I’m proud of the fact that I have never had any points on my driving licence. That’s not to say that when I was a newly-qualified 17-year old I was some sort of angel, but as the years have gone by I have become… well, as I already said. Proud. And I always try to convey that to my learners, so that they can aim for the same record.
On lessons I am always aware of the locations of speed cameras and the pupil’s speed around them. This usually results in them asking what would happen if we were flashed on a lesson, and many are surprised to learn that it is the driver who gets the fine and the points. I then explain that if it ever happened in my car, although I wouldn’t legally be able to take the points, I would cover the fine (as long as they weren’t being completely stupid over something).
Many years ago, when I was still a naïve new instructor, I had a pupil who had her test booked but who wasn’t really ready for it. She was from overseas, and just wanted to take it. On the morning it was booked, among other issues, she was moving into and out of junctions at a snail’s pace and causing problems for traffic. Now, she had a serious attitude problem, and on one particular corner after I explained again that she needed to move away more briskly, she deliberately floored it and before I knew what was happening we were doing almost 50 on a residential road with oncoming vehicles. I used the dual controls and pulled her over. After some polite discussion, with both of us knowing full well she’d done it on purpose (but not actually saying it), I simply told her she was not going to test, but that I would cover the test fee. That was the precise moment when I stopped acting as a hire service for desperately bad drivers.
The point of that story is that if we had been caught speeding in that situation, or one like it, I certainly wouldn’t have covered the fine.
I go on to explain that if it could somehow be shown that I was forcing the pupil to break the limit, then I might face a separate charge of “aiding and abetting”, but that isn’t likely to happen in the first place, so it isn’t an issue we need to worry about. Having said that, a couple of years ago I took on a new pupil who had been learning for some time with a local (and very long-serving) instructor up this way, and she told me he had a stick in the trunk of the car that he used to reach over and push the driver’s foot on to the accelerator with if they were going too slow! Make of that what you will.
The next question they ask concerns any points they might get. Many of them are surprised to learn that you can get points on your provisional licence, though it naturally follows from that earlier thing I mentioned where the driver is always held accountable. You can get banned whilst still on a provisional licence (you can get banned even if you don’t have a licence at all).
While you are still on a provisional licence, you will normally receive a ban if you accrue 12 or more “live” points within any 3-year period. The ban is usually for six months.
When you pass your test, there is a two year probationary period during which you’re only allowed a maximum of six points before receiving a ban.
If you have any points on your provisional, these will be carried over on to your full licence. Since you could have as many as 11 points on your provisional and not receive a ban, that doesn’t mean you’re automatically banned when you pass. You’re simply in sudden-death mode – where even a single point after that will result in a ban. Since you’re looking at a minimum of three points for speeding or traffic light jumping, having just three points carried over still leaves you in sudden-death mode until those carried-over points expire.
Any points on your licence are considered to be “live” for three years from the date of the offence (some serious offences can stay live for 10 years – those involving drink-driving or drugs being one example). After this, they are considered as “spent”, but they remain on your licence for a further year. When they’re spent, they aren’t included in any totting up if you were to get caught again. However, if you’re after a job which involves driving (and in a lot of cases, even if it doesn’t), having a licence which tells people the kind of person you have been may well prevent you from getting the job. So any points, whether live or spent, can be a serious problem.
And don’t forget that if you do something that warrants it, you could get banned immediately for a first offence, and it could be for longer than six months.
Remember that your provisional licence simply allows you to use the road, so it doesn’t matter if any points are acquired while you were riding a moped. I once had a pupil who had six points on his provisional. Both sets of three were due to speeding on his moped, and both were from the same speed camera. Even better, the camera was about 100 metres from his house along the Long Eaton high street in front of shops, schools, churches, etc. The reason it had happened (twice) was that he “didn’t know it was only 30mph on that road”. When he passed, he was in sudden-death mode for the next two years.
What happens if I pass when points are about to expire?
They get carried over and expire at the same time they would have done if you hadn’t passed. I can guess what you’re thinking, and there is no point whatsoever in delaying your test if you have live points about to expire. They’ll still expire, but will remain on your licence for a further year.
If you need a clean licence for some reason, there is nothing you can do about points until the fourth (or eleventh) year has passed.
While points were only shown on the now-obsolete paper part of your licence, there might have been some merit waiting until the end of the fourth (or eleventh) year before taking a test so that your new licence was clean, thus relieving you of the hassle of updating it all. But these days the checks are electronic, and if there are any points on your licence that are less than four (or eleven) years old, anyone who needs to check will automatically know.
If you commit an offence, you will get points that last for either three or ten years. They are kept on record for a further year after that. If you were guilty, there is nothing you can legally do to get them off, and no legal or honest way of preventing anyone who needs to know seeing them.
Why aren’t you taught this when you’re doing ADI training?
Well first of all, the people providing all the stupid wrong answers are ADI’s themselves – many of whom will be training other people to become ADIs. So there’d be a problem right from the start if they were teaching it. Come to think of it, it might be part of the problem right now if some of them are.
But the information doesn’t really come under ADI training per se, and is something that anyone who is training to become an instructor should find out for themselves. I mean, our training doesn’t cover the Highway Code in detail – it’s just assumed that someone who is training to become an ADI has read and understood it when they prepared for the Part 1 test.
I guess the biggest difference is that I get my information either from solicitors, or directly from DVLA (or DVSA if appropriate), and not from other ADIs on social media or web forums. If I get two different answers, I question further until I find the right one, and don’t just pick the one I like best.
This article was first published in January 2018, then updated in November of the same year. However, I noticed someone asking on a forum recently what model of TomTom was used. He was given a lot of inaccurate and misleading information.
It was announced mid-2017 – sometime before the 4 December start date – that when the DVSA introduced satnavs as part of the independent driving section, the model the examiners would be using was going to be the TomTom Start 52.
After briefly considering buying one, I decided against it. I’ve used standalone satnavs before, and the problems with mounting them and all the bloody cables has pretty much put me off for life. Even the latest ones are just too bulky to sit anywhere unobtrusively.
In the more recent past, if I’ve ever needed to navigate somewhere, I just use Google Maps in one of its forms on my smartphone. In the weeks leading up to 4 December 2017, I tried using it with pupils. It works (if you know what you’re doing), but its choice of route can be creative to say the least. And it isn’t the most chatty of navigation apps. Worse still is the inability to save pre-determined routes – and that’s essential for a driving instructor.
More recently still, I tried using the built-in satnav in my Focus on lessons. For me, it works. But the graphics are in Super Mario territory, and it also can be rather creative with its suggested routes. It can’t save pre-determined routes, and the erratic split-screen thing it does at unfathomable times is confusing to pupils. And I think the most recent map updates were drawn up by personally Christopher Columbus, because they don’t include road features installed within the last couple of years.
The more I thought about these issues as they pertain to pupils, the more I realised that the only realistic way forward was to use a TomTom in order that pupils wouldn’t be intimidated by a different looking map, different instructions, or different voices. I asked TomTom if there were any plans for an approved app that would run on Ford’s software. It seems that they did have an arrangement with Ford to develop such an app at one point, but that fell through for some reason.
Then I came across the TomTom GO app for Android. It turns your phone into a fully-blown TomTom satnav, with the added benefit of a high-res display (see the screen capture, above). TomTom GO gives you 50 miles of free navigation per month, but that gets used up in a couple of hours on lessons, so it is useless. However, you can subscribe for about £5 per month, or £15 for a full year, and get unlimited navigation (you can also subscribe separately to other TomTom services). You get unlimited world maps for this, and any updates are included. I bought the year subscription – it means I can have an absolutely up-to-date satnav all the time. A standalone one would cost ten times as much and be out of date within a year or so, as far as the base unit is concerned.
A massive additional benefit of using a TomTom (other than pupils hearing the same voice and instruction approach they’ll get on test) is that by logging into your TomTom account on your PC or laptop you can create entire routes using a drag-and-drop map and save them. They sync automatically to all your devices through your account, and so appear in your list of saved routes. This is how DVSA has created the routes it uses. The benefit of these pre-determined routes is that you can force a specific journey around specific roundabouts or road features, rather than have the satnav try and re-route you through a shorter route to a specific destination. Of course, you can also save favourite places – like test centres or retail parks – and just set one of those as a destination and let the pupil follow whatever route the satnav comes up with. It’s all extremely flexible.
The TomTom GO app speaks through the vehicle audio system via your smartphone’s Bluetooth link (if you set it up that way).
How are pupils managing with the satnav?
At the time I started teaching it for the test, some of those I expected to have problems took to it remarkably well. A year down the line, I don’t even think about that anymore. It’s just part of what I have to teach them.
How much training does it take?
Very little, actually. The vast majority of pupils find the satnav easier to follow.
When I first started teaching it, I was planning to do it a lot. However, I now find that I bring it in nearer to their test and don’t worry about it before then. As I say, most take to it like ducks to water, so there’s no point me behaving as though ducks can’t swim.
You don’t need a TomTom
True. However, like it or not, my job is to get pupils ready for their tests, and I do that by focusing on road layout in Nottingham and not those in, say, Birmingham or Glasgow. To that end, it also makes sense to use a TomTom instead of something cheaper or just what I happen to own at the time.
It doesn’t matter what satnav pupils use
Also true – for most of them. Like I say, most take to it easily – but a few don’t. I just like to remove that variable from the equation. A significant number, for example, already have problems with roundabouts in a lesson and driving test context, so why risk them freaking out on test with unfamiliar instructions from a satnav they haven’t used before?
An example of that is the screen position and layout of the advance warning a satnav gives. If it is different on the one they are using on lessons compared to the TomTom one used on tests, they may get confused.
Like it or not, many of our pupils reach test standard by the skin of their teeth. Unlike instructors (if they were taking the test), pupils approach it from the bottom up because they are beginners. That’s why I prefer to keep directional instructions as close to those they will experience on test as possible.
You might see things differently, and that’s fine. I see it my way and teach accordingly.
I originally wrote this article in February 2010, but its popularity (and overt plagiarism without due credit on other instructors’ websites) keeps spiking and I now update it periodically. In mid-2017 there was a surge in people training to become ADIs, and as of April 2018 – if the emails I receive are anything to go by – this is still the case.
Back in 2010, we were at the tail end of the previous ADI recruitment drive, but also on the brink of a recession (though we didn’t realise it at the time). Lavish adverts were everywhere, enticing would-be instructors with the promise of huge earnings (LDC laughingly suggested that over £40k was possible) in return for “hours to suit yourself”. Was it really possible to earn £30,000 or more by working just a few hours a day, and not weekends? Are things any different in 2018?
Even in the good times, you were never going to earn anywhere near £30k teaching only daytime weekday slots, and that’s still true now. But as those first ripples of what became the recession were being felt, fuel prices started to rise, pupil numbers started to fall, and the glut of very inexperienced and very desperate instructors commenced a suicidal programme of undercutting to try and get work which simply wasn’t there anymore. Even for an established full-time instructor with a moderately full diary, a maximum realistic wage was in the region of £20,000-£25,000 – and by “full-time” I mean working evenings and weekends. Price-cutting ADIs with empty diaries had no chance of making anywhere near this. Even if they could get 30 hours, their cut-price lessons would pull their pre-tax profit down to around £15,000. With only 15 hours of work – the reason they had cut their prices in the first place – it would be closer to £7,000.
It was certainly possible to earn £30,000 as long as you had the necessary work, charged sensible prices, and were prepared to do long hours – but I stress the word “possible” (LDC, who I mentioned above, were almost certainly referring to turnover with their £40k nonsense). However, this industry is fickle, and a fat period can easily be followed by a lean one. You can do 40 hours one week, but the next might see you struggling for 20. Over a single typical financial year you might manage £30k, but the next one – especially if it had a recession in it, with a 65% increase in the price of fuel (such as we experienced at that time, with petrol going from 80p to over 140p over a two-year period) – you’d have no chance. I was lucky (or whatever) and managed to weather the storm – but many instructors failed dramatically and gave up the job which had cost them so much to train for.
At the start of 2016, the outlook once again looked bright. There were plenty of pupils out there, and fuel – which peaked at around £1.40 per litre – fell below £1.00 for the first time since 2009. Everything looked rosy – until the Greek Tragedy that is Brexit came along and suspended the Sword of Damocles over it all. This is what I mean about the industry being fickle. I suppose “fickle” is the wrong word – “unpredictable” would also work. Suffice it to say, in early 2018 the industry is still buoyant, but the future is looking very uncertain.
About Being an ADI
How does an ADI’s wage compare with my old wage?
To answer this, you have to compare like for like figures. If your old salaried job had a salary of £25,000, that would have been before tax and National Insurance were deducted. You need an equivalent figure for being self-employed to make the comparison.
Driving instructors are self-employed, and everything they do is concerned with sales (i.e. taking money from customers in return for lessons) and expenses (i.e. spending money in order to keep providing those lessons). Their “wage” is totally dependent on these, and since both are variable it is necessary to make a few sensible assumptions if you want to predict future earnings. The worst thing you can do is overestimate your earnings and/or underestimate your expenses – if you do that, any profit forecast is little better than a random guess.
