I originally published this back in 2010. It is extremely popular, and since it keeps getting plagiarised (without due credit) elsewhere, I update it regularly.
I’ve seen a huge surge in hits during the COVID-19 pandemic. I assume that this is due to the number of people who have lost their jobs and are looking to work for themselves in future.
Incidentally, this is a long article, and if you don’t have the attention span to read it, and if Facebook one-liners and emojis are more your style, being an ADI might not be for you. And that applies even if you are already one.
In 2010 we were on the brink of a recession following a spike in ADI recruitment. We didn’t realise there was an imminent recession, but there were lavish adverts everywhere, promising huge earnings (one of them – LDC – laughingly declared that you could earn £40k a year!) Such earnings, the adverts said, could be had working “hours to suit yourself”. But was that really possible? To earn £30,000 or more by working just a few hours a day, and not weekends? Are things any different now?
Even in the good times, £30k a year was going to be a struggle, and you were definitely not going to hit that doing 9-5 and only on weekdays – which is still true now. But as the recession started to bite, fuel prices began to rise, pupil numbers started to fall, and a glut of very inexperienced and very desperate driving instructors commenced a suicidal programme of undercutting to try and get work which simply wasn’t there. Even an established full-time instructor with a moderately full diary would be looking at a wage in the region of £20,000-£25,000 – and by “full-time” I mean working evenings and weekends. The price-cutters had no chance of making anywhere near that even if they had 30 hours of work – but since they had begun undercutting to attract work they didn’t have, their wage would have been well under £15,000, and as low as under £7,000 from some of the examples I saw. Many instructors disappeared without trace as a result of all this.
Recession aside, it was certainly possible to earn that magic £30,000 as long as you had the work, charged sensible prices, and were prepared to do long hours – but I stress the word “possible”. LDC, who I mentioned above, were referring to turnover with their £40k nonsense, and that is highly misleading.
This industry is fickle, and a fat period can easily be followed by a lean one. Even in normal times, you can do 40 hours one week, but the next might see you struggling for 20. Over a full year you might manage £30k, but the next one – especially if it had a recession (or a pandemic) in it, or if fuel prices increased (petrol went from 80p to over 140p within two years in 2010) – you’d have no chance. I was lucky and managed to weather that storm – but many instructors failed dramatically and gave up the job which had cost them so much to train for.
Things picked up again at the start of 2016 after a five year doldrums and the future once again looked bright. There were a lot of pupils wanting lessons, and fuel prices fell again. Then Brexit came along and threw a massive spanner in the works, fuel prices continue to go up and down like a yo-yo, and now we have the damage caused by COVID-19 to deal with (along with whatever Brexit ends up doing). And on top of that the government and local councils are intent on making it as hard for drivers as possible, even to the extent that the end of manual cars is clearly on the horizon.
Many instructors have already given up thanks to COVID-19. But plenty of people who cannot drive, and who have also lost their jobs, need licences in order to improve their prospects – and there is a huge backlog of them. The future looks uncertain, but for ADIs it might have a few silver linings depending on how you look at things.
About Being an ADI
How does an ADI’s wage compare with my old wage?
You must compare like-for-like figures. If your old salaried job had a stated 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 obtaining money (turnover) from customers by selling lessons, and paying out money (expenses) in order to deliver those lessons. Their “wage” is totally dependent on these things, and is basically what they have left after subtracting expenses from turnover. Both are variable, so it is necessary to make a few sensible assumptions if you want to estimate future earnings. The worst thing you can do is overestimate your potential turnover and/or underestimate your potential expenses – if you do, the figure you come up with is little better than a random guess.
An ADI’s business expenses come from annual costs for their car, fuel, insurance, advertising, office supplies, and so on. Turnover is just the total amount of money they took from whatever it is they are selling – usually lessons, but sometimes a few other related things. The turnover-minus-expenses calculation has to be for a full year to get the comparable salaried figure. In the simplest case, if an ADI delivers 30 hours of lessons per week for 52 weeks of the year, and charges £25 per hour for lessons, their annual turnover will be £39,000. Expenses (or overheads) will be different for everyone, but a typical overall annual figure might be around £12,000. Subtract one from the other and you’re left with £27,000 gross profit. That is a wage figure – before tax and National Insurance – which can be used to compare with other jobs.
What are examples of expenses/overheads?
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. Having dual controls fitted is an overhead. 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 portion of your household heating and lighting is a business overhead. A car wash is an overhead. And so on.
Advertising is an overhead which can make all the difference between success and failure for an ADI, though these days the kind of advertising that costs a lot of money is less beneficial than cheaper (or free) methods, such as social media. If you are on a franchise, advertising is less of an issue as the franchiser takes care of it, but if you are independent then you will need to arrange and/or 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?
Look it up on the internet, in magazines, or visit showrooms and forecourts. One way or the other, the price you pay for your car affects your “wage” 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 is a business overhead, and it works out to about £30 a week over the 5-year period. No matter how you look at it, or try to word it, it is definitely costing you £30 a week over the whole five years. Fitting dual controls, and taxing and insuring it, are extras which might amount to another £10 a week over the same period. Repairs could be anything from £0 and easily up to an equivalent of £10-£20 a week in any given financial year (the age of the car is important here).
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?
It depends on the mpg figure of the car, and how you and your pupils drive it. Obviously, this is a variable, but for normal petrol vehicles a 30 hour week fuel bill might come to £90-£120 (2019 estimates). For diesel, it would be about two-thirds of that figure. I don’t know about the other fuel types.
Electric vehicles (EVs) are obviously making inroads these days, and people start going on about how little it costs to “fuel” them. The first thing to remember if you think going electric is some sort of unique selling point that will save you money is that you would be teaching automatic and not manual. On top of that, there is the initial cost of an EV to consider (which is much higher than for normal cars), it’s range per charge (which you’d have to work around), its charging time (ditto), and where you will charge it (ditto). If you buy an EV second-hand, think about how the range will be affected, and how you would handle a failed battery (which is usually a substantial part of the vehicle’s cost new). Also think about the future – once the government stops getting income from tax on petrol and diesel, it will start looking for other sources of funding, and EV drivers are still only “road users” at the end of the day,
How many miles would I drive in a year?
