A Driving Instructor's Blog

Rear of car with L plateI originally wrote this article in February 2010, but its popularity (and the overt plagiarism without due credit which sees huge chunks of it appearing on other instructors’ websites) keeps spiking and I now update it periodically.

We see periodic surges in the numbers of people training to become ADIs. They seem to be annual at the moment, and I’ve noticed another increase in blog traffic at the end of 2019.

Incidentally, this is a long article. 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.

Back in 2010 the previous ADI recruitment spike was coming to an end, and although we didn’t realise it we were also on the brink of a recession. Lavish adverts were everywhere, enticing would-be instructors with the promise of huge earnings, and one – LDC – laughingly declared that over £40k was possible. You could achieve this, they said, 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?

In reality, even in the good times you were never going to earn anywhere near £30k teaching only daytime weekday slots. That’s still true now. But as the recession started to bite, fuel prices began to rise, pupil numbers started to fall, the previous 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 had no chance of making anywhere near that. Even if they had 30 hours of work their reduced turnover would pull their pre-tax profit down to around £15,000. But with fewer hours – the reason for dropping their prices to start with – many would be lucky to make £7,000.

It was certainly possible to earn that magic £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. In a single financial year you might manage £30k, but the next one – especially if it had a recession in it, and fuel prices increased by over 60% (petrol went from 80p to over 140p within two years) – you’d have no chance. I was lucky 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.

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 to around £1.00. Then Brexit came along and threw a spanner in the works, and fuel prices have risen somewhat and currently sit half way back to the high they reached back in 2012. The situation right now (late 2019) is still good, but the future is looking very uncertain indeed.

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. British Currency

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 £25 per hour for lessons, their turnover will be £39,000. Overheads will be different for everyone (different cars, different amounts of fuel, different fuel costs, etc.), but a typical overall figure might be around £12,000 over a full year. Subtract those overheads from the turnover and you’re left with £27,000 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 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 is your business overhead, and it 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 fuel bill might come to £90-£120 (2019 estimates). For diesel, it is about two-thirds of that figure. I don’t know about the other fuel types.

If you’re thinking of going electric as some sort of unique selling point to try and corner the market, consider the initial cost of a typical electric vehicle, which is at least double that of a typical standard-fuelled instructor car. Also remember that the range (i.e. how many miles you get from a full charge) of EVs 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 substantially less than the official figure. EVs are newcomers, but consider how much a new battery would cost if you need one, how the range might decrease as the battery degrades, and how much the resale value might be if you decide to get a new car later. Think about that. You could pay £10,000 for a new standard vehicle and sell it after 5 years for £2,000, so it’s cost you £8,000 during that time. For an EV, you might pay £20,000 for a new one, and after 5 years sell it for £10,000, so it’s cost you £10,000 while you had it (and I’m not even sure they’d hold their price that well, so it might cost you even more).

How many miles would I drive in a year?

This is an important question if you’re leasing, since leases usually have mileage caps associated with them. 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 they’re not interested in how many lessons you do, just what’s on the dashboard display when you give it back.

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.

Obviously, giving lessons in big cities might require fewer miles. But make sure you do your homework properly before applying London mileage to rural locations.

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, and you’re less than 12 months away from a return to salaried employment. 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. Work-life balance

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 £25 of turnover, and your weekly overheads bill is £220, you will need to work for 9 hours to cover that (I refer to these as “dead hours”). 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 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.

As an example, when I started teaching I needed to be doing 17 hours of lessons 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. 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.

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 £27,000 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 tend to be brimming over with enthusiasm the moment they announce they’re going to become instructors, but they are oblivious to the harsh realities of running business. Dreaming of earning £30k is light years away from 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 a resounding no. And it’s a double-no if you think you’ll survive if you try working short hours right from the start. The 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.

Sticking with 30 hours as a target number needed, you could fit that into five days in theory. But you are counting on things that 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.

You’d have to go out during rush hour, which I avoid like the plague because traffic is often gridlocked. You’d have to leave a very short travel time between lessons, which is no good during rush hour or if anything has happened on the roads to increase traffic volumes. Short travel times means hurried lesson debriefs or curtailed driving time for the pupils, which gets noticed. Short travel times in busy traffic leads to rushing and frustration. If you arrive late, that will get noticed, too. Most people have to eat – many insist on a rigid hour-off for lunch – so that loses another hour out of your day. And then there’s the school run – it will hold you up, and lose yet more time from your diary if you need to be part of it. And so it goes on.

If you’re late more than once, many pupils will readily dump you (I pick up loads who cite turning up late as their reason for changing). Being late, with short travel times, has a knock-on effect, so you just end up being late for more pupils. Rushed lessons also puts pupils off, as does taking them out into heavy traffic when they’re not ready. You driving to and from a suitable location is bad enough after the first lesson or so, but what if you’re doing it in the rush hour? And if any do leave you, at best they won’t recommend you, and at worst they’ll say bad things about you. And that will damage your business.