An ADI’s official wage is determined by adding up all their business overheads (e.g. costs for their car, fuel, insurance, advertising, office supplies, etc.) and subtracting that sum from their turnover (the total amount of money they took in payment from their pupils). In the simplest case, if an ADI delivers 30 hours of lessons per week for 52 weeks of the year, and charges £23 per hour for lessons, their turnover will be £35,880. Overheads will be different for everyone (different cars, different amounts of fuel, different fuel costs, etc.), but a typical overall figure might be around £11,000 over a full year. Subtract those overheads from the turnover and you’re left with £24,880 gross profit. That would be a wage figure, before tax and National Insurance, which can be used to compare with other jobs.
What are examples of overheads?
As an ADI you will need a car. If you haven’t got one already you will need to buy or lease one, and what you pay is (or contributes towards) an overhead for your business. Fuel to run the car is an overhead, as are repair and maintenance costs. Insurance is an overhead. Phone and internet costs associated with your business are overheads, as are printer ink, paper, envelopes, and various other stationery items if they relate directly to your business. A car wash is an overhead. And so on.
An overhead which can make all the difference between success and failure for an ADI is advertising. If you are on a franchise this is less of an issue, but if you are independent then you will need to pay for your own advertising so that people who wouldn’t otherwise know that you’re there can contact you if they want lessons.
How much does a car cost?
You can easily find out how much it costs to buy a car – new or used – by looking on the internet, the media, or on garage forecourts. The price you pay for your car affects your gross profit over the entire period of time you own it. For example, if you spend £10,000 on one, keep it for 5 years, then sell it for £2,000 at the end of that period, that £8,000 difference works out to about £30 a week over the 5-year period – in other words, the car is effectively costing you £30 a week over the whole five years. It doesn’t matter how you word it for the tax man or anyone else, you are spending £8,000 as an overhead over 5 years, and that is definitely costing you the equivalent of at least £30 a week. Fitting dual controls, and taxing and insuring it, are extras which might amount to another £10 a week. Repairs could be anything from £0 and up (a single, and quite feasible, major repair could add another £10-£20 a week in any given financial year).
Alternatively, you could lease a car from one of the various main dealers, specialised ADI lease companies, and driving school franchise providers. Prices start at around £60 a week and often include tax and insurance as part of the price. Dual controls are usually standard items, or can sometimes be negotiated into dealer prices if that’s the route you choose. Top prices can be £200 or more per week (but read the rest of this article before you decide that £200 is “too much”).
How much does it cost to run a car?
The number of miles you get per litre of fuel varies from car to car, on how the car is being driven, and on the type and size of engine. For petrol vehicles, a 30 hour week petrol bill might typically amount to £90-£120. For diesel, it is about two-thirds of that figure. I don’t know about the other fuel types.
Note that if you’re thinking of going electric as some sort of unique selling point to try and corner the market, consider that the initial cost of a typical electric vehicle is at least double that of an equivalent standard-fuelled car. Also remember that the range (i.e. how many miles you get from a full charge) is only around 100-150 miles at best, and that it takes 30 minutes to charge up to 80% of that range (overnight if you want a full charge). I know from having asked pupils whose parents have electric cars that the real range is somewhat less than the official figure. Consider how much a new battery would cost, and how the range might decrease as it ages.
I’d go electric in the blink of an eye if I could have 400+ miles on a charge, and didn’t need to sell my house to buy one. Some days, I can do close to 200 miles, and current “affordable” models can’t hack that.
How many miles would I drive in a year?
This is an important question if you’re looking to source a car on some sort of lease, since these usually have mileage caps associated with them. Speaking personally, I do between 40,000-50,000 miles a year. When you lease a car, make damned sure you go for an option which covers your likely mileage – and don’t forget to include personal miles. It’s what’s on the dashboard display when you take it back which counts – not just your lesson mileage.
A typical driving test in Nottingham can cover 10-15 miles, so you could logically argue that on average your lessons would cover a similar distance at the very least. On a 30-hour week, that’s 300+ miles (16,000+ annually) just for lesson time. Add, say, 5 miles travelling between every lesson, and you have up to another 8,000 miles annually. If you get busy, it goes up further. And if – like me – you take pupils outside test routes, it goes up even more.
Don’t get bogged down trying to twist numbers to produce the lowest forecast annual mileage you can think of. Do that and you’ll end up altering your lesson quality to meet your mileage limits. You’re less than 12 months away from going back to salaried employment if you do that. At least part of the reason I’m so busy is that I don’t hold back on the miles, and pupils like that. And being busy easily compensates financially for driving a few extra miles.
How many hours would I need to work?
Everyone’s circumstances are different. At the very least you’ve got to cover your overheads – if you don’t do that you’ll go out of business.
Next, you’ve got to earn enough to be able to cover your personal commitments (i.e. to earn a living wage). If every hour you work nets you £23 of turnover, and your weekly overheads bill is £210, you will need to work for 9 hours to cover that (incidentally, let’s call these “dead hours” if I have to refer to them again). Every additional hour you work thereafter becomes your wage, and on paper an average of 30 lesson hours per week will give you an annualised wage of around £25,000 (more if fuel prices are low). However, you will almost certainly not get this amount of work straight away and you should allow for that in your plans.
As an example, when I started teaching I knew exactly how many lessons I needed to do in order to run my business and pay my personal bills as they stood at that time. I was covering my business overheads within a week, and my personal commitments within 5 weeks and, apart from a couple of Christmas weeks since then, I’ve never dropped below 20 hours. Your personal circumstances will be different to mine, so you can only use this as guidance. On the other hand, I see people on various forums still struggling to make 10 hours even after a year.
I keep repeating this, but new ADIs consistently overlook the fact that unless you are averaging 30 hours over a full 12-month period, you are not going to earn £25,000 over that same period. A 40 hour week here or there might feel great, but if the rest of them are only 10-20 you’re looking at a wage of well under £20,000. Before you decide to become an ADI you need to carefully decide how much money you need to pay your bills, assess the personal risk of not achieving that every week, then work backwards from there. Be cautious almost to the point of pessimism when you’re working out what you might earn – those starting training these days tend to be overflowing with enthusiasm from the moment they announce they’re going to become instructors, but they are completely oblivious to the harsh realities of running a driving school. Simply dreaming of earning £30k is light years away from actually achieving it.
Can I really work whatever hours I want?
If you mean “can I work just few hours and still earn a lot of money” then the answer is definitely no. And it’s a double-no if you think you’ll survive if you try working short hours right from the start. Those adverts are dangerously misleading when they suggest that this is possible, because it always comes back to the number of hours you work if you need a sensible income.
You could fit 30 hours of lessons into five days if you work evenings. My favourite days (and weeks) are when I have three 2-hour lessons each day (seven days a week in my case) – each starting at approximately 10am, 2pm, and 6pm – but that doesn’t happen often these days, with more pupils wanting one-hour lessons. However, if you don’t work evenings, the only way you’d ever manage to fit in 30 hours of lessons into a 5-day week is if you started very early, rushed between lessons, were happy to take your pupils into morning and evening rush hour, and nothing held you up. You’d have to pray hard that the traffic didn’t make you late for your appointments, and that no one cancelled and messed up your rota. Even with only half an hour between lessons, six hours would run from 8am until about 3pm (or 9am until 4pm). It amazes me when I see instructors saying they only leave 15 minutes between sessions – the only way that could work reliably is if all their pupils lived in adjacent houses on the same street! And either the lesson debriefs must be very impersonal and rushed, or the pupil isn’t actually driving for anything like the duration of the lesson.
If it still looks do-able to you when written down, believe me when I say that regimenting your lesson slots like that – especially if you’re new and desperate for work – is suicidal. The vast majority of pupils want lessons at times to suit them – and so they should, since they are paying you for a service. Beginners definitely don’t want to be driving around during rush hour, nor do they want you doing it for them as you wend your way somewhere that you think is quiet enough for them to get behind the wheel (no doubt you’ll be charging them, even though you are driving). Even if you did find a handful of pupils who could play your game, you won’t easily find others who can once the first lot are gone. Road works are a nightmare and can turn a 10 minute journey into a 40 minute one with ease (and that applies to travelling between lessons as well as the actual lesson itself). They have the habit of appearing with little obvious warning, and persisting for months or even years at a time (gas main replacement has been on a rolling plan for at least 5 years up this way). And God help you if there’s an accident and road closures, if there’s a water main burst (almost a weekly occurrence with Severn Trent), or if the level crossing barrier gets stuck (several times a year at Basford and Colwick in Nottingham). I guarantee that you will get one or two chances at best with most pupils, but if you insist on taking on the road works because of your restrictive rota and end up arriving late, and then dump them quickly to get to your next lesson at the end, they will go elsewhere, and they will not recommend you to anyone else if they do. I pick up quite a few who cite turning up late as a reason for switching away from their previous instructor.
Back in 2017, when I last updated this, I had one pupil who sometimes did 6.30pm with drop-off either at home or the University library, sometimes 9.15am with drop-off at school, sometimes 2.45pm with pick-up from school and drop-off either at home or school depending on what she was up to. She didn’t know weeks in advance, and I simply modified the lesson on the day. Another did regular 11am lessons mainly on Fridays with pick-up and drop-off at work. Another did 2.15pm from school on a Monday, 4pm from school on a Friday, or weekend daytime only if she wasn’t going anywhere and those other slots weren’t available. Another had a weird rolling shift pattern which meant he started later and later in the day each week, so his lessons moved accordingly. Another had a shift pattern where he worked for 7 days then got three days off, but the at-work period was shift-based and included nights – so we had to plan lessons around him getting some sleep either before or after his shifts. Another always did 5.15pm from work, unless it was a weekend lesson and he wasn’t traveling home to see his parents. Yet another was also shift-based (a week of “earlies” and a week of “lates”) and we had to fit his lessons in around that. Several could only do weekends – one, only Sunday mornings and another, only Saturday morning or Saturday evening. Nearly all the younger ones are restricted by exams at various points during the year, and that is worse come spring. Anyone who works for McDonalds is likely to be on zero hours, and will get screwed regularly by being called in at short notice. The majority of pupils are flexible, of course, but only to the extent that they will do any time when they’re free and I’ve got space in my diary. Weekends and evenings are most popular – but they are limited in number. My point is that you may as well plan on winning the lottery if you expect to be able to fit these kinds of people into a rigid schedule just to suit you. If I insisted on rigid lesson times with any of these I would lose most of them.
Then there are lesson durations. Although I push pupils towards 2 hour lessons (partly my preference, partly because they are better value for most pupils), many these days cannot do them for a variety of reasons. One is money, and if they can only afford 1 hour a week it is not for me to question that. What I do when we get nearer to their test is ask them to skip a week here and there and combine two 1 hour lessons into a single 2 hour one so we can travel further and take in road features we might not be able to get to in a single hour. Another valid reason why they sometimes can’t do 2 hours is down to their ability – some people just cannot concentrate for that long, and this seems to be a bigger problem now than it used to be (especially for those who find driving a difficult concept to grasp). Another valid reason for not doing 2 hour lessons is simply time – students just don’t have time for more than one hour with all their course work, and the lessons suffer if they try. This is more significant near exam time, when they want to keep driving but have a lot of work to submit. And some want 1½ hour lessons to try and work around one or more of those problems. Forcing them to do something I want, but that they don’t (or can’t), is not going to do me any favours.
The bottom line is that as long as you are prepared to turn money away you can work as few hours as you like.
How easy is it to get new pupils?
Pupils are your only source of income, so they are vital to your success. Unfortunately, every new ADI seems to be convinced that they will corner the entire pupil market and consistently be working 50-hour weeks inside a fortnight, even though no one in the history of the world has ever managed this feat before.
You can never guarantee how much work you will have – even in the good times – which is one of the main reasons why so many people went back to salaried employment after the last recruitment spike and recession. You may work 40 hours one week, but the next it could drop to 20 and stay there – for weeks or even months at a time. As I said earlier, I sometimes see newbies on the forums still struggling to get as many as 10 hours, even after a year. You can’t survive long on that.
Right now, we’re still benefiting from the cull of the Register as a result of the recession, and work is certainly out there with fewer ADIs competing for it (if anything, there is more work than there are ADIs, certainly in Nottingham). But getting new pupils is never easy, and it’s even harder when you’re just starting out. For example, in my early days – and this was at a time when the market was buoyant – I spent £600 on a business card sized advert in Yellow Pages. This was the done thing in the days when YP was still the size of a breeze block, and yet I got exactly ZERO enquiries out of it, if you exclude the spam calls I was inundated with (and have been ever since), or the suspicious single enquiry that came in two days after I’d told YP I wasn’t renewing, and which would never have turned into a sale anyway. A while later, I tried placing a quarter page advert in one of those local free monthly magazines which claimed a “guaranteed circulation of over 10,000” at a cost of £300 over three months. Again, I didn’t get a single enquiry.
Now, some would suggest that I should have carried on spending £1,800 a year on advertising because people might not have seen my adverts the first time, and definitely wouldn’t see them if I stopped having them published. But this illustrates my point: advertising is a gamble, and the money you splash out on it is effectively risk capital. It might not deliver anything in return, and often it doesn’t. I decided that the return on my investment was unacceptable and didn’t pursue those particular avenues any further. If nothing else, it taught me what I already knew, and that was that learners were not going to be beating a path to my door just because I had become an ADI. I know you probably think that you’ll be different, but believe me, you won’t. So be careful. You are in competition with literally hundreds of other driving instructors in your area, most of whom are already well established, and you’re likely to be just one of dozens of other novice ADIs all vying for the same work.
