferred instructor 2 or 3 months prior to the date required. This gives the trainer time to plan ahead and allocate time, thus avoiding disappointment.

How do my learners describe me? 


As you can see different people have described me in various different ways, based on their own experiences during our journey of learning.

Some people are naturally very driven, and work with me to move the process forward. Others, however, require constant pushing and motivation to progress.

The bottom line is this. I am a very good driving instructor, but I am a terrible magician.  What do I mean by that?

Learning to drive is quite often much tougher than some people think it will be. Without the right attitude and motivation to succeed, even the best of instructors will struggle to get such a candidate over the finish line.

I recently received a very nice review on my Facebook page, which I would like to share with you.

Apart from being a shameless bit of self-promotion, for which I make no apology, I really do think it embodies who I am, how I teach the subject, and why I love the job.

The following is a straight “copy and paste” with no edits. Judge for yourself.

“Darren is the best instructor I could have asked for. I failed my test (with another instructor) in December and didn’t drive for a month after. He gave me the confidence, skills and knowledge to absolutely smash my driving test and I couldn’t be more thankful for his help. He goes out of his way to give you all the resources you need to pass and I couldn’t be happier with the amazing result of passing my driving test! Would recommend to absolutely anyone – first time learners, those who have failed or want to change instructor, or even if you have passed because there is so much that he can help with that isn’t even on the test, but it will give you confidence in your driving on the road. Fantastic instructor!!”

Whoever you choose for your lessons, the important thing is that your trainer recognises you as an individual and plans your course accordingly.

Have realistic expectations
This reinforces a point I made earlier. Speaking from experience, managing people’s expectations in a fair and realistic way can occasionally be a tough nut to crack.

Some people are better than they think they are. Others think they are better than they actually are. Then you have everyone inbetween - the majority.

Every year, my aim is a 100% first time pass rate, and everyone I put forward for a test is more than capable of achieving that.

Sometimes though, for any number of reasons, things just don't go to plan.

The important point to make is that when someone goes for a driving test they have confidence in their ability, and that process may take longer for some than others.

One thing is certain, any attempt to cut corners will not usually lead to the desired outcome.

It usually becomes fairly apparent after about 10 hours of lessons how long the road ahead is looking. So managing a persons expectations in an honest and open way are key to a happy instructor / pupil relationship.

Learning to drive requires the ability to process and filter constantly changing information very quickly, and then respond with appropriate action.

In a high pressure potentially dangerous situation there isn’t time to do 50/50, phone a friend or ask the audience.

You may have just one or two seconds to understand a developing situation, and deal with it in a safe and effective way. This can be extremely stressful.

What is true to say though, as with any other process, is that you will only get out what you put in. If you want that licence badly enough, and are prepared to work hard and push yourself, then you will ultimately be successful.

If you think it is going to be an easy ride and don’t put in the effort, it is going to be an uphill struggle all the way to your test, assuming you get that far.

How much should I pay?

Most people will pay what they perceive a service to be worth, and that will differ from person to person, depending on the importance they place on the process.

Most instructors usually have reduced offer priced lesson hours, and I am no exception. They are a great way for learners to sample the service on offer, whilst not having to pay full price.

My advice is not to pay a large amount upfront until you know you will be happy with the trainer. If you aren't happy on day one, it will be an expensive mistake if you have already paid for a block booking.

If an instructor or driving school won't offer you a taster session before you sign on the dotted line, go elsewhere.

As a rough guide, you will find that the larger franchised national driving schools charge around £5 more per hour than their independent colleagues.

Why the difference? I will discuss this in detail in the next section.

When looking at special offers, though, do so with your sensible head on. A few consumer sayings spring to mind:

- Caveat emptor – let the buyer beware
- You get what you pay for
- Pay cheap pay twice
-The person who wants something for nothing will usually get nothing for something.

Why are independent instructors cheaper than the big driving schools?

Notwithstanding any special offers and introductory rates, the franchised driving schools tend to be roughly £5 p/h more expensive than their independent colleagues. Feel free to check this for yourself.

Franchised instructors pay a fee to the franchise owners, either weekly or monthly. In return, they get the convenience of a ready made business in a box.

The car and insurance is taken care of, business support, pupil leads, pupil booking, payment services etc.

All that backup and support, though, costs money - £640 per month for one school I looked at, and this cost has to be covered before the instructor earns any money for themself.

In terms of my own lesson pricing, as I do the “back office” tasks myself, my trading overheads are significantly lower than those of a franchised instructor.

This allows me to offer a reduced lesson price per hour, without compromising on any aspect of the service or quality you would expect to receive.

As an instructor, there is nothing at all wrong with the franchised route, but it wasn’t for me personally. If an instructor wants the hard work of the business side taken care of for them, that’s fine.

Personally I prefer to be my own boss and build my own reputation, not someone else's.

I built my business from nothing 8 years ago, after a 25 year career in Banking, of all things. I enjoy running things my way and I have 100% control over all aspects of what I do and how I do it.

Nobody loves my business like I do, and the success of my business rests entirely on my shoulders. I’ve got nowhere to hide, and nobody else to blame if something goes wrong – and that is exactly how I like it.

Do the national schools have better quality instructors?

The short answer is no.