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. On a 30-hour week, that’s 300+ miles (16,000+ annually) just for lesson time plus, say, 5 miles travelling between every lesson (another 8,000 miles). A total of 24,000 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. It’s also worth noting that 24,000 miles would equate to around 50 trips to the garage forecourt, or at least 80 full charge cycles on a typical EV.
Leased vehicles usually have mileage caps. I lease, and speaking personally, I do between 30,000-45,000 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, because it’s what’s on the dashboard display when you give it back that matters and not just how far you drove with your pupils.
Obviously, giving lessons in big cities might cover fewer miles. But make sure you do your homework properly, and don’t apply London mileage to rural locations. If you end up trying to stay within a mileage cap your lesson quality will suffer, and you’re less than 12 months away from a return to salaried employment if you do that. One reason I’m usually busy is that I don’t hold back on the miles, and pupils like that. Being busy easily compensates financially for driving a few extra miles.
How many hours would I need to work?
Everyone’s personal 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.
If this job is your primary income source, you’ve got to earn enough to be able to pay your bills by getting a living wage. If every hour you work nets you £25 of turnover, and your weekly overheads bill is £220, you will need to work for 9 hours (dead hours) to cover that. 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 £27,000. However, you will almost certainly not get this amount of work straight away, it also doesn’t include Christmas or other quieter periods, it doesn’t take into account fluctuations in fuel prices, and it assumes your insurance company doesn’t lay any nasty surprises on you from one year to the next. You should allow for all this in your plans.
When I first started teaching I needed to be doing 17 hours of lessons each week in order to run my business and pay my personal bills as they stood at that time (these days, it’s much less). I was covering my business overheads within a week, and my personal commitments within 5 weeks. Since then, and apart from the Christmas period (which also fluctuates depending on which day Christmas falls), I’ve never dropped below 20 hours. Your personal circumstances will be different to mine, so you can only use this as guidance, but I’ve seen people on various forums still struggling to make 10 hours even after a year. You can’t survive long on that.
New ADIs consistently overlook the fact that unless you are averaging 30 hours a week over a full 12-month period, you are not going to earn £27,000 over that same period. A 40 hour week here or there feels great, but if for every 40-hour week you have three 15 hour ones, your average is just over 20 hours. So your annual salary is going to be substantially (a third) less than that £27,000 figure.
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 seeking to become ADIs tend to be brimming over with enthusiasm the moment they announce they’re going to do it, but they haven’t considered the harsh realities of running business. Dreaming of earning £30k is light years away from achieving it. And remember your tax and NI. At the end of each financial year, you are going to have to pay those two by 31 January the following year. Never fall into the trap of thinking every penny you take is yours to spend unless you want to get yourself in a mess at Christmas each year.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a wholly unforeseen example of what can go wrong. You need to make sure you can deal with such things if they hit, instead of being in a position where you can’t afford to eat and your house is at risk.
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 no, and it’s no with knobs on if you’re expecting it right at the start. Those adverts are dangerously misleading when they suggest this is possible, because it always comes back to the simple fact that your salary is directly proportional to how many hours you work. Sticking with 30 hours as a target weekly number needed, you could fit that into five days in theory, but you are counting on things that simply cannot be relied on.
When I first started, most pupils took two hour lessons, and the best days were when I had a 10am, a 2pm, and a 6.30pm lesson. Since I also work weekends, it meant I was easily getting over 40 hours many weeks, and I even remember doing a couple where I ran to over 50. As time has gone by, pupils have gradually shifted to doing hour or hour-and-a-half lessons. Some still want two hours, but not all the time. I’m comfortable as long as I do at least 30 hours. Bearing all that in mind, imagine trying to fit it into Monday-Friday, then imagine trying to make it 9-5 as well.
Firstly, you’d have to go out during rush hour, and I avoid this like the plague because traffic is often gridlocked. Secondly, you’d have to give yourself a short travel time between lessons, and heavy traffic can screw that up in an instant. Short gaps between lessons means rushing the debrief, or cutting driving time short to compensate, and pupils will notice that. They will also notice if you are late for a lesson. Thirdly, you need to eat, drink, and have toilet stops. Some people insist on a ‘lunch hour’, which kills an hour from your schedule. Then there are the school run times, accidents, road closures, and so on. The tighter you make your schedule, the more likely it is to go wrong.
If you’re late more than once, many pupils will simply dump you and say bad things about you (I pick up loads who cite turning up late as their reason for changing). If lessons are rushed, they’ll end up dumping you. If you take them into heavy traffic when they’re not ready, some won’t like and will dump you. You driving around trying to find somewhere quiet will not go down well more than once, and they will dump you. At best, they won’t recommend you. All of this will damage your business.
Finally, many pupils will have fixed times during which they can do lessons – fitting around lectures, jobs, childcare, and so on. In many cases, this will mean they want evening or weekend lessons.
In a nutshell, you cannot reliably deliver 30 hours of lessons week-in and week-out in most locations if you just do Monday-Friday, and you’ve got no chance if you also make it 9-5. Realistically, you’ve got to allow for evening and weekend lessons unless you’re only doing the job for a bit of pocket money.
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 is utterly convinced that they will corner the entire pupil market and consistently be working 50-hour weeks inside a fortnight. That isn’t going to happen.
You can never guarantee how much work you will have even in the good times, which is probably the main reason so many people went back to salaried employment after the last recession. As I said earlier, I sometimes see newbies on forums and social media still struggling to get as many as 10 hours, even after a year.
COVID-19 has thrown a massive spanner in the works – right next to the one Brexit threw in earlier. The last recession was evidence enough of what can happen. This time around, the problems caused by COVID-19 might initially have a positive effect on work levels, but if a major recession follows then that could all change in an instant.
In my early days, when the market was buoyant, I tested the water in various ways. First of all, I spent £600 on a business card sized advert in Yellow Pages (the done thing when YP was the size of a breeze block). I got absolutely zero enquiries out of it, other than skip loads of spam ever since. Then I tried placing a quarter page advert in one of those local free monthly magazines with a “guaranteed circulation of over 10,000” at a cost of £300 over three months. Again, I got zero enquiries. The return on the investment just wasn’t worth it, so I stopped. But by then I was getting referrals, so it didn’t matter anymore.