Finally, there are the pupils. Many will have fixed times during which they can do lessons – fitting around lectures, jobs, childcare, and so on. At the start of each term, their schedule is all over the place, so lessons need moving around. Many will only be able to do evenings or weekends (they are my most popular slots, and pupils I pick up often cite not doing them as a reason for switching instructors). Over the years I’ve had people on weird rolling shifts, normal shifts, nights, those who want picking up and dropping off in different locations from lesson to lesson (lectures and library study are the usual reasons, sometimes on different campuses), and so on. Some insist on starting lessons from work at 5pm (I get to say “told ya” when we get stuck in traffic, but at least I warned them).

So, 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, and especially to start with, you’ve got to allow for evening and weekend lessons.

Obviously, if you’re only doing the job for a bit of pocket money then you can work whatever hours you want. And turning a profit probably isn’t that important to you if someone else (or a second job) is paying the bills.

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. Sales book

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 recession. You might 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 forums and social media still struggling to get as many as 10 hours, even  after a year.

Right now, the cull of the Register following the recession combined with an upturn in work as we came out of it is still holding, and pupils are definitely out there. But getting new pupils is never easy. Brexit is looming and you’d have to be completely stupid to believe that that will have any short-term positive effects on this industry. And it’s even harder to get the work when you’re just starting out.

In my early days – and this was at a time when the market was buoyant – I tested the water in in various ways. First of all, I spent £600 on a business card sized advert in Yellow Pages, which was the done thing in the days when YP was still the size of a breeze block. I got absolutely zero enquiries out of it (if you exclude the spam calls I’ve been inundated with ever since, or the highly transparent one that came through two days after I’d told YP I wasn’t renewing, and which would never have turned into a sale anyway). 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 got zero enquiries. If I’d carried on doing that, it’d have been costing me £1,800 a year for nothing – and even if I got, say, one pupil a year out of it, it would still be throwing money down the drain. The return on the investment just wasn’t worth it. You might get lucky and get some pupils through from pinning your business card on the wall of the local chippy, but there’s more chance that you won’t.

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 name every time you post something. Don’t worry about that, 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. In the last month alone I’ve had about six new pupils come through that way.

Be careful when established instructors glibly tell you to advertise. Times have changed since they were in the same position as you, and their information is outdated (some still mention Yellow Pages). You need to be prepared for a slow burn, and not expect to fill your diary overnight – but if, somehow, you do, then consider yourself lucky.

So how DO I get new pupils?

There’s no simple answer to this, but as I said above the best way is probably to get yourself on social media, get a decent website that appears in the search engines, and publicise yourself whenever you can. Once you’re established, you will start to get referrals from previous pupils. However, whatever you do 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. 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. Some appear to come straight from Hell. You may have taught an excellent pupil, who you got on really well with, and who passed their test easily. But their cousin, thinking of one fairly recent example, could turn out to be an unreliable pain in the arse or, thinking of another, have coordination skills that were last common during the Pleistocene.

If you’re starting out, just remember that people have to know you’re there. 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?

Reasons for unreliability are numerous, and they are not always due simply to people being prats. Some pupils will 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 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, at the end of the day 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 know what jobs they do, or which college or university they’re at, 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, and if I were to adopt a zero-tolerance approach it 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 have to accept that short-notice lesson cancellations will happen. But you also have to realise that £850 potential 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 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 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.Watch your figure

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 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 – oblivious to the rush hour traffic going round it the proper way. 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 at the moment their brain finally processes the instruction, even though that could be up to 15 seconds after you said it. Or the one who only hears you say “right” when you say “look to the right”, and instantaneously yanks the wheel in that direction even if there is no right turn (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 there is no such thing as “give way”, who executes an emergency stop every time they see another vehicle anywhere near 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 do this even on straight roads 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 it’s diagnosed, sometimes it isn’t, and sometimes it is diagnosed, but they haven’t told you about it, even though you have specifically asked them several times because you’re pulling your hair out trying 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, 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.Stress ball

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. 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.

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.Dilbert - Which?

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 they must pass at any cost, and they will 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 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 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 – 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. It’s the same when you’re doing bay parking. You’ll be in a small car park, perhaps only enough space for one car, and someone else will come in while you’re doing it. In West Bridgford, the Alford Road car park is bigger, but not big enough for more than three learners even when it’s empty – but that doesn’t stop certain idiot ADIs coming in to take it to five or six. I make it absolutely clear what I think of 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.Work overload

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 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). 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, 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 doing 40-hour weeks 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 reduce them 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 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. 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 (or whatever is typical in their location) then something’s wrong.Fuel costs

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 £800 of income and eliminates any chance of new work coming from referrals by that pupil. Doing a lot of talking could save an instructor up £1,500 a year in fuel overheads at best, but two lost pupils cancels it out immediately 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.  If you’re already covering less than about 10-20 miles per hour of lessons on average (or whatever is typical for your area) you need to accept that you probably can’t reduce your fuel overhead any further.

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. Nissan Cube

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). All of that is an overhead.

Then there’s the matter of time. 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. And those other things I mentioned are on top of this.