Also be careful when existing instructors glibly tell you how to get pupils. In most cases they are established ADIs and they are a million miles away from being in the same position as someone who has just qualified. Even if what they say is true – and some will be anxious to “prove” to everyone (including themselves) that going independent was a good idea, even if they’re struggling – it is absolutely no guarantee that anyone else would also get work that easily. In fact, I can guarantee that most won’t.
So how DO I get new pupils?
There is no simple answer to this. Once you’re established, you will get some pupils referring their family and friends to you. Even so, don’t get the idea that these referrals will go on forever. A pupil might have a brother or sister, but once you’ve taught them, that channel will just dry up. Many pupils simply won’t have anyone to refer to you anyway. In some cases, the referral can happen 5 or more years later. Don’t count on every single pupil referring in the first place – the Facebook age means every learner will be recommending their instructor, so you’re still in a lottery game. The only thing you can do is aim to train existing pupils as effectively as possible (which translates as relatively quickly and without messing them around) and hope that swings the balance in your favour sometimes. You could even offer existing pupils a free lesson if they refer someone to you (I do this without telling them up front, so it isn’t directly a marketing tool, though they will remember later and so think kindly of you). The longer you’re in the game, the more referrals you’ll get.
Allow for the possibility that some referrals will appear to come straight from Hell. You may have taught an excellent pupil and got him or her through their test, but their cousin, for example, might turn out to be a right pain in the arse for all sorts of reasons (and believe me, it happens like that a lot).
If you’re starting out, though, it is harder. People have to know you’re there, and that means advertising somehow. It might be a postcard in a chip shop window, an ad in some printed media, or flyers pushed through letter boxes (to mention just a few possibilities). For this reason, I strongly suggest you begin on a franchise to build up a pupil base, otherwise your initial advertising bill might be huge and still generate nothing. Once you have some work, you will likely have some money to start advertising for yourself.
I mean, a chip shop postcard might fill your diary overnight. But the odds are that it won’t. However, a few small ads placed over a few years are likely to bring in at least some work, and you can then assess the return on investment and tailor things as necessary.
How do you deal with unreliable pupils?
Reasons for unreliability are numerous. Some people have ongoing health issues (everyone gets ill at one time or another anyway), some have genuine bereavements, some have genuine and very important job interviews that they weren’t aware of when they arranged the lesson, some have money issues, and so on. Of course, some just couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery.
My philosophy is very simple. I can tell what mood someone is in two seconds after they open the car door, and I build up a detailed picture of the kinds of people they are from the first moment I meet them. So I tend to know if their claim to having just shaken off a bout of malaria or having undergone a full internal organ transplant is true or not.
If I think they’re lying to me when they make their excuses, I’ll give them my “riot act” speech and allow them a couple more chances. If they do it again after that I stop teaching them. I have only got rid of a small number out of the many hundreds I’ve taught.
My “riot act” speech includes how much it costs me to run my business, how much I lose when people cancel, and the question of how they would feel if they lost that amount of money out of their wage packet. It also includes a bit about being honest, and how I am far more tolerant with someone who simply can’t afford the lesson and tells me so than I am with someone who can’t afford it, but instead claims they were hit by a meteorite or had food poisoning for the sixth time in two months. This usually does the trick.
With the ones who are badly organised, I give them a paper diary and insist they bring it out with them every lesson. I often get their parents involved (it’s usually the younger ones who’re like this). Those with health issues will already have told me about it, and I just ask them to give me as much notice as possible if they are unwell. Sudden genuine illness can’t be helped, nor can sudden job interviews. If someone is sick, they can’t drive – and that includes me. If something personal comes up, that can’t be helped either – and that includes me, too.
The only time I claim for the lesson is if they are pissed, or are recovering from having been pissed (I stopped teaching one guy immediately ten years ago when I turned up for a lesson he’d booked in the mid-afternoon of a weekday – I met him coming up the garden path after I’d knocked at his door, and he was so drunk he didn’t know who I was). There are some pupils I won’t allow to book Saturday mornings because I know they go out Friday nights. If I know others are going anywhere where they might drink, I won’t let them book the next morning as a precaution. Many will already think of this themselves. And many – or their parents – will insist on paying anyway if they know they’re at fault.
Each pupil is worth an average of £850 to me. If I were to adopt a zero-tolerance approach I’d lose a lot of those pupils, so I do everything I can to fix the problem. It’s only the ones I can’t fix who I let go. I treat last-minute cancellations as holidays, not as lost income.
You have to accept, lesson cancellations will happen. But you also have to realise that £850 income is far more important than a few cancellations spaced over a few months. For me, with a 48-hour written cancellation policy (which I rarely uphold), alarm bells start ringing when cancellations reach about 10% of the likely income from a pupil. That happens very infrequently – and these days I can usually fill vacated lesson slots even with less than 24 hours notice.
How easy is the job?
You’ll spend most – if not all – of your time sitting on your backside, so in that sense it is very easy. However, sitting down all day means that unless you get some exercise outside of the job, you will put on weight. Since you might be getting home around 8.30pm, having left the house at 9am, a trip to the gym or a 30 minute jog might not seem quite so appealing then as it does right now while you’re brimming with enthusiasm at the prospect of earning £30,000.
If you already suffer from back problems, go back and read that part about sitting down all day again. If you don’t suffer from back problems, be prepared to develop some.
You need to be on your guard at all times, watching both your pupils and other road users. It’s not that uncommon for a learner to be driving along the straightest of roads, only to suddenly decide that – for reasons you may never be able to get to the bottom of – they ought to take an immediate 90° turn into a dark field, instead of continuing smoothly along the straight and fully illuminated “A” road that everyone else is on. I once asked a pupil why he had attempted such a dramatic manoeuvre (directly towards a pavement, in this case) on a straight 60mph road, and he answered “I honestly don’t know”.
Almost every experienced instructor will have had the pupil who, when you’ve asked them to “turn right” at a roundabout, has tried exactly that – to go round it counter-clockwise – oblivious to the rush hour traffic going round it the proper way. Or the one who decides that “follow the road ahead” means go where the car is pointing at the instant their brain finally processes the instruction. Or the one who only hears you say “right” when you say “look to the right”, and instantaneously yanks the wheel in that direction after concluding that you’ve just asked them to turn right (this is even more likely if you also make any sort of hand gesture indicating a particular direction). Or the one, usually from a country where driving standards are poor and there is no such thing as “give way”, who executes an emergency stop every time another vehicle moves even vaguely towards them. Or the pupil who suddenly decides they shouldn’t have entered a roundabout or junction after all, and slams on the brakes in the middle of moving traffic (some also do this where pigeons or squirrels are involved). Or the one who, while driving along at a steady 50mph, decides to change gear needlessly – and then either finds 1st by mistake, or pulls on the handbrake lever. Or the one who, when moving out into (or driving in) busy traffic, accidentally hits the brake instead of the accelerator. And so it goes on. Some of it just happens. Other times, there’s an underlying medical issue such as dyspraxia involved (sometimes diagnosed, sometimes not – and sometimes if it is diagnosed, they haven’t told you about it).
Then there are pedestrians and – sigh – cyclists, who will think nothing of moving directly into your path, and who appear to have zero knowledge of the Highway Code, and zero regard for it even if they do, providing ample triggers for jumpy pupils to stamp on the brakes or fling the wheel towards parked cars.
Having to concentrate on all this leads to tiredness, usually at the end of a busy day when it’s also dark, thus adding to the overall risk. It all comes down to how well you can handle such problems, but the bottom line is that the job is both physically and mentally challenging if you’re not used to it.
Is the job stressful?
The first time you encounter any of the above behaviours you will shit yourself – I know I did. But I got used to it, and these days I’m ready for it (though pupils never completely lose the ability to spring surprises on you). As I’ve said elsewhere, this blog is one of my ways of relieving the stress.
The only part of the job I still find genuinely alarming is when a pupil kicks off over something unexpectedly. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it’s a real downer. Believe me, there are some very strange people out there – perhaps due to undiagnosed issues again – and when you inevitably end up teaching one of them you have to be careful how you handle things. Young people these days simply aren’t used to having their faults picked up on, much less discussed, and a few of them can overreact to the most innocuous comment or action (often translated to “you’re shouting at me”). It is their defence mechanism, and no matter how you approach the situation some will just blow their lids. And it doesn’t have to be a visible blown lid, either – it can appear as an unpleasant undercurrent to the lessons. When it happens, it is virtually impossible to smooth it out short-term, and you may even find that things are never the same between the two of you again. I’m pretty certain that, no matter what façade of pleasantness is put in place for the remaining lessons, some will still hold it against you once they pass their tests, because at the back of their minds their defence mechanism is still telling them they were right.
Some years ago, I had a pupil fail her test. She’d stopped on a slip road to join a one-way system in the city centre, but had over-steered slightly and couldn’t see oncoming traffic properly from her left side. Her solution to this was to put her head down, accelerate into the traffic, and hope for the best. Not surprisingly, the examiner used the dual controls. When I asked her about it afterwards, she said that the examiner’s head (his “big juff”, in her words) and central pillar were in the way and she couldn’t see, and had no choice but to go! I pointed out that she had positioned herself incorrectly, and in any case she could have asked the examiner to move his head, or perhaps even have leaned forward more – but blindly driving into moving traffic was definitely not an acceptable solution. She argued vehemently, and to this day – I speak to her occasionally since she passed her second test – she still resolutely maintains that there was nothing else she could have done and the examiner shouldn’t have failed her. It’s this sort of defensive inverted logic you will sometimes find yourself dealing with.
To make matters worse, the examples I’ve given above refer to relatively normal people! God help you if you get a real lunatic. Fortunately, I’ve only ever had three of those in my entire career as an ADI, but they frighten the hell out of me. The worst one of them all has to be the woman who had told me she thought she was being stalked. When the police investigated the “suspect” it turned out to be a false alarm. I don’t think her accusation was overtly malicious – she’d just got the wrong end of the stick – but with hindsight, she apparently had issues in this area and was able to get the wrong end of this sort of stick with alarming ease. I didn’t realise that at the time and took what she told me at face value. However, a few weeks later she dumped me for “a female instructor”. When I phoned to ask what was wrong she told me that I “made her feel uncomfortable”. To say I was mortified is an understatement – this has always been a bit of a phobia on my part – and my skin crawls even now when I think of what accusations she could have levelled against me. God only knows what she told her new instructor.
And then there’s your pass rate. No matter what some instructors might claim, it DOES matter, and having to manage people with “issues” (not uncommon); those who perhaps can’t afford the lessons (very common); those who are slow learners but see themselves otherwise, and have booked their tests already just “to have a go” because they might get lucky, even though they haven’t a cat in hell’s chance of passing (also very common), and who openly resent you suggesting that they should cancel it or move it back (sometimes accusing you of trying to extract money from them)… well, you’re going to end up stressed however you deal with it.
Some of the road using public is so stupid that you seriously have to wonder how they passed their tests in the first place, let alone how they keep hold of their licences. To them, L plates mean that the Highway Code is suspended, and they will exercise their God-given right to pull out or overtake dangerously at every opportunity. They will tailgate you (sometimes on purpose, sometimes just because they’re genuinely crap drivers); sit behind you at traffic lights ready to sound the horn the instant the lights change whether your pupil moves off promptly or not (older female drivers are worst for this); force their way past on narrow roads, even driving on the pavement to do it (van drivers – especially couriers and postal drivers – are the worst); openly start texting at traffic lights, even delaying moving off to finish the tweet they were engaged in (especially young females); and speed limits are obviously something only learners have to stick to.
Elderly homeowners in middle class areas apparently spend the better part of their retirement hiding behind their curtains, ready to race out (it’s amazing how fast old people can move when they want to) and aggressively claim ownership of a road or corner the moment a learner car stops there. Some will park dangerously close to corners so that learners can’t reverse around them (red Fiesta, end house, Normanby Drive in Bramcote, take note). They will drive up and stop centimetres away from your bumper to stop you reversing (that even happened once on a pupil’s test – the examiner’s verdict of “stupid cow” was very apt). On the rougher estates – the ones where they’re all related, have one big eyebrow or scrunched up hair which pulls their eyes into slits, and funny numbers of chromosomes – be prepared for things to be thrown at the car. A few years ago someone chucked a bag of something at my windscreen in Broxtowe as I drove past a bus stop and whatever it was smeared like hell and would not come off (it may have been Superglue dispersed in some solvent – these retards actually research these things). Once, in Clifton, one of the local troglodytes prostrated himself on the road in front of the car (we were actually reversing – they’re not too smart in Clifton). Once, in Lenton, someone threw something with all his might at the windscreen as we drove past. I actually saw him jump in the air to get a good swing, though fortunately he hit the door pillar with whatever it was he threw and not the glass (he was lucky I didn’t catch him after I chased him, but it was obvious what he was trying to do). Once, a Forest match had finished and an ugly fat guy (which doesn’t narrow it down much when it comes to Forest supporters) thought it would be clever to throw a full portion of chips with curry sauce over the car as we drove past. And I had three punctures in the three weeks after one Christmas as a result of the suspiciously high number of screws and nails which sporadically appear on corners used by learners (there’s no way they are all there accidentally).