People think they’ll get lucky pinning their business card on the wall of the local chippy. One person in a thousand might, but the other 999 won’t. So be careful when other established instructors tell you to ‘advertise’ like this because times have changed, but they haven’t. It’s worth doing it, but don’t rely on it.
The only realistic way these days is to make sure you’re on social media, have a website, then annoy everyone else on the internet by keep mentioning your school, FB page, and website every time you get the chance. It’s really annoying, but don’t worry because everyone does it anyway. Then, once (and if) you start to build a good reputation, you’ll also get people refer their friends and relatives to you by name. It’s a slow-burn method, but it works. In the the first couple of months of 2020 I had about a dozen new pupils come through that way.
So how DO I get new pupils?
As I said above, get yourself on social media, get a website, and push your services whenever you can. Get some business cards, and – if you can afford it – some giveaways. I give all my pupils a plush toy animal keyring when they pass their tests, and an A5 diary each year (so some will get two diaries while they’re with me, and one has had at least three!)
Once you’re established you will start to get referrals from previous pupils. However, don’t expect these referrals to go on forever. Some pupils will not refer you anyway, and others won’t have anyone to refer even if they wanted to. Every now and then you’ll perhaps get lucky, and a pupil (or their parents) will start giving your number to dozens of other parents, so you’ll get an influx of work. This is why it is important to deliver good quality lessons and overall service – sometimes, you’ll get a stack of referrals even after just one lesson if the pupil liked you. Other times, a pupil you taught anything up to ten years ago will suddenly start flashing your name around – I’m teaching a lot of Nigerians at the moment for precisely that reason. But in most cases, beyond a brother or sister, the channel dries up and you have to hope others kick in.
Don’t expect all referrals to run smoothly, either. You may have taught an excellent pupil, who you got on really well with, and who passed their test easily, and who is now singing your praises to everyone. But their brother, sister, cousin, friend, or whatever (and I’m thinking of one fairly recent example of my own) can turn out to be a right unreliable pain in the arse.
By all means experiment with different methods, but bear in mind my own experiences. And don’t expect overnight results.
How do you deal with unreliable pupils?
Not all unreliable pupils are like that just because they’re prats. Some will have ongoing health issues, some have genuine bereavements, some have genuine and very important job interviews that they weren’t aware of when they arranged their lesson, some work for employers who couldn’t organise a piss up in a brewery (McDonalds, for example), some have money issues, and so on. Of course, there are always a few who really are just prats.
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. I’m straight and upfront with them – if they’re shy and quiet I mention it, and I quickly find out what they do and what kind of music and sport they follow, so we can talk to each other like grown-ups (obviously avoiding the taboo aspects). I know what jobs they have, which college or university they’re at, what they’re studying, and so on. 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 ever 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 or don’t turn up, and the question about 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. It usually does the trick.
I give every pupil a paper diary and insist they bring it out with them every lesson (and that can be fun). I often get their parents involved. 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 a lesson (and even then, not always if they call me first) is when they are pissed, or are recovering from having been pissed. I had one turn up one time who couldn’t stand and didn’t recognise me, and I didn’t teach him again. 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 – or certainly discuss it with them. 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 £900 to me, and a zero-tolerance approach would cost me a lot more than the occasional missed lesson does. Therefore, I do everything I possibly can to work around 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 simply have to accept that short-notice lesson cancellations will happen, but you have to consider what you will lose if you’re too driven by your terms & conditions. 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 I’d get from a pupil over short period of time. 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 all of your time sitting on your backside, save from the occasional walk into and out of the test centre, 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. And 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 imagining the piles of money you’re going to be rolling in.
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. Any learner can 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 that doesn’t even have an entrance, 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 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. Or the one who doesn’t even see the roundabout or 90 degree turn right in front of them. Or the one who decides that “follow the road ahead” means go where the car is pointing right now. Or the one who only hears you say “right” when you say “look to the right”, and instantaneously yanks the wheel in that direction (this is even more likely if you also make any sort of hand gesture indicating a particular direction). Or the one from a country where there is no such thing as “give way”, who executes an emergency stop every time they detect another vehicle within half a mile of 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. 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 diagnosed, but they just haven’t told you about it even though you have specifically asked them a dozen times before in an attempt to figure out why they apparently want to kill you every lesson).
Then there are pedestrians, Audi drivers, and – sigh – cyclists, who will think nothing of moving directly into your path, who 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. And let’s not forget squirrels, pigeons, and other cute animals – the average pupil can spot a squirrel in full camouflage gear in a tree 500 metres away in the dark, even though pedestrians on crossings might get overlooked. Squirrels are worth at least an Emergency Stop.
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. And some people never get 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.
I think part of the problem is that 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 and perceive it as “you’re shouting at me”. It is their defence mechanism, and no matter how you approach the situation some will just blow their lids. It’s virtually impossible to smooth it out short-term, and you may find that things are never the same between the two of you again. It happened to me once when I was teaching a pupil to do the turn in the road. We got on great, but on this occasion she stopped half way through and started to ask questions about which way to steer. People were waiting, and I said “come on! Get on with it! We’re blocking the road”. Once we were out of the way, she said “I don’t like being talked to like that”, and that was it.
Occasionally, though, you’ll get a real lunatic. My most recent example of that is the woman who had told me she thought she was being stalked. I took it at face value and advised her to contact the police, but she already had. When the police investigated the “suspect” it turned out to be a false alarm – just a courier driver who stopped in the same place each morning at the same time she walked her dog. 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 the stick with alarming ease. I realised a few weeks later after she dumped me for “a female instructor”. When I phoned to ask what was wrong she told me that I “made her feel uncomfortable”. I was mortified – this has always been a phobia on my part, and my skin crawls even now when I think of what accusations she could have levelled against me. I had never even thought of her that way, but God only knows what she told her new instructor.
Then you have to manage people with various “issues” (not uncommon), those who 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 and their mum told them to (also very common), those who resent you suggesting that they should move their tests back (sometimes accusing you of trying to extract money from them)… well, you’re going to end up stressed however you deal with it.