People think they do but that most definitely is not the case.

Almost 100% of driving instructors are self-employed – irrespective of whether they franchise through a national driving school or run their own business as an independent instructor, like me.

The myth: Franchised instructors with national driving schools are higher quality, better trained instructors than their independent counterparts.

The Facts: All driving instructors, when they are training, go through exactly the same process to gain their green instructors badge.

At the end of the qualifying period, each instructor is awarded a grade depending on their performance in the final exam.

Once an instructor is fully qualified, they then have the option to either go down the franchise route, where they work on a self-employed basis but under the umbrella of a big company.

Alternatively, they can go down the independent route and start their own business and build their own brand.

Irrespective of what career path an instructor takes, every 4 or 5 years each is assesed during a live lesson with a DVSA Senior Examiner present.

The lesson is then graded, based on a detailed set of criteria. That assessment is called a Standards Check. Here is the marking sheet used.

The instructor will be awarded a grade, based on the overall quality of the lesson – A, B or fail.

I am a Grade A, and recent figures show that just 29% of instructors achieve the highest grade.

If you like your facts and figures the ADI National Joint Counci have put together an excellent analysis of the Check Test pass and fail rates. Very interesting reading.

To find out exactly what grade your instructor is, ask them. If you have any doubt, ask to see their last Standards Check scoresheet.

Driving instructors have the option of adding their grade to the "Find an Instructor" part of the DVSA website. On a recent check I am the only instructor in my postcode area to have added their grade.

I have worked hard to gain that A Grade (92%). Remember, only 29% of instructors are awarded the top grade.

Pass Rates. Fact or Fiction?

Do a quick web search and you will find many instructors and driving schools using phrases like “excellent pass rates”, “high pass rates” and so on, but what do these claims mean?

In truth, not a lot. They are just words, not facts. One person’s idea of excellent is another person’s idea of average.

There are various ways that pass rates can be interpreted and manipulated, so any figures you see published by instructors should be treated with caution.

You as the consumer have absolutely no way of confirming these figures one way or the other.

The Government are considering publishing pass rates that they collect through the driving test system.

This, though, cannot be relied upon for factual correctness. For example, if a learner uses their own car for their test, the instructor will not be credited with the pass.

I have lost count now of the number of clients I have taught and who passed the test in their own vehicle, and for which I receive no credit in the Government statistics.

So while I include these passes in my figures, the Government do not.

It may surprise you to learn that the first time pass rate nationally is just 21%.

Put another way, just 1 person in 5 who takes their test for the first time will pass. Surprised? Here is a link to the website:

If you look up the pass rates at your local test centre, typically you will see figures around the 40 – 50% range.

These figures do not relate to first time passes. They are average pass rates.

The important thing to bear in mind is that on any given day at a test centre you will have a mix of people who are taking their test for the 1st, 2nd, 3rd….10th time.

So, to make sense of the published figures, based on the fact that on average only 1 in 5 pass first time, the vast majority of driving tests are re-sits. Of those re-sits approximately 40 - 50% are successful, thus  leading to further re-sits.

Confused? You have every right to be. The subject of pass rates is truly a murky one.

What do you think of intensive courses?
You will find there are wide ranging opinions on this subject. Personally, I have mixed feelings about intensive courses as an effective route to a driving licence, and as such I have made a business decision not to offer them.

People book a course of lessons, say 30 hours over 2 weeks, with a perfectly reasonable expectation that they will pass the test at the end of it.

The reality, however, is that a pass is not assured, and this will be covered somewhere within an instructors T&C’s.

Being realistic, how can any instructor offer such a guarantee? Quite simply they can’t.

The thing to remember, is that if you have someone who is an average learner, who under normal circumstances would take 40 – 50 hours of lessons, then logic dictates that a 30 hour intensive course simply isn’t going to be enough.

This will become apparent very early on when the schedule falls quickly behind.

So, in these circumstances, the learner will then have to pay for more hours they probably hadn’t budgeted for to pick up the slack, in an effort to meet the deadline.

Even doing this, there is still no guarantee of a pass. Driving instructors are not magicians and intensive courses are not a magic solution. Be realistic.

I have experience of several people who initially went down the intensive route, and failed their tests quite badly. When I carried out my own assessments there were significant knowledge and skills gaps present, which were of a safety critical nature.

In my opinion those individuals should never have been put forward for a test.

What has probably happened is that in an effort to cover all the subjects in the limited time available, the instructor has moved each learner through the various topics too quickly, resulting in the knowledge gaps.

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.

If you are considering the intensive route, ask questions, and don’t assume that you will get a licence at the end of it.

Think of the story about the tortoise and the hare. Sometimes, the slower route can actually prove to be the faster solution.

In summary
This has probably taken you a little while to read, but hopefully it has made you realise that there is a lot to consider before you part with your cash.

Personally, I am a big believer in the saying “knowledge is power”.

Knowledge allows us to make better, more informed choices, and that is important when you are looking to invest your time, trust and a significant amount of money in, what could be, a complete stranger.

Whatever your choices and preferences are, I hope that you enjoy your lessons, enjoy success when you take your test, and then go on to have years of driving pleasure.

If you would like further information, why not take a look at my “Frequently Asked Questions” page?

Drive carefully. Stay safe.

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