Finally, there are other instructors. You’ll pull up on a half-mile long deserted street on a deserted industrial estate some time late on a Sunday afternoon to do a turn in the road, only to have some idiot ADI appear moments later and stop within three or four car lengths of you to do the same thing. A couple of years ago a woman in an Elliott’s Driving School car actually stopped directly opposite on an otherwise clear road, preventing us from doing anything except drive off, and creating a needless bottleneck with which to annoy other road users. Another time, I was in a small deserted car park (8 bays one side, 6 on the other) on an industrial estate in Colwick one Sunday evening practising bay parking, only to have a retard ADI drive in and position himself to do one, thus blocking us in. Admittedly, he didn’t stay after I got out and explained a few things, but he would have done if I hadn’t. And don’t even get me started on those instructors who insist on driving into the test centre car park to practice bay parking while tests are coming and going, or the ones who form a queue to use whatever road feature you’re using – sometimes even moving in when you’re part way through (they, too, go away after I explain a few things to them).
So stress is there in bucket loads, and you can’t avoid most of it. It comes looking for you. It’s how you handle it inside that matters – as I said earlier, I have my blog and I can vent my spleen here!
Can you do too many lessons?
People choose to become ADIs for the money. The best ones also do it because it’s something they actually want to do to, but money is always the bottom line. It’s only a job, after all. So it is natural to want to be busy.
The problem is that if you are too busy, the quality of your lessons will suffer. If nothing else you will be tired and stressed, and if your pupils have crap lessons when they’re tired, what makes you think you’re any different? Your learners will pick up on poor quality lessons immediately, even if you don’t, so it’s vital that you know your own limits (I know mine). Being too busy can easily affect your ability to retain pupils, which negatively impacts your reputation and recruitment of more work, thus increasing your stress even further.
Unfortunately, many new ADIs will already have calculated their future dream earnings based on the assumption that they’ll be working 50 hours a week right from the start, and nothing seems to change that view until the harsh realities set in. The truth is that if they could get anywhere near that amount of work it would – if it didn’t kill them first – negatively impact their performance and health, and set in motion a downward spiral for their future earnings. Instructors who are genuinely able to work very long hours and maintain the quality of their work are in the minority in the first place, and are invariably those with more experience. Even fewer can do it week in, week out (I deliberately build in slack weeks here and there so I can have a rest). Newly-qualified ADIs do not fit into either group.
So, yes. You can do too many lessons.
Is it legal to work long hours?
ADIs’ hours are not restricted in the same way as (for example) an HGV driver’s are, so yes, it’s legal for them to work long hours. However, the conditions attached to the green badge mean that an instructor mustn’t provide dangerous tuition or engage in illegal or unprofessional activities. If you are tired or stressed there is a very real danger that you might miss dangerous situations or even fall asleep – and that would have very serious legal implications. At best, you’d lose pupils and not get new work coming in. At worst, you could lose your licence to teach or even end up in jail.
What amounts to “long hours” is different for everyone. Some may struggle to do any more than 20-25 hours, whereas others might easily cope with 40. In my case, it was doing 40-hour weeks with one peaking at over 50 that made me decide to build in slack ones.
Can I make more profit if I reduce my overheads?
Of course you can. The real question is which overheads, and by how much? Driving instruction is a mature business, and any trick or USP which is likely to increase work has already been tried, evaluated, and built into the costing model. As a result, what you charge, spend, and earn as profit falls into a fairly narrow pre-defined range. You can’t just go out and charge £40 an hour when everyone else is doing it for £23 and expect to stay in business. If fuel costs the rest of the country £1.20 per litre then that’s approximately what you’re going to have to pay for it; and if a typical instructor drives 10-20 miles per lesson, someone who tries halving that without a bloody good reason will find themselves back stacking shelves at Tesco in no time at all. All you can do is find the best balance between enough work and minimising your expenses within this mature framework. This is the basis of a simple, successful business.
Can I cut my fuel consumption to reduce my overheads?
Up to a point, yes. Fuel is the largest overhead that you actually have much control over. However, a lot of ADIs haven’t got a clue how their business works, and inevitably get it into their one-dimensional minds that they would make shed loads more money if they used shed loads less fuel. They do not understand that a successful ADI has to deliver a specific syllabus with a practical test at the end of it, and is therefore committed to covering at least some road miles in order to achieve that. As I pointed out earlier, a typical driving test covers about 10 miles, and if instructors aren’t covering a similar distance on most of their lessons then something’s wrong.
In other words, you can’t just cut your fuel consumption to nothing by parking up by the side of the road talking. You’re guaranteed to lose pupils that way and not get any more. Some instructors still try it, though. Even one of the lesser national schools offers a “free” lesson, financed by the ADI, and which almost invariably involves sitting parked for a full hour. I pick up loads of pupils who have switched instructors for precisely this reason, and they’re not all telling lies when they report that they spent too much time talking, and too little driving. Instructors who engage in this behaviour seem incapable of understanding that every lost pupil loses them an average of about £700-£800 of income and eliminates any chance of new work coming from referrals by that pupil The park-and-prattle method might save an instructor £1,500 a year in fuel overheads at best, but two lost pupils cancels it out and sets in motion a downward spiral for the future of their business.
Wise management of your resources can certainly minimise your fuel costs, but you can only go so far – and it isn’t very far if you were providing a half-decent service to start with – before your business begins to suffer. The best way of reducing fuel costs is to get a more economical car (I reduced my fuel overhead by almost half some years ago when I switched from petrol to diesel). If you already have such a car – and if you are already covering less than about 10-20 miles per hour of lessons on average – you need to accept that you probably can’t reduce your fuel overhead much further. I acknowledge that in some areas – very large cities – you might get away with less mileage than this, but the principle is the same. You have to face the fact that you need fuel to deliver decent lessons.
Can I get a cheap car to reduce my overheads?
It makes me laugh when I hear instructors claiming that their car “costs [them] nothing”. Unless they won it in a raffle, and had no maintenance costs resulting from age and day-today-use such as punctures, broken windscreens, new wiper blades, etc., then their car costs them money just like everyone else.
In the real world a car has to be purchased or leased by the vast majority of instructors. Once you have it, it has to be replaced periodically and have regular services that 99.9% of instructors couldn’t possibly do themselves. It needs oil top-ups and replacement parts that wear out or get damaged. And that’s before you even consider serious breakdowns and repair costs – which happen to everyone sooner or later. If it’s off the road you lose money from not being able to do lessons, or spend more money arranging for a replacement if it isn’t part of a lease agreement (and if it is, the hassle will still result in at least some lost work). Even if you paid £10,000 for your car five years ago and mentally wrote off the whole ten grand back then, the reality is that that your total profit throughout the entire period of ownership is reduced due to the capital you invested. Irrespective of what you tell everyone (including the tax man), and perhaps even believe, it isn’t costing you “nothing” – it’s costing about £30-£40 a week over 5 years, plus any of those additional costs I’ve just mentioned.
One viable way of acquiring a “cheap” car is to choose one of those rectangular things produced in a faraway place you’ve never heard of, with a name you can’t pronounce without looking it up on Google (I’ve used a picture of the ugliest car on the planet, the Nissan Cube, for which pronunciation only becomes an issue when you try to describe it). Dealers are often desperate to shift these things and therefore offer very tempting deals. Each to their own, of course, but you should consider the fact that there is zero probability that anyone under 45 would ever consider buying one when they pass their test, and although some pupils are attracted to “cute” or oddball cars (and even they draw the line somewhere), many aren’t. Obviously, not all cheaper cars are ugly, but you need to consider if, as a new ADI desperate for the best possible start, such a car would be a good choice. What about in a recession, when pupil numbers begin to fall? There are quite a few of these cars favoured by other ADIs that I can hardly squeeze into, or which I find extremely uncomfortable, and if I was learning to drive I most certainly would not go to an instructor who had one.
My advice is not to just get the cheapest car you can find without considering how its looks might affect your business first.
Can I use an older car?
I’ve noticed that more and more trainee and newly-qualified ADIs are opting for significantly older used cars – often, the car they already owned before they decided to become instructors.
You can still operate a driving school in one of these, but no matter what those who own them might claim the age and appearance of the vehicle you drive has a significant effect on the work you attract. The majority of pupils like new (or new-ish) cars and there’s no escaping the fact that a ten-year old Corsa looks exactly like what it is: a ten-year old Corsa! You have to ask how much additional work you’d attract if you had a newer car instead of a banger – work that could mean the difference between success and failure for a new instructor.
Incidentally, I have noticed on forums and social networking sites that a significant number of instructors – often newbies – have purchased second hand vehicles and are having problems down the line. Now there’s a surprise. Some are even off the road, and so not earning at all. This is something else you have to take into account if you’re trying to cut corners and start out fully independent.
What can I charge for lessons?
You can charge whatever you want. The $64,000 question, though, is a) if you charge a high price, will people pay it? And b) if you charge a low price, will you make a profit?
The average lesson price in the UK is around £23-£26 per hour. I hear that in some areas they can charge £30-£35 an hour, but if I tried that here in Nottingham I guarantee my diary would empty overnight. So I effectively have an upper price I can (or dare) charge.
Back in 2010, the tactic of price-cutting took off as desperate instructors sought to attract work which wasn’t there at the expense of other instructors doing exactly the same thing. Although the upper limit to your available price range is governed by what people are prepared to pay, the lower limit isn’t, and in theory if you drop your price to a lower figure than everyone else you will get all the work you want. If only it were that simple, though.
As I pointed out earlier, this is a mature industry and profit margins are not great. If just one ADI dropped his prices by £1 then he might well enjoy an increase in enquiries – if he could get the message across through advertising, which would cost money, of course. But when dozens of instructors are doing it, every lower price becomes the new baseline, and the price-cutting ADI will simply find himself in exactly the same situation as before – little work – but with a lower income. His only option is to cut prices still further, and the low margin situation means that he is now into an uncontrollable downward spiral to oblivion. To succeed, you’ve got to keep the highest profit margin you can get away with for your area.
Between 2010 and 2014 you would see cars advertising lessons for as little as £15 an hour. You don’t work for that price unless you’re desperate, so it isn’t hard to guess what they were up to. They aren’t around anymore – and neither will you be this time next year if you try it.
One final note on this. I currently see a lot of instructors boasting how they’ve put their prices up to the top end and are still apparently turning work away. If that’s true, good luck to them. However, thanks to Brexit there is a storm coming. So if you are charging a higher price, make bloody sure you’re putting the extra away for the inevitable rainy day, and don’t just spend it now. Higher prices are likely to become unsustainable if we enter another recession, so the fall will be from a much greater height for some people.
Working as an ADI
Should I start with a franchise?
My advice on this is simple. Yes, you should. And be very careful when people advise you to go independent, particularly if that advice is to do it straight after you qualify.
The vast majority of new ADIs haven’t got a chance in hell of filling their diaries quickly enough to start earning a living without major advertising which, as I have already mentioned, might not work. Franchises – especially the larger ones – are geared up to do this, and although there are never any guarantees, there is a bloody good chance that a franchise will be a hundred times better than you would be at getting work, particularly if you choose a national school or a good local one.
In my opinion, anyone who goes independent right from the start is crazy. Why spend all that money training for the green badge, only to go and gamble on having to give it all up? You need the best start you can get, not an ego trip in a sign-written car with your own name plastered all over it.
Should I start out independent?
If you ask this on the forums you’ll be swamped with “go indie” advice from everyone. The problem is that those offering the advice are established ADIs who haven’t a clue what your financial needs are. Many of them don’t have mortgages or are semi-retired from high-paying jobs and have substantial pension backup, and they do the job for pocket money. And in quite a few cases, when they started out, they did it with a franchise – and yet they readily trot out this misguided advice about the only way being the indie way.
If you need to establish yourself and get work quickly, doing it as an independent instructor is likely to be more difficult than it would be under a franchise brand. I’m sure that there are some independents who genuinely hit the ground running when they made their choice, but there are a lot more ex-ADIs who didn’t.
Something I don’t think I will ever fathom is how you’ll get someone who is trying to qualify on a shoestring because they either can’t afford it or are as tight as a duck’s arse, and who then decide that the only way immediately after qualifying is independent – solely on the grounds that you don’t pay a franchise fee. I suppose the saving grace there is that there’s a good chance they won’t be earning much, either, so that cancels out the extra money they’d be paying to a franchiser.
Is it cheaper being independent compared to working on a franchise?
There’s no doubt that if you had a guaranteed 30 hours (or any other amount) of work per week already in your diary, you’d be better off as an independent instructor. This is quite simply because you’d have lower overheads. However, the difference is not as great as some people would have you believe.
An franchised instructor might be paying £200 a week for his car, but if he is independent he does not have £200 more profit. The independent still has to finance a car which, as I have already pointed out, is likely to cost at least £40 – and probably closer to £60-£80 ON AVERAGE. Add around £10 for insurance, then whatever he has to pay for advertising, and he will be paying over £100 a week to get what is covered by the franchise. Yes, it’s still cheaper, but it all comes down to the one thing you simply cannot get across to the typical newly-qualified ADI: YOU HAVE TO HAVE THE WORK, OTHERWISE NO AMOUNT OF LOWER OVERHEADS WILL PREVENT YOU GOING OUT OF BUSINESS. And the franchise is more likely to be able to provide that work.