Outside the car you have other road users. Some of them are 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. As far as they’re concerned, L plates mean the Highway Code doesn’t apply and they can get in front of you anyway they see fit. They will pull out or overtake dangerously at every opportunity, cut in where there’s nowhere to cut into, and tailgate you. They will sit behind you at traffic lights, hand paused over the horn in case your pupil moves off more slowly than they think they should (older female drivers are worst for this). Others will force their way past on narrow roads, even driving on the pavement to do it (couriers and postal drivers especially). Younger drivers will openly begin texting at traffic lights, delaying moving off to finish the tweet they were engaged in, so you have to catch your pupil who might have been looking at the lights and not realising what was not going to happen when it should. And only learners, of course, have to follow the speed limit.
Elderly homeowners in middle class areas seem to spend the better part of their retirement hiding behind their curtains, ready to race out and get needlessly involved in whatever happens outside their house – such as claiming ownership of a corner or stretch of kerb. Others will report you if you stop and leave the engine running for more than 15 seconds. Some elderly drivers will deliberately drive up behind you and stop centimetres from your bumper if they see your reversing lights on (that happened once on a pupil’s test – the examiner’s verdict of “stupid cow” was very apt). On the rougher estates, where people are all related without realising it (the men have one big eyebrow and the women have scrunched up hair which pulls their eyes into slits) be prepared for things to be thrown at the car. Once, one of the local Neanderthals prostrated himself on the road in front of the car (we were actually reversing – they’re not too smart). And one year I had three punctures in the space of three weeks, which I narrowed down to a corner I used on an industrial estate for reversing, where fresh screws were clearly being scattered on a nightly basis.
Lastly, 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. It happens in car parks when you’re teaching bay parking, where you’re in a small car park that’s only big enough for one car to practice, and some idiot ADI will drive in and start to do the same. In bigger car parks, you’ll be keeping to one specific area, and other ADIs will come in and start using every square centimetre of the car park as if you didn’t exist, thus preventing you from moving. Even in massive Park and Rides the size of six football pitches, you’ll be in late on a Sunday when there are no cars at all and the entire park is free, and yet some twat turns up and uses the same row you’re using. I make it absolutely clear what I think of all of them.
So stress is there in bucket loads, and you can’t avoid most of it. 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?
You have to face the fact that 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 or stressed, 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. 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 have their eyes fixed on that mystical £30,000 and doing 50 hours a week, and nothing seems to change that until the harsh realities set in. The truth is that if they could get anywhere near that level 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).
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, end up in jail, or even be killed.
What amounts to “long hours” is different for everyone. Some may struggle to do more than 20-25 hours, whereas others might easily cope with 40. In my case, it was consistently doing 40-hour weeks for a while with one or two peaking at over 50 that made me decide to build in slack ones once I was established.
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 or cut costs 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 £25 and expect to stay in business. If fuel costs the rest of the country £1.20 per litre then that’s pretty much what you’re going to have to pay for it; and if a typical instructor drives 10-20 miles per lesson, someone in the same location 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. But realistically, only if you are wasting it in the first place. Fuel is the largest overhead that you actually have much control over.
However, remember what I said about this industry being mature. There’s not a lot of scope for major tweaking, and some ADIs often get it into their one-dimensional minds that they would make shed loads more money if they used shed loads less fuel, without understanding that the syllabus they teach commits them to a significant amount of road time. As I pointed out earlier, a typical driving test covers about 10-15 miles, and if instructors aren’t covering a similar distance on at least some of their lessons (allowing for their teaching area) then something’s wrong.
You can’t 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 (including a certain lesser national school, which offers a “free” lesson that doesn’t actually involve any driving). I pick up loads of pupils who have switched instructors for precisely this reason, and they’re not all telling lies.
By reducing fuel consumption too much, you’ll end up driving pupils away, so what you might save in fuel, you lose several times over in lost income. That impacts future income through gaining a bad reputation. So the whole system comes crashing down because you tweaked it too much. Wise management of your resources can certainly minimise your fuel costs, but you can only go so far before it’s too far.
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 unless it was a magic car that had no maintenance costs resulting from age and day-today-use such as punctures, broken windscreens, new wiper blades, oil, screen wash, 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 maintained while you have it. The vast majority of instructors cannot do this maintenance themselves and have to take it to a garage. It needs oil top-ups, new tyres, wiper blades, and so on. And that’s before you even consider serious breakdowns and repair costs – which happen to everyone sooner or later. If your car is off the road you lose money from not being able to work, or spend more money arranging for a replacement if it isn’t part of a lease agreement (and even if it is, the hassle alone will still result in at least some lost work while you deal with it). All of these are overheads which mean the car costs money above and beyond its material cost in the first place.
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. If you sell it for scrap after 5 years, that £10,000 has effectively cost you £40 per week since the moment you paid for it – and that is true, no matter what you tell the taxman and everyone on social media who will listen to you. Then you have got to replace it, probably by spending another £10,000 or so, and the whole saga starts again.
You can cut your initial outlay by either getting a used car, or perhaps by choosing one no one in their right mind would normally buy (the Nissan Cube, above, is for illustrative purposes only) that dealers are desperately trying to shift. You need to make sure you are comfortable in it yourself, as it will be your personal car as well as your school car. There are quite a few models out there that I simply can’t fit in without touching shoulders with my passengers, for example.
Finally, you then need to consider the effect the car you drive has on how much business you attract. My advice is not to just get the cheapest car you can find without considering how its looks might affect your business.
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 can have a significant effect on the work you attract – even though you might not realise it. 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 a ten-year old Corsa, whereas a brand new Corsa doesn’t. The car you drive 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 have purchased second hand vehicles and are having mechanical problems down the line.and asking for advice. Some are off the road for weeks. Perhaps they shouldn’t have listened only to things they liked the sound of before they took the plunge.
My advice is not to cut corners without realising the possible consequences.
What can I charge for lessons?
You can charge whatever you want. The real question is how much are people prepared to pay for lessons? And if you’re thinking of cutting prices, how much profit are you prepared to lose?
The average lesson price in the UK right now is somewhere around £26-£30 per hour. I hear that in some areas they can charge £30-£35 an hour, but I know if I tried that here in Nottingham my diary would empty overnight, so I effectively have an upper price I can (or dare) charge, and I am actually in the upper part of that range.
During the last recession, price-cutting took off as a tactic as desperate instructors tried to attract work which wasn’t there at the expense of other instructors doing exactly the same thing. The theory was that if you are cheaper than anyone else, you’ll get more work. But it isn’t as simple as that if you’re even half capable of running a business.
I repeat again that this is a mature industry. Profit margins are not huge in the first place, and cannot be manipulated to any significant extent without having the whole thing come crashing down. Theoretically, if you were the only one doing it and were already charging the average for your area, dropping your price by £1 might well have the desired benefit with minimal impact on your profit. But as soon as others start doing it, you lose the benefit but retain the lower hourly rate – and without the benefit of more work, you’re now much worse off than before. Now you’re stuck – do you drop your price by another £1 (which will now seriously impact your profit even if it attracts work), or do you put your price back up (which will upset any pupils you have)?
Between 2010 and 2014 you would see cars advertising lessons for as little as £15 an hour. They couldn’t possibly have been turning a profit at that rate unless their lesson quality was dire. None of them are around anymore. Throughout the same period my prices stayed the same and I came through it comfortably.
You need to charge the highest price you can get away with to succeed, and not the lowest possible in order to flirt with bankruptcy.
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 it’s 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, whereas franchise-based schools – especially the larger ones – are geared up to advertise. Although there are never any guarantees, there is a bloody good chance that a decent franchise will be a hundred times better at getting work than you are.
In my opinion, anyone who goes independent right from the start is crazy. Qualifying in the first place was a gamble, so why risk it all again doing something I know from experience may not work? You need lessons in your diary. Your name emblazoned across a sign-written car is superficial, and will not do that for you.
Should I start out independent?
Ask this on social media you’ll be swamped with “go indie” advice from people. The problem is that those people are a mix of established ADIs, ones who are struggling themselves but deny it, and ones who have a sheep-like mentality and dislike franchises simply because its the done thing and they want to be part of the gang. Many will be doing this job for pocket money or as a retirement filler. Some don’t have mortgages or rent to pay, and have substantial private pensions. None of them know what your financial needs are. And if anyone starts with “I’ve heard…” then just ignore them.
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 for most people. I’m sure that there are some independents out there who genuinely hit the ground running when they made this choice, but I can assure there are a lot more ex-ADIs who didn’t.
It’s your choice. My advice is not to risk it unless you fully understand what will happen if you get it wrong.
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 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 nowhere near as great as social media would have you believe.
A franchised instructor might be paying £200 a week for his car (which includes pupil supply and vehicle back up). An independent will be paying at least £30-£40 a week as an absolute minimum, but probably more like £60-£80, and will have to manage their own pupil supply and any breakdown issues. Don’t believe them when they say they ‘don’t pay anything’ – they do, and it’s at least in the region of what I have just stated. It’s still cheaper – but not £200 cheaper. When you add on other costs an independent has to cover, which a franchise includes as part of the package, the difference equates to a couple of hours of work per week.
If you need to be earning sensible money to get a living wage, going independent immediately after you qualify is a huge risk. Going independent later is something you can seriously consider if you know you are generating enough work by yourself.
Can a franchise guarantee that you have work?
The short answer is no – no one can guarantee that. However, it isn’t that straightforward. As I said earlier, you cannot be certain of being busy all the time no matter how well-established you are. However, before the lockdown there were pupils by the truck load in most areas, and if a franchise or local school was “guaranteeing” work it was probably because most of them could. So don’t dismiss the claim out of hand.
Right now, in the middle of the pandemic, everything is messed up. The signs are that there are even more people desperate to learn to drive. However, we’re almost certainly going to hit a recession at some point, and everything could change. Just bear all this in mind.
Which franchise do you recommend?
I don’t recommend anyone. You have to make your own choices because there will be risk involved whoever or whatever you choose. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you to stay away from large schools or franchises per se – they’re just wrong. Many hold a grudge for some reason, or are simply regurgitating what they’ve heard others saying.
Also be careful when you hear people complaining about notice periods. Ideally, choose a franchise which has an easy cancellation policy. That means read the agreement before you sign it, and ask about it before you do. These comedians you see complaining are usually trying to break a legally binding agreement they signed, and are blaming the franchise company because they can’t. I can guarantee that at some stage once you qualify that you will be whingeing about your terms and conditions and pupils cancelling at short notice or wanting refunds. Franchise companies have exactly the same problem with franchisees.
The people I see complaining about how hard it is to get out have usually tried to do so in extremely unprofessional ways, and very often egged on by idiots on social media telling them just to stop paying their franchise fees. If you do that, you’re going to get a visit from the bailiffs, and are also likely to find yourself on a reality TV show. But then they start making false accusations in order to shift blame to the franchiser. They’ll find a ready audience for this, and so the legends will be embellished and repeated down the years.
Should I choose a local or a national franchise?
It’s up to you. Many newly-qualified ADIs baulk at signing to “big names” and choose local schools instead. I once knew of someone who chose a small franchise simply because it meant he could remove their magnetic artwork from his car when he wasn’t working! It doesn’t matter what the school name is. All that matters is they provide you with pupils – and in my opinion, the national schools might be better at that, especially when times are hard, because they can invest more in advertising.
Also consider the lesson prices set by your franchise. Local ones tend to have lower hourly rates than the national schools, and while that might mean they can ‘guarantee’ work right now, you need to calculate what that will do to your profits at the lower hourly rate. And don’t forget ‘special offers’ (BOGOFs, block discounts, free first hours, etc.). Who pays for that? Some larger national schools finance it through the franchise fees paid by their instructors, whereas others (and the smaller local schools) tend to expect the instructor to cover it. Consider the possible scenario where you have ten new pupils assigned to you, each with a ‘free hour’ that you’ve got to cover. How will you handle that? I mean, ten hours of talking doesn’t cost much fuel-wise, but it doesn’t earn anything, either.
Why do people say bad things about franchises?
They’ve either had an experience that they aren’t happy with, or they know (or have heard of) someone who has. The simple fact is that the large national schools simply can’t afford to be as bad as some people claim they are – especially if they are a premier brand. Bad experiences are usually nowhere near as one sided as the teller would like you to believe.