If you need to be earning sensible money to pay for your personal life (i.e. earn a living wage), going independent immediately after you qualify is a huge risk.
Can a franchise guarantee that you have work?
The answer to this isn’t anywhere near as clear cut as you might think. As I said earlier, this industry is fickle, and you cannot be certain of being busy all the time no matter how well-established you are. This is especially true when the economy is struggling, or if the ADI Register is overloaded. However, at the time of writing, there are pupils by the truck load in most areas, and many instructors left the Register during the last recession after having failed in the business. So if a franchise or local school is “guaranteeing” work it will almost certainly be because they have enough enquiries to justify making such a claim at this time. You have to consider a few things, though:
- they’re probably not guaranteeing a completely full diary
- the Register is likely to fill up again over the next few years
- another recession would change the game considerably
- what you consider to be “enough work” might be more than the franchise can provide
- no one can guarantee work forever
I’ve not seen this guarantee being made by the larger national schools, and it seems to be mostly the smaller local ones who do it. Don’t dismiss them out of hand – they might provide you with work you couldn’t get on your own while you establish yourself.
Which franchise do you recommend?
I don’t recommend anyone. You have to make your own choices because there will be risk involved whatever way you proceed. Be wary of anyone who advises you to stay away from large schools or franchises per se. Many have a grudge or are simply repeating what they hear from others.
A good example is RED Driving School. During the last recruitment spike, RED was a favourite hate target of established ADIs because they were one of the main blanket advertisers for instructor training who were pushing the “earn £30,000” mantra. I’m not saying that RED were perfect, but the ads attracted a lot of highly unsuitable people who subsequently either failed the tests or – in quite a few cases – decided they didn’t want to become instructors after all and wanted to get their money back. This RED actually went bankrupt in 2009 and was bought out by a venture capital company. The current RED is not the same company anymore. Unfortunately, most ADIs aren’t aware of this – or conveniently forget it – and they still persist with attitudes based on the old company’s reputation.
One thing I do know is that RED as a normal driving school (and it still does instructor training) has the highest lesson rates around of any of the franchises (£25 an hour and up in Nottingham). If you got a full diary out of them you’d be earning over £3,000 a year more than those independents telling you not to go near them. There are a few RED cars around this way, and they always seem busy.
Should I choose a local or a national franchise?
It’s up to you. Many newly-qualified ADIs baulk at signing to “big names” (I think they’re frightened of them), and choose local schools instead. Many years ago, I knew of someone who chose a franchise simply on the grounds that he could remove their artwork from his car (leased through them) when he wasn’t working (read into that what you will). It doesn’t matter what the school name is though. All that matters is they provide you with pupils – and in my opinion, the national schools might be better at it because they can invest more in advertising.
Something else to consider is lesson price. A local franchise (and some of the lesser nationals) might be “guaranteeing work” because they’re advertising low lesson rates or silly deals to attract pupils. Referring once more to the maturity of this industry, you cannot afford to drop your prices much below the local average before your profits are wiped out. Consider that a 30-hour week of lessons at £23 per hour will give you a wage of around £25,000. A similar week of £20 per hour lessons pulls that wage down to around £20,000 – meaning that you need another 5 hours of work per week just to maintain £25k. That requirement would put even an experienced ADI close to work overload.
Franchises are too expensive!
As I’ve already explained, independent ADIs usually imply that that they pay £200 less per week than an instructor whose franchise costs that. It’s rubbish. The difference is less than £100 – much less, in most cases.
Consider this. Would you prefer to be independent paying (let’s say) £60 a week for your car and £60 for fuel, and doing maybe 15 hours of lessons? Or would you prefer a franchise at £200 a week plus £120 for fuel, with 30 hours of work? In the first example your annual wage would equate to about £12,000 (without advertising costs), whereas the second it’d be around £20,000 (and I have assumed the same premium lesson price in both examples, which you might not be able to charge as a new independent instructor).
It’s a bit of a no-brainer if you look at the actual numbers instead of just listening to nonsense from people who don’t like (and don’t understand) franchises. Independent is only cheaper IF YOU HAVE THE WORK!
But you have to work a lot of hours for nothing to pay the franchise!
You have to work “for nothing” to pay your overheads no matter how you do it. I’ve explained several times that, no matter what you might otherwise think, as an independent you have to pay a definite amount for your car, plus fuel, insurance, advertising, etc. before you earn any profit. Yes, your overall overhead figure on a franchise is greater than the independent equivalent figure, but only by a maximum of 2-3 hours worth of work.
It amazes me that so-called “experienced” ADIs can still go around telling newly-qualified instructors that being independent means they’ll be better off by the whole amount of a franchise fee. They won’t. And in pretty much every single case, franchised ADIs with plenty of work through the franchise will be much better off than independent ones struggling to find pupils on their own.
Only franchised ADIs work weekends – because they have to
That’s rubbish. All ADIs have to work several hours a week to pay off their overheads, as I have already explained. In most cases franchised instructors work weekends because they can. I made that point earlier – a franchiser may get work for you, whereas on your own you’re struggling.
I work weekends a) because I can, and b) because by doing so I can earn between £250 and £400 more than I would do if I didn’t.
Franchised instructors have to work half the week to pay off their franchise
This is misleading nonsense. A typical franchisee working 30 hours would have to do maybe 12-14 hours of lessons to cover all their overheads. It sounds terrible if you purposely imply that an independent can pocket all the money for himself. The fact is that an independent ADI also working 30 hours would have to do around 8-10 hours (assuming no advertising costs and charging a premium lesson price) to cover their own overheads. It’s a only a difference of around 4 hours in the first place, but – and as I’ve already made clear – the newly-qualified independent may not be able to charge a premium lesson price. That would take his “dead” hours to maybe 9-12 hours, and if he advertised at £25 a week, that would add at least another hour.
Not quite as one-sided as people have been telling you, is it?
Franchises are no good if you want to work part-time
You can get a headboard-only franchise for £30-£40, which would be covered by just two hours of work per week. Everything else you’d have to pay for anyway – part-time or full-time.
Independent ADIs can charge more
It sounds good when you say it. However, in most cases indies charge about £1 less per hour – certainly compared with the larger schools – for their standard hours. If they don’t, they might claim they charge top prices, but one look at their price lists shows an ever-more bizarre array of block-booking discounts – I’ve seen schools currently advertising £25 per hour lessons, with block booking discounts equivalent to £17 per hour. Crazy.
The only offer I make is that anyone block booking ten lessons gets one extra hour free (that free hour is the last one to be taken and has no monetary value – i.e. any refunds would be based on ten hours and not eleven). It means I can scale the offer as I increase my prices periodically.
The bottom line is that any special offer is lost revenue, and big discounts need to have huge paybacks, otherwise you’re just throwing money down the drain.
Independent ADIs earn more
No, they don’t. Every ADI is self-employed, so every one of them is different, with different circumstances. They work in different areas, with different pupil pools, and people who are only prepared to pay so much – which varies depending where you are.
If every ADI in the country was guaranteed 30 hours of work per week, and could charge exactly the same amount per hour, then an independent ADI would definitely be earning more by the difference between how much they paid out in overheads compared with someone on a franchise. But that’s a fantasy scenario.
As I have pointed out elsewhere in this article, you can absolutely not be guaranteed 30 hours of work, nor can you charge the same amount as everyone else in other parts of the country (it is recognised independents charge an average of £1 less per hour than the franchises, and I have shown that some charge almost £5 less). Even in your own area, it may be necessary to cut prices to attract work away from the bigger names. And it may not work. This is the reality, and it applies to 99% of all ADIs.
Some independents will be earning more than some franchised instructors. Some franchised instructors will be earning more than some independents (on a franchise before the 2009 recession, I once grossed earnings – not turnover – of more than £30,000 in a single year). All you can be sure of is that it depends on lots of things, and that that fantasy scenario above is a million miles away from reality.
Why are ADIs self employed?
They don’t have to be, and in the past some people have tried to employ salaried ADIs (Mercedes, for example). I can’t remember who it is, but there is (or was recently) apparently still at least one place that does it. The problem lies with how much money people are prepared to pay for lessons, and the overheads involved, which means that the most cost-effective way for pupils and ADIs is to be self employed.
Think about it. Being in business means making money on top of what you have to pay to stay in business. A self employed ADI has to pay several thousand pounds a year to keep a car on the road, attract pupils, and have enough work to make a profit once all that is paid for. If someone comes along trying to turn that into a salaried business, they have to pay the ADI a wage which is at least similar to what he would earn self employed, and make extra money to pay themselves a wage on top of paying for cars and other overheads, such as office staff. To do that, lesson prices would have to increase, or the ADI’s wage would have to fall (or a combination of the two).
If the business operator had a lot of ADIs then lesson prices and wage cuts could be kept to a minimum – but it would still be more expensive all round because of the extra overheads that had been introduced. For all practical purposes, it would be a franchise system in another name – but one which had much higher admin costs. Somewhere along the line, someone has to pay for the extra admin – and you can be sure it won’t be the business owner.
Mercedes failed at it, which was obviously always going to happen. They targeted wealthy learners, and although they stayed in the business for a couple of years, they inevitably gave up. There is undoubtedly a market for wealthy people learning in high-spec cars that self employed ADIs can exploit, but it isn’t big enough for a proper business to operate from the back of it, and especially not on a national scale.
The bottom line is that ADIs are self employed because it keeps costs at their lowest levels for all those concerned (instructor and pupil). Having a franchise system is about as far as you can go, with the extra costs involved, before someone somewhere starts having to pay too much and the system collapses.
Should I start part time after I qualify?
In theory, starting off part time makes a lot of sense, since it gives you the opportunity to gradually build up work until you can switch to it full time. It’s a nice theory and if you became an instructor because you’re retired, at a loose end now the kids have left home, or just want some pocket money to spend, it probably holds up quite well. For those doing it as a main source of income, though, they have to get enough work to quickly start paying their bills.
For someone in that latter position, the trouble starts with the first enquiries. What will you do if the pupil can only do lessons at times when you can’t? Turning pupils away when you’re trying to build a career is suicidal. Even if they can fit into your free time, what if working late into the evening (or early in the morning) makes you tired for your other job? How will you take pupil enquiries when you’re on the other job? Is your boss understanding enough to let you do it? Have you told him what you’re up to? The truth is that holding down two jobs throws up all manner of logistical problems that don’t exist on paper. It’s only when you start doing it you find out what it pain it can be, and how often one job (or you) has to suffer to accommodate the other.
Start out part time by all means – but make sure you fully consider the feasibility of this before you go ahead.
Which advice should I listen to?
Use your own common sense as much as you can. You know approximately how much lessons are, and you can easily find out how much a car will cost, and how much you will have to pay for insurance, so for God’s sake stop keep asking other people how much you will earn! They don’t know – but most of them will have a fine old time telling you nonetheless, usually with some very dodgy calculations confusing turnover with profit.
If you’re going to go looking for online advice, be wary of sites with information dating from more than 3-4 years ago (and especially if it is from 2008-2011). Those will usually have been written by bitter people sticking the boot in on the big advertisers of the time – most notably RED Driving School, which was active up until that point (before it went bust and was resurrected as a completely different company) – and suffering from the effects of the recession.
Your main concern is to get work – and no one can tell you if you’ll succeed or not. It is the risk you take if you decide to enter this industry. For that reason, you need to choose the route that is most likely to provide that work.
Training to Become an ADI
How do I become an ADI?
There is a guide on the GOV.UK website which will help. You need to be over 21 and to have held a full car driving licence for at least three years. There are certain situations which could prevent you becoming an instructor – in a nutshell, unless you have a totally clean driving licence and absolutely no criminal convictions or pending court cases you may be refused entry on to the Register. If you have any sex- or violence-related offences on your record, you may as well forget it. As far as the middle ground goes, the acceptance criteria have been dumbed down since I qualified, so who knows?
Firstly, you will need to have a criminal records check (now the DBS – Data Barring Service) carried out. At the original time of writing this costs £6 – but my advice is not to bother if you clearly will not be accepted on to the Register, or unless you’re prepared to lose the £6 if you end up being refused (some people still apply even if they have horrendous criminal records or stupid numbers of points on their driving licences, then complain when they are rejected). When you have your CRC you can apply to join the Register, and once you’re on it you can start your training (though I can’t see why you couldn’t start training before – you just wouldn’t be able to take any of the exams, and if you were refused then it would be money wasted).
What Is Involved?
You will need to pass three exams:
- Part 1: The theory and hazard perception test
- Part 2: The test of your driving ability
- Part 3: The test of your instructional abilities.
The national pass rate for Part 2 in 2014/15 was 54.4%, and for Part 3 in 2013/14 it was 32.3%. The Part 1 pass rate is about 50%. These data come from different official documents, hence the different years, but they still provide suitable guidance.
Let’s do a bit of maths using these numbers. If 100 people joined the Register as PDIs, according to the statistics only 50 would pass Part 1 and move on to Part 2. Of that 50, only 27 would pass and move on to Part 3. Finally, of those 27 only 9 people would pass Part 3 and qualify as ADIs. That’s an overall success rate of less than 10%.