RED driving school is a perfect example. The first thing any new ADI ‘learns’ is that RED must be hated at all costs. It all stems from a time 15 years ago when a school with that name advertised instructor training profusely, and made claims of huge potential earnings. That was enough to rankle people by itself, but there were lots of cases where people had foolishly committed their life savings to train as driving instructors and then quickly decided they didn’t want to do it after all. But they had signed a contract, for one thing, and in many cases were trying to get out of it a year or more down the line. That meant exaggerating things to make it sound like they were the injured party.
That RED went into administration years ago. It was bought out by a venture capital outfit who retained the name, and is absolutely not the same company at all. Instructors who train and work with the current RED give it good reviews except in a few cases when they’re trying to terminate their contracts early. So the old myths persist.
It’s the same with BSM. BSM used to charge something like £320 a week for its franchise, and was a favoured target for all those experts who were running a driving school with a car ‘that didn’t cost them anything’. BSM was bought by the AA almost as long ago as when RED went bust, and I believe that its franchise is now around £200, like the AA’s is.
Just be careful before you sign up to long contracts with anyone, then you’ll have much less to complain about later. Read the small print. An initial 12 month contract would be reasonable, thus allowing you to become established. After that, you want a short notice period of no more than 3 months if you decide to leave. If you sign up for 12 months, then try to leave after two, it’s you who is at fault for not doing your homework.
Why do people have these bad experiences?
Usually because they haven’t planned ahead properly when they decided on this career. I’ve seen a several examples on social media recently where someone was trying to get out of their RED contract due to ‘lack of work’. In all cases, the person in question mentioned they had kids (in one case, a child with special needs), so couldn’t work either enough hours or at the right times to earn a living wage. In all honesty, they shouldn’t have gone into this job in the first place. But here they were, creating new repositories of anti-RED propaganda, as everyone else joined in with the ancient history they’d heard about. That’s how it happens, so be careful taking any of it at face value. It is usually the complainant who is totally at fault.
As I’ve said elsewhere, you cannot expect to just turn on the tap whenever you want pupils. It’s nice when you can, but you can’t rely on it – and you shouldn’t. Pupils have to fit into your schedule, and if that’s too restrictive then it’s inevitably going to cause problems. You need to understand what being self-employed means, with both the risks and the expectations.
Having kids to feed and support is only one example, but it does show how badly some people have thought this career choice through if they have such a huge personal burden to manage, involving finances and/or time constraints, and then they take on a minimum term franchise contract on top of all that. A 12-month contract is likely to have a cash-in value of around £10,000, and if you want out half way through, like it or not you are liable for half that amount if you choose to break the contract.
You should not be signing any sort of financial contract under circumstances where you have kids and are on the breadline already (including car leases and loans) unless you are fully aware of what you are doing. You cannot make a full-time salary working part-time hours – no matter how many kids you have!
Franchises are too expensive!
Independent ADIs frequently claim that that they pay £200 less per week than an instructor whose franchise costs that much. They are totally wrong, and merely illustrate their lack of business understanding. The difference in most cases between franchise and independent is less than £100.
Consider this. Would you prefer to be independent paying (let’s say) £60 a week for your car and £60 for fuel, and doing 15 hours of lessons? Or would you prefer a franchise at £200 a week plus £120 for fuel, with 30 hours of work?
Many people only see the numbers as written, and conclude the first option is best. But in that first example your annual wage would equate to about £13,000 (without advertising costs), whereas the second it’d be around £22,000 (and that’s assuming the same premium lesson price, which the independent might not be able to charge).
I repeat. Independent is only cheaper if you have the work!
But you have to work a lot of hours for nothing to pay the franchise!
This is completely false. You have to work ‘for nothing’ to pay your overheads no matter how you do it, and both franchised and independent instructors have overheads. However, the franchisee will be paying maybe £100 extra per week at most – which requires four hours of lessons to cover. However, you might well have twice the number of lessons as a result of paying that extra £100. You’ll be getting close to £400 more per week as a result of investing that extra £100. It speaks for itself.
If you have lots of work, and no sign of it dropping off, independent is undoubtedly the best option, since you will be £100 better off each week. If you are struggling, it definitely isn’t the best option, since you’ll be several hundred pounds worse off.
Franchised ADIs only work weekends because they have to
This is a variation on the ‘too expensive’ argument, above, and is completely false. All ADIs have to work several hours a week to pay off their overheads (dead hours). Franchised instructors have to work four hours more to pay off their overheads, but are likely to earn up to £400 more as a result. The people who make this claim simply don’t have a clue about their own business, let alone anyone else’s.
Personally, I work weekends a) because I can, and b) because by doing so I can earn between £250 and £400 more than I would if I didn’t. I do it because I want to – and because there’s a big market for people who want me to – and not because I have to.
I repeat: if you have lots of work, independent is financially the best option. If you don’t, it isn’t.
Franchised instructors have to work half the week to pay off their franchise
Another variation on the ‘too expensive’ them, and also totally wrong. As explained above, a franchisee has to work maybe four hours more to pay off their franchise overhead, but they can earn up to £400 more per week as a result.
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. Franchises can be a good idea for those starting out part-time with a view to growing their business. Even a full franchise is still workable – as long as you ignore those silly claims above.
The fact is, no matter how you do it, you’re going to have overheads to cover. And apart from fuel, all the others are fixed and don’t change much depending on how many hours you work.
Independents can get their own pupils without paying a franchise to do it
Of course they can. It’s a wonderful theory. And if it turns out to be true, then going independent is definitely the best way on the financial front. But if it turns out not to be true, you’re going to be screwed once you can’t afford to carry on anymore. Just remember that more instructors have problems sourcing and maintaining a supply of pupils than don’t.
I’ve seen various threads on social media recently where people are asking about pupil referral companies – people who advertise driving lessons, then farm them out to instructors who are registered with them. The surprising thing is the number of independents who are already using such companies and offering up advice. I have no problem at all with these outfits, and if it gets work for instructors, all well and good.
But it is total hypocrisy. Independents keep telling people to ‘go indie’, and yet they’re paying someone to provide the work! Which is precisely what a franchise does – with more besides.
Independent ADIs can charge more
This is another wonderful theory. In reality, the last official survey on this showed that on average, indies charge at least £1 less per hour compared with the larger schools for their standard hourly rate.
I’ve seen people on social media claiming they charge top dollar for lessons, but when I’ve hopped over to their websites it turns out they have block-booking discounts that bring a £25 per hour stated price down to as little as £17 per hour! Nearly all of them offer discounts of between £3 and £5 off their standard ‘top dollar’ hourly rate. You are not charging £25 per hour if you’re giving £5 discounts to most of your pupils.
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). It means I can scale the offer as I increase my prices periodically. I don’t openly advertise it, and only bring it up if I have a phone enquiry and they ask about discounts, or when it comes to paying for their first lesson so it’s a nice surprise.
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, and most indies are doing precisely that but lying about their income.
Independent ADIs earn more
This is simply not true. If an independent has the same number of hours work as a franchisee, and if they charge the same hourly rate, then the indie will be about £100 better off per week. But as I have explained above, it is the ‘ifs’ which make all the difference. All the evidence suggests that many independents are not charging the same hourly rate, and they are not delivering the same number of lessons per week. Some are, of course, but many aren’t.
The bottom line is that some independents will be earning more than some franchised instructors, and some franchised instructors will be earning more than some independents.
Why are ADIs self employed?
There’s no rule that says they have to be. In the past some people have tried to employ salaried ADIs, and until recently (I can’t remember who it was), there’s was at least one place that was still doing it. The problem lies with the fundamental costing model.
If people are only prepared to pay, let’s say, around £25 for driving lessons, then anyone teaching them has to use that in their business model. Cars all cost roughly the same, fuel costs the same, and all other costs are roughly the same. For everyone at any point in time. Let’s call all this ELEMENT ZERO. It’s the lowest baseline.
If you introduce another layer of management in all this which recruits and manages instructors, there are suddenly more overheads to cover above and beyond ELEMENT ZERO. Offices, staff, advertising, and so on. All of that has to be paid for from somewhere, yet ELEMENT ZERO is fixed. Pupils will not pay much more than £25 per hour, and the overheads are more or less fixed. The instructor needs a certain wage. But now you’ve added a Limited Company with premises to pay for, as well. Who is going to lose out in all this?
Mercedes tried it by offering lessons in ‘high-end’ cars to ‘high-end’ earners. They recruited normal instructors, many of whom developed ‘high-end’ opinions of themselves, and stayed in business for a few years. But in the end they gave up, because it simply wouldn’t work financially.
The basic principle here is that ADIs are self employed because of ELEMENT ZERO. Having a franchise or car-leasing stage in the chain is about as far as you can push things before it becomes unprofitable. A franchise is a lower-cost option than a PAYE system, and that’s why ADIs are not usually employed.
Should I start part time after I qualify?
Starting out part-time makes sense on paper. In theory, you can start slowly and gradually build from there – and that can work for some people. The problem is that if you do start that way, it’s almost certainly because you intend to keep your salaried job while you grow. But the trouble will start with the first enquiries. What if they are for lessons at times you’re doing your other job? You’ll have to turn them away unless you have a very understanding employer (and it’s possible you might, though very unlikely). And what about taking those enquiries while you’re doing the other job? They’re going to come in at all times of the day, so will your boss mind? In many cases, will your boss even know you eventually intend to hand in your notice?
Start out part time by all means – but make sure you fully consider the feasibility of doing so before you go ahead.
Which advice should I listen to?
Use your own common sense as much as you can. Don’t lap up negative information and ignore the good, and don’t assume that any information is always right – especially on social media, because it often isn’t. As I’ve explained in this article, you know how much you can charge for lessons, how much a car will cost (various options), how much insurance will cost, and so on. So work things out for yourself.
If you’re going to look for more online advice, be wary of information that is clearly old or undated, and ignore anything that starts with ’I’ve heard…’ or something similar. Those comments will often have been written by bitter people sticking the boot in on the big advertisers from previous times, and usually reflect the recession of a decade ago.
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 (or CRC, 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 subsequently refused then it would be money wasted).
What if I’ve been banned previously?
I don’t know for sure. If it was recent, I would guess you have little chance of being accepted on to the Register. If it was a long time ago, then you might.
Some endorsements remain on your licence for up to 11 years if they were serious crimes you committed. However, I’m not sure if the Registrar looks any further back than that – or even if they allowed to.
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. You can see that a lot of people fail.
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%.
The maths isn’t quite that simple, though. You can take Part 1 an unlimited number of times, and you’re bound to pass it eventually. You just need to ask yourself if it’s worth it if you fail more than a couple of times. Once you have passed Part 1, you can take Parts 2 and 3 up to three times each within a two-year period of passing Part 1. You are not bound to pass Parts 2 and 3. The overriding point here is that becoming an ADI is not a foregone conclusion, nor is it cheap. Failing at some point is more likely than passing – even if the overall probability of passing is not quite as low as 10%.
How long does it take to pass?
Theoretically, you could book each test as soon as you’ve passed the previous one and – assuming you pass each first time – go from joining the Register to having a green badge in just a few weeks. There’s no rule that says you can’t do it this quickly. You don’t actually need to invest much money in primary study material (just the app, the ADI handbook, and The Essential Skills, though other materials may be of additional value).
The theory test is available as an app and you can study for Part 1 by yourself without anyone else becoming involved. Realistically, you will need training for each of the Part 2 and 3 practical tests, and quite possibly more than one try with at least one of them. Waiting times for the tests can be several months depending on where you live. Doing the entire course over a period of between 6-24 months is most likely, with the bias being towards the longer end of that.
Some companies do ‘intensive’ courses, where you do all the training and exams over several weeks. My views on intensive courses are well-documented – they aren’t suitable for the majority of people, and even if the candidate gets a pass out of it at the end, do they really know what they are doing?
If you take your time, you’ll be better prepared for each test. If you rush, the chances of failure will be higher. You only get three tries at each of Parts 2 and 3 within the two years after passing Part 1. Fail a third time on either, and you have to wait until the two years is up, then do the entire application process again. It’s a terrible way to invest a couple of thousand of your money if you increase the risk of failing by rushing things and not being ready.
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% on that 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 – especially so for unsuitable candidates.
Do only good instructors pass the tests?