I must stress that the maths isn’t quite as simple as this, since you can take Part 1 an unlimited number of times (you’re bound to pass eventually), and the other two parts up to three times each within a two-year period (and you’re not bound to pass those). The point is that becoming an ADI is not a foregone conclusion (nor is it cheap), and failing the tests is more likely than passing them – even if the overall probability of passing is not quite as low as 10%.
Why are ADI pass rates so low?
I certainly wonder that, especially about Part 1. Someone who is even partly suited to the job should get 100% every time, so a 50% failure rate strongly suggests that a lot candidates are massively out of their depth. Parts 2 and 3 are much harder, but it is inevitable that some unsuitable candidates will get further along the training path and even qualify as ADIs.
Do only good instructors pass the tests?
Unfortunately, no. Remember that the main reason for many to (try) to become instructors is the money. Actually wanting to teach people to drive often comes way down the list. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of newbies struggle then give up because they simply can’t handle the job – yet they could have anticipated all the problems if they’d have been able to see beyond the £££ signs right at the beginning. If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing you can never be particularly good at it (don’t kid yourself: you can’t), and your pupils will pick up on that immediately. And that kills your chances of success.
A complaint I often hear when I take on new pupils is that their last instructor would take a block booking payment from them (over £200 in banknotes), and then repeatedly cancel lessons, be “double booked”, or be “unavailable” (ignoring texts and phone calls). The instructors who do this are not intending to defraud – not on purpose, anyway. The reason they do it is because they’re struggling for work, have offered some sort of deal which has snared the pupil, and the block-booking cash goes straight into their bank account to fill some holes. As far as the instructor is concerned, all future bookings made by that pupil are now non-paying, and when the pupil tries to book subsequent lessons the ADI would much rather fill the slot with someone who was handing over cash on the day, and not someone who was – in their mind – doing a free lesson.
I am acutely aware of the effect block bookings have on my own cash flow, and how it feels to have no “current income” from lessons, so I can easily imagine how those with less scruples might handle it. It might sound cynical, but what I’ve described above is exactly why (and how) it happens. And it’s ironic that those who do it might actually be “good” as far as teaching is concerned – but being so “bad” at business completely wipes that out.
The issue seems to arise mainly with independent ADIs (sorry, but it does), followed by local franchises (sorry again). I’ve recently taken on a new pupil whose mother has explained that they have lost money to a local school when an instructor “retired” still owing lessons, yet the school says it’s not their problem since the ADI is no longer with them. The larger franchises appear to take such behaviour quite seriously and this deters instructors from engaging in it (though it does happen occasionally, from my experience). The behaviour is purely a function of the ADI(s) involved, and not the franchise (though these people sometimes don’t help themselves with their attitudes when it happens).
So, is it easy to qualify?
It depends how you look at it. If you’re cut out to be an instructor, then training and passing the tests might well prove to be very easy indeed (of course, it might not). Likewise, if hell ought to freeze over before you even try to become an ADI, you’re likely to struggle with the training and tests (and, of course, you might not).
Another way of looking at it is the pass rates, which I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this article. Your chance of failing is higher than your chance of passing. Don’t be misled by the recommendation of certain high-profile instructor trainers who claim to guarantee getting you through. If you’re not cut out for it you should not even try (and quite frankly, these trainers shouldn’t be trying to make you do so, though they are in it for the money like everyone else, so you can’t really accuse them of any wrongdoing).
How much does it cost to become a Driving Instructor?
It will vary from person to person. There are two main ways to go about the training.
If you do it by yourself (referred to as “pay-as-you-go”, or PAYG), Part 1 is something you can do in your spare time, and apart from the cost of the exam (£81 at the time of writing) and suitable training materials (say, around £30) it won’t cost much. Part 2 will almost certainly need professional tuition, which typically costs £30 or more per hour, and ten hours would cost around £300 plus the exam (£111). Finally, Part 3 is likely to require at least 40 hours of professional tuition (£1,200) plus the exam (£111). All that adds up to about £1,800 – though realistically, most people will require more training than what I’ve mentioned here, and will most likely need more than one attempt at one or more of the exams. A worst case scenario might see you paying closer to £3,000 on training – perhaps even more – and this PAYG approach is supposedly the cheaper way of doing it.
Alternatively, you can pay for a complete training package from a training company. This was how I did it many moons ago, and I have no real complaints other than for the fact that smaller training companies (as most were at the time) appear to have average lifespans similar to Mayflies (i.e. they often go out of business, like my original one did near the end of my training, and like dozens of others have since). These days, full packages typically cost around £2,500-£3,500. And don’t forget that however you train, if you qualify you’ll have to apply for your Green Badge, which currently costs £300.
Can you do it without paying any money except for the exams?
Unfortunately, yes, though it is a high risk path, since you’re even more likely to fail. However, some desperate (or tight) people – very few, I might add – manage it.
Doing it this way says a lot about someone’s motivation and reasons for wanting to be an ADI. After all, if they are so short of money they can’t afford the training, becoming an instructor is hardly a proven way of fixing a cash flow issue. And if money isn’t really an issue, trying to do it on a shoestring doesn’t say much for their reasons for wanting to become instructors.
Should I train with a franchise or independently?
The choice is yours. There is absolutely no reason why a large driving school offering a training package should be any better or worse than an independent individual or small company doing the same, or one charging pay-as-you-go.
There most definitely are some cowboys around, and they can be solo trainers as much as the training schools. The worst culprits seem to be outfits you’ve never heard of before, or solo trainers who have seen what they think is a way to make money by charging more to train ADIs than they could when they were teaching learners. An outfit offering ADI training whose cars you never see on the road should be given a wide berth (in my opinion) – if they haven’t got a lot of cars then they won’t be making much money, and they’re likely to disappear as soon as they came (or be reluctant to give you what you paid for in favour of taking on someone else with cash in their hand).
Large schools like RED, BSM, and The AA are not cowboy outfits – be very careful listening to people who tell you otherwise, since their “advice” tends to be tainted by their own experiences, which are usually a little biased. Becoming an ADI isn’t easy, and many people struggle with the exams. The last person they will ever blame is themselves – just for not being good enough – so they target their trainers instead. Since training packages tend to based around a set number of hours, struggling PDIs often find they need many more hours than originally intended by that package operator.
Do you get trained in how to be self-employed?
It depends on who you train with, and whether or not they include this as part of the package. I don’t know what it is like now, but based on my knowledge and understanding of the past, some do, but most don’t. And the ones who do cover it quickly – it’s not “training” as such, just the transfer of basic information.
Do I need to use an ORDIT-registered trainer?
No, not at the time of writing. You don’t actually have to use any trainer at all. I think that the only condition is that whoever trains you must be an ADI if they are taking payment from you.
ORDIT stands for Official Register of Driving Instructor Training. It is fair to say that if your trainer is ORDIT-registered, then there is an increased likelihood that the training he or she delivers is of a high standard. However, it is absolutely no guarantee. Just as poor-quality ADIs can pass their tests and remain on the register of driving instructors, the same is true of instructor trainers on ORDIT.
DVSA hopes to make ORDIT registration compulsory in the future.
I’m not against ORDIT – it’s just that when I read the official DVSA guidelines I get flashbacks to my time in the rat race. You’d be forgiven for thinking that an ORDIT-registered trainer needs a building the size of a football field to store all the documentation he has to produce to get on – and stay on – the register in the first place. And since ORDIT cannot guarantee quality… well, it’s a bit of a case of the tail wagging the dog.
How did YOU do it?
After I lost my job, and decided that I was never going to work for anyone again, I started looking into teaching – something I’d been attracted to since I left school. As a chemist, science teachers were in very short supply, and it seemed like a possible way forward. However, it would have involved working “for” someone, and quite frankly I don’t think I could have handled modern day kids. Furthermore, it became apparent that teaching involves more bureaucracy than my previous job ever did, and since it was that bureaucracy that cost me my job to start with… I thought “no way”.
Then, I saw an advert in my local newspaper for becoming a driving instructor. I have always enjoyed driving, and the idea of being able to teach it was very appealing. I had an interview, signed up, and went from there. The company I trained with used to get a lot of bad press, but I only ever had one problem with them – when they went bust (as many do)! I finished off my training privately using the instructors who had been put out of work by the bankruptcy, and qualified about two years after I’d started.
I was fortunate. While I was training I was working as a consultant. For a short time, I was also a director of a company I set up with someone I used to work with through my old company to investigate a particular aspect of the work we were doing. When that finished, I did a stint in technical support for Dixons/PC World until I passed Part 3. This meant I could keep the wolves from the door.
So, I used a pay-up-front training package to become an ADI.
Training Packages are a rip-off
No they’re not. Some can be, but that’s true of many things. You have to remember that becoming an ADI is quite difficult, and as we’ve already seen, many trainees are really vastly out of their depth. The fact that they are struggling to learn is not automatically the fault of the trainer, and in such cases the trainee is likely to require (or want) much more training than they had originally hoped for. You are paying for the chance to become an instructor – it is a long, long way from being an automatic process of qualification, and failure is more likely than success.
Packages tend to be based on fixed numbers of training hours spaced out over a period of time, whereas the typical PDI (i.e trainee instructor) is likely to have it in their head that they want to qualify in a much shorter period than is being offered. Furthermore, just as people who fail their driving tests are more likely to blame the examiner or their instructor than themselves, so a PDI who isn’t getting what they want will usually blame their trainer or the school he is working for. And since they’ve usually invested their savings on the course, they are very vocal about it.
The quality of the tuition you receive is directly down to the instructor providing it – not the company he is working for. You can get good and bad instructors – or ones you just don’t work well with – whether they are delivering a full package through a school, or PAYG training on an independent basis. The school they are associated with is completely irrelevant under normal circumstances.
Complete training packages don’t work
Yes they do. Any problems are much more likely to be down to the candidate’s weaknesses than they are the trainer’s.
When I was training, my lessons were a mixture of one to one and two to one sessions. A one to one session might last between 2 and 4 hours, and a two to one would last 4 hours – two with me in the hot seat, and two with me watching someone else in it. Interaction between all parties was encouraged, so the times when you were watching were still part of the lesson. However, I remember at the time being struck by how unsuited some people obviously were – and it definitely wasn’t because the trainers were doing a bad job. They’d cancel lessons or just not turn up, and then start whining about how poor the company was when it couldn’t fit them in for another week or two.
Should I train with a local trainer on a PAYG basis?
There’s no inherent reason why you shouldn’t – it is as viable an option as the pay-up-front route I mentioned above. It isn’t something I have direct experience of myself, though I do know that you should be wary of those telling you it is cheaper than a full package. There’s a very good chance that it won’t be – it’s only cheaper if you qualify in the shortest amount of time and pass all your exams first try. Many don’t, and then the PAYG costs start to ramp up, whereas the pay-up-front package was probably all-inclusive.
How do I know if I would be suitable?
Be honest with yourself. If you don’t like the idea of the training with potentially tricky exams to pass, and a periodic check test/standards check (which is effectively an “exam” you have to pass regularly in order to remain as an ADI), don’t like driving, or if you are nervous working face-to-face with people (to give just a few examples), there’s a good chance you won’t enjoy being an ADI – and that’s well over half way towards failing in the business once you get going. Don’t let the dream of earning big bucks cloud your judgement, because if you aren’t suitable – and yet still qualify – you’ll be lucky to earn £3,000 a year, let alone £30,000. All that money spent on training will be wasted.
One fairly common issue is that people fail Part 3 and then try to blame their trainer. I recently saw someone who was apparently on their 2nd attempt on their second pass through the qualifying process blaming their failure on their previous THREE trainers. To me, this sounds a bit like following a recipe from a cook book – where everyone else who tries it gets it right – and arguing that the book must be wrong because every time you do it it goes tits up.
Some people – the vast majority of the population, in fact – are not cut out to be instructors. You should face the fact that you might be one of them.
Is now a good time to become an ADI?
In 2018? Yes. We’ve recently emerged from a recession and the Register has been thinned out due to people going out of business as a result of that. As I said earlier, there are more pupils than there are instructors who can take them on. But make sure you read what I said about how hard it is to get work – just because there is work available doesn’t mean that you will be able to get it.
Also remember that more new ADIs qualify every day. At some point they will have mopped up all the surplus pupils looking for lessons, and then we’ll start the next price-cutting cycle and people will start going out of business again. There is also the significant prospect that we might return to a Brexit-induced recession.
This article was originally written in 2010, and things have changed a bit since then. This article now refers to the current (2018) procedure – with a 2019 amendment for the bit about what date your driving licence was issued.
My ADI badge was due for renewal in October 2018. I got the initial alert that my DBS check (formerly the CRB check) needed to be renewed in early April – 6 months before my badge expired. This alert came from DVSA via email.
I applied for my DBS immediately online. DVSA supplies you with a PIN number and a secret word. You apply via an online form.
Once you have completed your DBS application, you take a printout of the completed form along with the necessary documents to a Post Office branch that does identity/document checks (you can find a branch at GOV.UK). Note that your local Post Office will almost certainly not have this facility – you will need to go to one likely to be situated in the middle of a large city, with no easy parking, and with queues of people with prams and other annoying things, doing what people who use Post Office branches in the first place usually do. In other words, be prepared for a long wait.
Be careful with your initial DBS application. I am paperless, so had to go to my bank separately to get an official bank statement printed out as one of my check documents. You have to physically put the date of the statement on your application form – even though it is clearly printed on the actual statement. The problem is that you can only use a date in the past, so get the statement first, then fill the form in the next day. Trust me: if the statement date is today or in the future, the online system won’t let you proceed, and if you try to post date it, the Post Office will reject it because the dates won’t match.
When I did mine in October last year, I used my driving licence as a check document (and you probably will be, too). At that time, the date you had to physically enter on the form was the date you passed your test. It was NOT, as you might reasonably expect (as I did), the “valid from” date on the front of your licence (i.e. when you last did your photo update). It was totally f—ing stupid, but that’s how it is, and it isn’t explained anywhere that I could find (nor was it such an issue any of the previous times I had a CRB/DBS check done). The woman at the Post Office told me it catches a lot of other people out , too. Basically, if you don’t remember the exact date you passed your test (and I bloody well didn’t), you have to infer the date from the list of entitlements on the back of it.
As an update to the date on your licence thing, a reader emailed me recently (May 2019) and told me that he had used his pass date, as I outlined above, and the idiots had rejected it and wanted his “valid from” date from the front of the licence. He tells me he was shown the document dated January 2019, so it seems the morons have moved the goalposts and not told anyone. Just be aware of this if yours is due – it looks like the required date is now the one on the front of the licence, which it definitely wasn’t when I did it (though it should have been)!
It’s a stupid system, because the dates on bank statements and driving licences are integral to those documents, and all you are effectively being checked on is whether they caught you out when asking you to write them down on a separate form. It’s even more stupid when you get it wrong, and the Post Office worker shows you how to fill it in properly with the correct figures, so you go away (you have to generate another form) and make the corrections. There is no security aspect to it whatsoever.
I used my passport, my driving licence, and a bank statement as my check documents. I had recently had to apply for a new passport and used this instead of my birth certificate (which has to be an original, and not a copy like mine is).
My DBS certificate came through about seven days after the document check was completed (the check at the Post Office triggers your application process). It costs £6.00 for the service.
Now we come to the actual renewal of your Green Badge. There is no warning later in the year from DVSA – it’s up to you to keep track of your application.
Every Green Badge expires on the last day of whatever month you originally registered in. You apply to renew as soon as possible in the month in question. In my case, with my badge expiring on 31 October, I had to apply any time from 1 October (I would not have been allowed to do it on 30 September).
You simply log into the IRDT system – which every instructor should have access to – and make your application. You will need to provide the number on your DBS certificate, which DVSA will have a copy of/access to. You need a means to make payment (credit or debit card). It costs £300. I applied for mine on 1 October, and it was issued and is now current since 2 October. It arrived in the post 5 October, and has an expiry date of 31 October 2022. All set for another 4 years, now.
To summarise. Assuming you have a credit or debit card, and are not still holding out against technology and the internet, the times taken to actually get both the DBS and your new badge are very short. The documentation and chasing around required for the DBS application is a right pain in the arse, so plan ahead. Application for the Green Badge is simple.
On the other hand, if you insist on using paper money or cheques, won’t use the internet, or want to kick up a stink about which photo you want on your badge… good luck with that. I have no idea what to do in those circumstances.
First published in November 2018, this question pops up from time to time. I often gets hits on terms like “can driving instructors sign passport applications” or “can my instructor sign my passport photo”. The short answer is: NO. They can’t.
On the forums, no one knows the answer – but it doesn’t stop them offering one up all the same. Their answers are mainly based on the fact that they’d like to think they can sign, and proceed from there.
The GOV.UK website lists recognised professions, members of which can countersign passport applications. It is worth pointing out right away that driving instructors are not mentioned. The closest is “teachers and lecturers”, and as much as ADIs like to consider themselves teachers, they are not teachers in the sense the word is intended in an official context.
I have asked the Passport Office for guidance on this before. Their initial answer was:
Yes you would be able to sign a passport application if you are self employed and VAT registered or a Limited company.
I queried this further (most instructors would stop reading after the word “yes”), pointing out that most driving instructors are not VAT registered, nor do they operate Limited companies. The Passport Office responded with:
…a driving instructor can be considered a suitable countersignature not because they are a driving instructor, but if they would be considered the owner/manager of a limited or VAT registered company.
If they would not be registered in this way we cannot guarantee they would be accepted by the processing team.
There it is in black and white. Driving instructors cannot countersign passport applications just because they are driving instructors. If they are VAT registered or owners of Limited companies, they can. But the vast majority of instructors are not VAT registered, nor are they owners of Limited companies. If an instructor who is not VAT registered or the owner of a Limited company countersigns a passport application, the application may be rejected if anyone bothers to check.
Of course, some ADIs might operate larger schools and their greater turnover would mean they would have to be VAT registered. They may even be large enough to form a Limited company out of it. If they are either of those things, they are eligible to officially countersign passport applications. But I emphasise again that the vast majority of ADIs cannot officially sign off passports because they do not meet the relevant criteria.
I have successfully signed passport applications for friends over the years on the back of being an instructor. I am successful as an ADI, but I am not VAT registered and I am a sole trader. I have always been wary of signing off passports because I knew it was a grey area. Any one of those applications could have been bounced back. I’ve never signed one for a pupil because I simply don’t know them well enough (as well as being from a “recognised profession”, you also need to have known someone for at least two years, and I’ve only ever had a handful who’ve been with me that long in all my years as an ADI). It wouldn’t surprise me, though, if it turned out that some instructors are signing applications for pupils and even charging money for the service (like some GPs do).
So, technically, the answer is no. Driving instructors cannot sign off passport applications just because they are driving instructors. And that’s the official Passport Office stance.
I sign them and no one says anything
Officially, you are not authorised to sign passport applications. You are simply not being questioned over it – if you ever were, your signature would be invalid. That is the official Passport Office stance, and no matter how you try and argue it, you are not authorised to sign them off.
No one has ever questioned it
If they did, your signature could be rejected. That is the official Passport Office stance, which I have in writing (see above). You need to be the owner of/manager in a Limited company and/or be VAT-registered and to have known someone at least two years to be eligible if you are not in one of the recognised professions. The vast majority of ADIs have not known their pupils for anywhere near two years, and the vast majority are not owners of/managers in Limited companies, nor are they VAT-registered. Specifically being an ADI does not give you the authority – the Passport Office told me that in writing.
If you are not being challenged, it isn’t because you are authorised. It is because no one is checking properly. As long as that’s the case, carry on by all means, but officially you are not authorised to countersign passport applications.
ADIs are “teachers”
No we are not. A teacher is someone who is a member of the teaching profession, and who specifically does that job day in, day out in a school or college. By your definition, anyone who ever passes some information on to someone else is a teacher, and that is obviously incorrect, since that would mean everyone would fit the bill one way or another. Like it or not, a driving instructor is not one of the recognised professions. And a driving instructor is absolutely not classified as a teacher in the professional and official sense the word is meant.
So is it illegal to sign them?
No – but it’d be bloody interesting to see what happened if someone you’ve only known for a couple of weeks, and whose passport was obtained with your endorsement, suddenly turned up on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, and they wanted to know how he or she got it. But it isn’t illegal to sign them off. You’re just not officially authorised to do so.
But I’ve been contacted previously to verify that I signed
That’s the Passport Office not doing its job properly. You can see what they told me, above. If you are not a “recognised profession”, you must be VAT-registered through being the owner of, or manager in, a Limited company, and you have to have known someone for at least two years to be eligible to sign (and that applies even if you’re on the recognised list). Normal ADIs are not authorised to sign off passport applications – the Passport Office has stated that in black and white. Most of us do not know pupils for more than 12 months, and we only know many for six months at best. At the very least, you can’t (or shouldn’t) sign them because of how long you’ve known the pupil – the other stuff is just icing on the cake.
I’ve done it before for friends of many years. But as the Passport Office has said, such applications could be rejected. That they haven’t been is because the Passport Office didn’t check properly. Just because you got away with it (like I have) doesn’t mean you are officially authorised.
No one is saying you’re a bad person for doing it, or that you should stop. It’s just that you’re not officially authorised to do it, no matter how you try and twist it. That’s the Passport Office’s official stance.
The Passport Office told me I could sign as an ADI
Assuming you didn’t stop listening after the word “yes” and therefore missed the part about being VAT-registered, etc., there is every likelihood that whoever you spoke with was just a phone operator and not an expert on the subject. They could easily have given the wrong information. Their first response to me seems to be saying yes at first glance, and it’s only when you stop and ask yourself (and question the Passport Office more deeply) if you are VAT-registered that the penny drops. If the first person who responded to me knew what they were doing, they would have given the information the second respondent did right at the start, because it is crucial.
ADIs fall foul of at least one of the criteria for being able to countersign passports in the first place, namely how long they have known the pupil. That particular criterion is not in question, only the one about ADIs being “teachers”, and therefore on the list of “recognised professions”.
Can ADIs sign passport applications?
The official answer is no. The Passport Office has told me in writing that a driving instructor (or anyone else not in a recognised profession) can only sign if they are the owner of, or a manager in, a Limited company, or if they are VAT-registered. They also need to have known whoever they are signing for for at least two years. Nearly all ADIs are not VAT-registered, not owners of a Limited company, not managers in a Limited company, and have not known their pupils for anywhere near two years. They are not eligible to sign on every single front.
Even if “driving instructor” was a recognised profession, not having known the pupil for at least two years would mean that virtually every instructor would immediately be abusing the system if they countersigned applications.
You’ll get a lot of idiots saying yes, you can sign them. They say this because they are instructors who have done it, and they assume that this must mean they are authorised. Many are desperate to believe that they are special and can do it. They aren’t, and they can’t. Not officially, anyway.
It’s a bit like burgling someone’s house. Just because you don’t get caught doesn’t mean it’s OK.
I originally wrote this back in 2010, but it gets a new raft of hits each year, usually around the start of Ramadan – which is today, in 2019 (well, last night).
I had a pupil on test a while back who failed, and she mentioned that Ramadan had started as I drove her home. She insisted that she felt OK, but I couldn’t help wonder if it might have had some effect on her concentration otherwise she wouldn’t have brought it up.
Ramadan is the month of fasting for Muslims. During it, participants abstain from eating and drinking between the hours of sunrise and sunset. Technically, those fasting are not even supposed to drink water (there are exceptions for pregnant women or those with specific illnesses), and some participants take it more literally than others. At least one reader has had concerns that Ramadan has affected their driving, and in 2016 it was unusually long at 32 days. In 2017, it ran from 26 May to 24 June, and in 2018 it spanned 17 May to 15 June. In 2019, it runs from 5 May until 4 June. It’s pretty much a full month anyway.
Some years ago, I worked in Pakistan – in Karachi – for a short time, and was there during Ramadan. Some people ate during the day, but very little, and some fasted properly. But in the main, whether they fasted or not, they just got on with things and worked normally. After sunset, though, the street vendors came out and it was scoff-out time (I have vivid memories of the sights and smells when I went to see Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s tomb one evening).
At the other end of the spectrum, when I worked in the rat race over here, Ramadan and other such religious festivals were used by some (not all, I must add) simply to avoid work. I remember some of my shop floor staff trying it on, and although we knew that they were doing so (having a smoke outside when you’re supposed to be praying is a bit of a giveaway), the employment and discrimination laws in this country pretty much tie the employer’s hands.
I used to have the (bad) habit of getting up at 8am or earlier, drinking only a cup of tea, not eating anything until I finished work in the late evening, then pigging out on kebabs or curries. Occasionally, during the day, my blood sugar would get so low that I’d crave something to eat there and then – at which point I could easily put away four Mars Bars and drink a litre of Lucozade! Someone who is very slight would probably not be able to get through the day without being affected at least partially – and this must also apply to those fasting during Ramadan.
If you are teaching Muslim pupils it’s worth discussing the subject with them – and just be open about it: they don’t mind talking about their religion (it’s people who think they do who have the problems). I’ve had several pupils in the past who were suffering during fasting, and in several cases we postponed lessons until it was over. Indeed, in 2019, I have a pupil who is very nervous and jumpy in the car, and we were both worried Ramadan might affect her. So we have agreed to do her lessons later in the evening (that was my idea), and although I will admit I thought sunset was a little earlier than it really is when I suggested it, we’re doing lessons at 9.30pm once a week so she can keep driving.
Irrespective of the reason for fasting, not eating could affect both lessons and driving tests because concentration could be impaired by low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia). This would apply to anyone who hasn’t eaten properly (remember that it could also be due to an underlying health problem, like diabetes, so I’d advise anyone who is experiencing such symptoms to check with their GP). Not being able to concentrate on driving during lessons is a waste of the pupil’s money whether it’s due to a cold, hay fever… or fasting.
Advice I’d give to anyone fasting during Ramadan is to take lessons or tests in the morning or late evening (if your instructor will do it), and to eat properly when not fasting the night before. It also makes sense that anyone who isn’t fasting eats and sleeps properly, otherwise their lessons (or tests) could also be affected. In extreme cases, just put the lessons on hold until Ramadan is over.
As for the question about whether they should be driving or not, I think you need to be realistic. I’d say that 99% of white, non-Muslim UK drivers drive when they’re not feeling 100%, and Ramadan hardly turns most participants into hospital cases. I can’t see any automatic reason why people who are fasting for Ramadan shouldn’t drive.
Can I take my test during Ramadan?