Unfortunately, no. Remember that the main reason most of us decide to become ADIs is for the money first, and because we want to teach people second. For a lot of people, money is at the top, but wanting to teach doesn’t even make the list. It sounds cynical, but it’s true. Over the years, I’ve lost count of the number of people who hate the job. I’ve seen a lot of newbies struggle to pass, then give up because they simply couldn’t handle it once they started teaching for real. If they’d have been able to see beyond the £££ signs right at the beginning they could have saved themselves a lot of money and stress. 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. That kills your chances of success.
Do business skills matter?
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 “unavailable” – ignoring texts and phone calls. I’m certain that the majority of these are not intending to defraud on purpose. It’s just that they are out of their depth from a business perspective. What happens is that they’ll already be struggling financially. Along comes a pupil with £200 cash in their hand, and they’ll snatch it away to fill the hole in their bank balance. The problem now is that for the next ten lessons – perhaps spaced out over 5-10 weeks – that pupil is effectively non-paying, and the instructor would much rather give lessons to other pupils who are paying on the day. Consequently, the instructor looks for excuses and tries to avoid the pupil who has already paid. Even worse is when that pupil decides to jump ship and asks for a refund – the instructor hasn’t got the spare cash to provide it, and it starts to become more serious.
I have always been acutely aware of the effect block bookings have on my own cash flow, and how it feels to have no “current income” from lessons. I always ensure that any money paid in advance doesn’t get spent before the lessons have been taken because it isn’t mine until they have. Other people don’t have the same scruples, though, and those who do it might actually be good instructors – they’re just crap at the business side of things.
Although it isn’t confined to independent ADIs, it does appear to be more prevalent among them (sorry, but it does) and smaller franchise outfits. The bigger the school, the less likely it will be to tolerate its name being sullied, and the nationals like AA and BSM will get rid of instructors who do things like this. Not long ago, I had a pupil whose mother explained that they had lost money to a local driving school when an instructor “retired” still owing lessons, but the school said it wasn’t their problem since the ADI was no longer with them. Frankly, if they had any decency at all, they’d have refunded it out of their own pockets – it was only a handful of lessons – and taken their “retired” instructor to small claims. I’ve taken on others who’ve had similar experiences and who have lost money with local instructors simply not delivering what they’d been paid for.
So, is it easy to qualify?
It depends how you look at it. Even if you’re not cut out to be an instructor you might sail through the tests. Conversely, even if it’s your calling you might struggle to pass. And vice versa. And I’ve already mentioned the national ADI pass rates.
If you’ve done your homework and really want to give the job a go, think of it as a challenge,
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 for books and an app) 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. You’ll have people tell you this is the best and cheapest way – mainly because pretty much the only alternative is training with a franchise, and we know how clueless some people are about that.
The alternative, therefore, is to pay for a complete training package from a training company – usually one of the franchise companies. This was how I did it many moons ago, and I have no real complaints other than for the fact that the small company I was with went bust while I was training (it was common at the time, but much less so these days), and I finished off privately. 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.
Either way can work. And either way can fail. Both ways for the majority of people will cost a significant amount of money.
Can you do it without paying any money except for the exams?
Yes, though it is a high risk path. A few people seem to manage it if you can believe what you sometimes read. But it is only a few, and far more take a lot of training before passing.
Realistically, I would estimate that more than 99% of people would fail if they tried this way.
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 specific 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, and turn out not to be very good at it.
Large schools like RED, BSM, and The AA are not cowboy outfits, so don’t listen to people who tell you otherwise. At best, their “advice” is coloured by their own experiences, and at worst merely based on hearsay.
As I have explained, becoming an ADI isn’t easy and many people struggle with the exams. The last person they will ever blame is themselves, so they target their trainers instead. Training packages tend to based around a set number of hours, and struggling PDIs often find they need more hours of remedial training.
Do you get trained in how to be self-employed?
It depends on who you train with. 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. The ones who do cover it quickly, and it’s not “training” as such, just the transfer of basic information – you get told you need to do your own tax returns, what sorts of things are expenses and what are turnover, and that you can do it yourself or pay for an accountant. You aren’t shown how to do a self-assessment return or given the names of any accountants. Personally, I found it not to be rocket science when I came to do it myself. Some people will, though.
Do I need to use an ORDIT-registered trainer?
ORDIT stands for Official Register of Driving Instructor Training. At the time of writing, no. You don’t actually have to use any trainer at all. DVSA hopes to make ORDIT registration compulsory in the future.
How did YOU do it?
After I lost my job, I 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 it became apparent that bureaucracy in teaching is probably worse than the hell I had had to endure to get me here. And quite frankly, teaching had changed so much since I was at school that I don’t think I could have handled modern day kids without risking punching one of them. I believe that is considered unacceptable.
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 – they were the ‘RED’ of the day – but I only ever had one problem with them and that was when they went bust. 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 in my old capacity. I went self-employed then, and for a short time I was also a director of a company set up as a result of that work. When that finished, I did a stint in technical support for Dixons/PC World – (admittedly, working for them – 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, but did a bit of pay-as-you-go at the end.
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 I’ve already explained, many trainees are really vastly out of their depth.
Packages tend to be based on fixed numbers of training hours spaced out over a period of time, and many PDIs expect to do it in half the time on offer, yet end up taking half as long again to get test-ready. This is usually the original source of any hearsay issues – the trainee expects too much, then gets all shouty when it becomes apparent they need more help.
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 almost always down to the candidate’s weaknesses rather than 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. Others were completely tongue-tied when it came to talking or delivering briefings.
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. You do need to be wary of those telling you it is cheaper than a full package, because there’s a very good chance it won’t be. It’s only cheaper if you qualify in the shortest amount of time and pass all your exams first try. Most 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. The vast majority of the population are probably not cut out to be instructors and you need to accept that you might be one of them.
Is now a good time to become an ADI?
In 2020? It’s hard to say. In January or February it would have been a resounding yes, but with the proviso that Brexit might affect things. Right now, it’s just a resounding proviso that Brexit is imminent, the government is doing its damnedest to make it the worst possible Brexit, and now we have COVID-19. My own personal view is that Brexit was always going to f**k things up, it still is, and it remains to be seen what COVID does. But I am holding in there. Beyond that I can’t say – and nor can anyone else.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it. But if we enter any sort of deep recession then it will be extremely hard.