Of course you can. However, you should consider how fasting affects you and your concentration. It might be better to plan ahead and avoid booking a test during Ramadan altogether. Alternatively, try to book an early test at a time just after you have eaten – or rather, before you start to get hungry.
Fasting during Ramadan affects my driving to work
Honestly, someone found the blog on that search term! The answer is simple.
If you are having problems, either don’t drive or don’t fast. What other answer did you expect? Some Magic Pill that makes it all OK? If you don’t feel well, don’t drive. And that applies whether you’re ill, drunk, menstruating, or fasting. It’s just common sense.
I wrote this article way back in 2012. At the time, DVSA had just launched a new facility where you could find your Theory Test Certificate (TTC) number online if you’d lost the paper sheet. Here’s the link to the feature on GOV.UK.
You need the number if you’re going to book your practical test – and note that I said the number, not the certificate itself.
A lot of pupils get worried that they need to take the actual TTC to their practical test, though. By that time, many will have lost or misplaced it (quite a few of mine have, and we usually only find out the night before or on the day, which allows me to wind them up a little). Indeed, the booking confirmation you get when you book your practical says you should take your licence and TTC along with you.
In all the years I have been an instructor, I can think of only one or two occasions where the examiner has asked to see it – and those were at least ten years ago. More recently, when a pupil has offered the TTC along with their licence, the examiner isn’t interested. They only want to see the licence.
If you think about it, you wouldn’t be able to book your practical if you hadn’t passed the theory, so it’s obvious you have done when you turn up on test day.
When any of my pupils starts to fret over not being able to find their TTC – and after I’m finished winding them up – I tell them the examiner won’t ask for it, and even if he or she does, just say that you didn’t get one or that the printer at the testing station was broken when you were there. None of them have ever had to do that, though, because the examiners simply don’t ask for it.
If you still have your TTC, take it along with you by all means. But don’t worry if you’ve lost it, because unless there is some problem with your booking, I cannot see any reason why they would demand to see it.
I can’t find any specific information to back this up, but a little bird told me that Bill Plant was in financial difficulties again earlier this year. And they have apparently switched from BMWs to Volkswagens. The exact words used that Bill Plant went bust again earlier this year.
Regular readers might recall that I can’t use any photos with Bill Plant’s logo on it, because they demand I take it down if I do. They did the last time I mentioned their troubles.
The company which rescued them last time – Ecodot – was dissolved in 2014, and became Bill Plant. Companies House (CH) indicates that both Ecodot (deceased) and Bill Plant have the same registered address. The last submitted balance sheet suggests that between 2017 and 2018, Bill Plant’s P&L reserves had fallen from a negative £156k to negative £563k. They opted not to provide full P&L accounts.
That was as of May 2018, and the 2019 submission isn’t due until May 2020. So they could well have technically gone bust and no one would know unless they announced it.
One to keep an eye on.
Someone found the blog on the search term “what are the chances of passing your test in three months?”
The short answer: DVSA statistics show that the average UK learner takes 46 hours of lessons with an instructor, and 20 or more hours of private practice. Without getting into any arguments over that just yet, let’s assume for the purposes of this discussion that you will need 46 hours.
If you take a single one hour lesson a week, it’s going to take you 46 weeks to get to test standard. If you take two hours of lessons a week, it’ll take 23 weeks. If you take four hours of lessons a week, it’ll take you about 13 weeks. That’s around a year, six months, or three months respectively.
The longer answer: For all sorts of reasons, an individual could end up taking far fewer or many more than 46 hours to get to the required standard. That DVSA figure is an average measured from real people taking real tests. It’s not a forecast, though it can be useful as a rough pointer.
Over the years, I’ve had two pupils manage passes in well under 20 hours, many who have done it with between 20-35 hours, and several who have taken well over 60. I can recall two who took 140 hours and 160 hours, and a recent one who did 120 hours spread over more than three years. I also know one who took 100 hours in a manual car with me, then a further 100 hours or more in an automatic, before finally passing on her seventh attempt (she’s since given up driving because she crashed the car almost every time she left her driveway – three times in the first fortnight after she got it).
I explain all this to my pupils who have never driven before, and suggest they think in terms of 30 hours plus to start with, then see how things go. I also point out that if they are typical, it will probably take around 4 months if they’re doing an average of two hours of lessons a week. I explain clearly that this is not a prediction or target, but merely a guideline based on past experience, and if it turns out they can do it it 10 hours, I’ll be as happy as they are about it.
Now, 30 hours – taking two hours of lessons per week – would just about squeeze into a three month window with a bit of tweaking here and there. If it was going to take 40 hours, you can add another month to that time frame. On the other hand, if you’re in the 30 hour bracket and did three of four hours a week, passing within six weeks would be feasible.
The reality: You simply don’t know how many hours you’re going to need until you’ve taken them. However, once you start lessons you can usually get a good idea of where you are on the curve within a couple of hours. Obviously, if you have previously taken lessons – possibly even getting close to test standard – then you’ll probably already be a long way towards your goal. On the flipside of that, If you’ve only got previous experience driving overseas, you may find that you are only marginally ahead of a beginner when you start in the UK.
If you’re on the wrong side of the curve – for whatever reason – you’ll need more hours than someone who isn’t. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you – it’s just the way it is.
You can’t be a Marvel Superhero just because you want to be, so picking a preferred number of hours and expecting to pass if your learning ability points to a higher number being required isn’t going to work. I had one early last year who declared after his tenth hour that he was now test ready. I asked him if he’d always only ever planned to take just ten lessons, and he said yes. He’d never told me that, and we parted company at that point. He was nowhere near test standard, and the last I heard was that six months later his mum was still teaching him.
People in general seem to have major problems understanding averages, distributions, and how biology works. So I stress again that DVSA’s statistics show that the majority of people take about 46 hours of lessons with an instructor. It doesn’t matter that your best mate Kyle was taught by his mum, or that he told you he passed “after 8 hours”. He was almost certainly lying or very confused over that figure (I’ve had them before where they are already good drivers, but the skills were picked up in stolen cars or driving illegally, and they don’t include that in their public declarations of Superheroism). And in any case, you are not Kyle and are probably not being taught by his mum.
Just remember: the average learner in the UK takes around 46 hours and some private practice to get to test standard. Some take a lot less, and some take a lot more, thanks to Mother Nature.
Warning! Contains swear words.
Since I got my new Ford Focus last year, it has suffered from repeated random locking-up of the radio and navigation system. The only way to reset it once it happens has been to either leave the car and lock it for a few minutes, so it resets itself, or press and hold the OFF and Fast Forward buttons for about 8 seconds. Oh, and the radio has never remembered that I have set it to show additional information (the song that is playing, for example), meaning I have to turn that feature on manually every time I get in the car).
Both methods were a pain in the arse – the latter because doing such a reset puts some settings back to the factory default (the screen colour and the clock, in particular), and the former because having to get out of the car and lock it for several minutes as a solution speaks for itself. The frozen clock has made me late for at least one appointment, and the satnav freezing has forced a change of lesson plan several times (pupils aren’t paying me to piss about with a faulty satnav, and I can’t be doing so while they’re driving because it’s dangerous).
Before I realised other Ford owners were having the same problem, I reported it to my dealer when I took it in for its service. As usual, they played dumb – they don’t have to try very hard at that in the first place – and said they’d need it in for a day to assess it, which roughly translates to several days because they won’t be able to catch what is an intermittent fault that can’t be triggered deliberately. Well, sod that! With a single lost day costing me anything up to £200 in earnings, I decided to just put up with it and moan about it again at the next service.
Ford is no better. While I was checking for any information on the issue, I did find an update to the maps for the navigation system, and I thought I may as well install it. Or rather, TRY to install it, swear a lot, then give up in frustration. I downloaded the update file from Ford’s site and the first thing was that the zip file didn’t contain the exact files Ford’s “instructions” said it should. That was a bad start. But no matter how many times I downloaded the file, unzipped it, and tried to install it, the car reported a “lst_err05” each time. I know what I’m doing, and I’d done things exactly as Ford had written them. The error message gave a number to call, which amounted to a recorded message advising me to call a premium rate number. Thieving bastards! As I say, I just gave up.
In the meantime, the locking up problem continued it’s random appearances unabated.
Anyway, I discovered today that there is now a Sync 3 update which has been issued in the last few days. And when I checked, it showed up for my car’s VIN. I downloaded it (twice, eventually, because you can guess where this is going), and followed the instructions to the letter. After about 8 tries across two complete downloads of the 2.9GB zipped update file, every attempt to do the install resulted in a “pkg_err03”. I was well pissed off by this time.
Ford’s idiot instructions are written as though intended to guide monkey through complex calculus in order to crack an egg. And in Swahili, just to make it easier. Pretty much along the same lines as Ford’s vehicle handbooks, actually, where the term “radio” doesn’t appear in the f***ing index, and is implied under “audio” or “Sync 3” instead. Or the fact that 90% of the content relates to premium features that 90% of owners don’t have on their bog-standard Zetecs. Christ, mine’s a Titanium, and it hasn’t got most of what they put in there.
I digress. The point is that Ford states that you must format a suitable memory stick – it doesn’t say any particular ones are unsuitable, just that they need to be at least 4GB – using exFAT, that you should unzip the update file directly to the stick, and that the folder structure mustn’t be changed. It states that their should be two files and a folder in the root directory on the stick once this is done.
Problem. If you extract directly to the stick, the zipped package is extracted into a single folder with the stated directory structure inside it – and that’s a no-no, because the files inside this top-level folder need to be in the top level of the stick’s directory in order for the car to recognise it as an update. So you have to do a bit of file/folder moving first.
Problem. Although Ford doesn’t state this in their instructions, you need to make sure you have turned off all Wi-Fi and bluetooth functions, and that you have nothing connected to any other USB ports. You don’t quite need to go as far as enclosing the car in a Faraday cage 200 metres underground, but that’s a close call from what I can gather.
Problem. Based on what I found today, the car might not like some brands of memory stick or ones which are, say 128GB. I can’t be 100% certain about that, but I have my suspicions from what was happening earlier.
Problem. Ford’s instructions outline a plethora of screens and buttons you have to touch to initiate the process if you get past one of the error messages telling you to go and get scammed on that premium rate number. Once I finally got it going this afternoon, mine apparently didn’t do anything until I noticed the “Updating System Files” message along the top of the screen. It had started up automatically and it finished automatically without any interaction from me at any stage, apart from inserting the stick into the USB port.
Problem. Don’t plug the stick in, then start the engine. Instead, start the engine, wait until the system has given any messages it has decided it will annoy you with today, then plug in the stick.
Problem. You have to leave the engine running while you do the update, and it takes anywhere from 20-60 minutes to complete. It is illegal to leave your car with the engine running unattended unless it’s in your back yard, and stupid if you don’t lock and bar the gates if that’s where you’re doing it. Or you can just be bored for a while as you sit there waiting. In my case, it finally fired up just as I was leaving for a lesson, and it completed just as I got there (the radio kept working throughout, so I wasn’t bored at all).
Problem. The stick doesn’t have to be formatted exFAT, as Ford says. FAT32 works, which is what I’d formatted to after the 8 previous failures with exFAT. I was experimenting, and this was the next attempt.
Problem. Once the update is complete – and all the things Ford says will happen have happened – the update apparently isn’t complete after all. At some point about 2 hours after you think you’ve done it, the system will throw up a message telling you you’ve got to connect to a network to complete the process, on pain of not having full functionality of some features if you don’t.
Problem. From what a reader told me recently, her dealer has told her that automatic updates don’t work in the UK, so the f**king message won’t go away. The only way to stop it is to turn off WiFi, which is what I have done.
Summarising the process, then:
- download the update file from Ford
- format a 4GB memory stick to FAT32 (don’t use the stick for anything else once you format)
- unzip the update file directly to the stick
- copy the contents of the folder thus created out of the folder thus created and into the root directory of the stick
- delete the original folder (anything else in the root directory with a remotely update-recognisable name might make the process go titsup, so don’t risk it)
- turn off Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and everything else relating to networking on your car’s system
- disconnect EVERYTHING from the USB ports in your car
- make a flask of tea to take into the car with you, and make sure you’ve been to the loo
- pack some books or other reading material
- get in the car, close the doors, and start the engine
- disable Auto Off
- let it get any helpful messages out of its system, particularly those you have to acknowledge or dismiss by pressing things
- take a deep breath and plug the stick into the USB data port (on the Focus, it’s the one with a white light around it in the storage compartment under the heater controls)
If you’re lucky, the update will start. As I mentioned, mine just started and completed without any input from me whatsoever, but knowing Ford, that doesn’t mean you won’t see all the screens Ford says you will. The bottom line is that you want to see positive messages about progress, and no error messages at all. At the end, you want it to tell you it has successfully updated, and that it will be effective from next time you start the car (it did on mine). Oh, and you need to forget about your UK Focus being able to connect to the internet for updates, because no matter what network you apparently connect to, nothing happens.
I haven’t had a lock up yet, but that doesn’t prove anything, because it’s only been a few hours since the update. There’s a new button on the main radio screen that lets you turn on radio text (track playing) instead of having to go to Settings >> Radio >> Additional Information then back to the main screen. But it now remembers what I set it to anyway, and so this is not important now.
Update: no lock ups at all in the month since doing this.