You can cut your initial outlay by either getting a used car, or perhaps by choosing one that no normal person would ever buy themselves. I’m thinking of the ones dealers have trouble shifting, and are likely to offer special deals on. You also need to make sure you are comfortable in it yourself. It’ll likely be your personal car as well as your school car, and speaking personally there are quite a few models out there that I simply can’t fit in without touching shoulders with my passengers.

But 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.Old Corsa or new?

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 mechanical problems down the line. Well, you should have listened to everything you were told, and not just what you liked the sound of. Some of these have been off the road for weeks at a time before they’re properly established. That’s definitely not good for business.

My advice is not to cut corners unless you realise the possible consequences.

What can I charge for lessons?

You can charge whatever you want. The $64,000 question which bookends that, 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 right now is around £24-£28 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, and I am actually in the upper part of that range.Money to burn

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.

I repeat that this is a mature industry. Profit margins are not great, and cannot be manipulated to any significant extent. In theory, if just one ADI dropped his prices by £1, then he might well enjoy an increase in enquiries. But when everyone is doing it, the average lesson price in the area falls, and anyone taking part is just making less profit but still struggling for work like before. Failure of their business in the short term then becomes very likely.

Between 2010 and 2014 (the recession period) you would see cars advertising lessons for as little as £15 an hour. None of them are around anymore, because you cannot operate in this business on that sort of income. Trust me: if you try it, you will fail. Throughout the recession my prices stayed the same and I came through it comfortably. If I’d have dropped them, I perhaps wouldn’t have.

You need to charge the highest price you can get away with within the average price range for your area to succeed.

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 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. Franchises – especially the larger ones – are geared up to advertise and, although there are never any guarantees, there is a bloody good chance that a decent franchise will be a hundred times better than you would be at getting work.

In my opinion, anyone who goes independent right from the start is crazy. Qualifying in the first place was a gamble, so why gamble all that money spent on getting there again? You need the best start you can get, not an ego trip in a car sign-written car with your own name plastered all over it.

Should I start out independent?

If you ask this on the forums and social media you’ll be swamped with “go indie” advice from people. The problem is that those people are almost always 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 do the job for pocket money. And most qualified not long after Noah’s Ark made landfall, so their experiences are outdated.

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 – though the difference is not as great as some would have you believe.

A franchised instructor might be paying £200 a week for his car (and that includes pupil supply and vehicle back up). An independent does not get their car for free, but is paying at least £30-£40 a week as an absolute minimum, but probably more like £60-£80 – and even that is a fairly conservative average figure. You’d need to be driving an old banger to only be paying £30 a week (and hope it never breaks down). If you have a new Ford Fiesta and keep it for 5 years, it’ll cost you £55 a week, A new bog-standard BMW will cost around £65 a week. It’s still cheaper – but not £200 cheaper, and only if you have guaranteed work. Plus, you still need to do your own advertising and sort your own replacement vehicle out if you have a breakdown.

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. Going independent later is something you can consider if you know you are generating enough work.

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, at the time of writing (late 2019) there are pupils by the truck load in most areas, and 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 right now. Just make sure you clarify that what they mean matches what you think it does, because they’re probably not going to give you 30 pupils all in one go.

Don’t dismiss the claim 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 whoever or whatever you choose. Be wary of anyone who advises you to stay away from large schools or franchises per se. Many people have a grudge, or are simply regurgitating what they’ve hear others saying.

Also be careful when you hear people complaining about notice periods and laying into franchise companies as a result. I can guarantee that at some stage you will be whingeing about your terms and conditions, pupils cancelling at short notice, and others wanting refunds. Well, franchise companies have businesses to run just like you, and supplying cars and pupils to their franchisees costs them a lot of money. For that reason, they can’t just have people signing up for a brand new Corsa or Peugeot, then changing their minds two weeks later. Many will ask you to sign a contract, and there is usually a minimum term for that contract, and a fixed notice period required for termination after that. Make sure you are aware of these details – and that you have a definite business plan – before you sign. If you sign up for a 12- or 24-month period with a franchise, then decide you want out after 3 months, you are in breach of your contract.

The people I see complaining about how hard it is to get out have usually tried to do so in an extremely unprofessional way. They then start making accusations which are not true in order to shift blame to the franchiser. They will have a ready audience for this, and that’s usually where you start to hear things that make you worried.

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 on the grounds that he could remove their artwork from the car they supplied him with 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 that because they can invest more in advertising.

Also consider the lesson prices charged by your franchise. A local one might have a lower hourly rate than the competition, and while that might attract enough pupils for them to be able “guarantee” work for a while, it also means lower turnover for the instructor. They might also be advertising special offers – first lesson free, or BOGOF, for example – but whereas the national schools might fund such offers centrally, the smaller schools may expect the instructor to fund it themselves. It could mean that if you get ten new pupils starting one week, you will have ten free lessons to deliver! Then, you might try to space them out with the paying pupils, and I guarantee a few of the newer ones won’t be happy waiting two or three weeks for their first lesson. Do your homework.

Why do people say bad things about franchises?

Mainly because they’ve had an experience that they aren’t happy with. The large national schools can’t really afford to be as bad as some people claim they are, and “bad experiences” are usually not as one sided as the teller would like you to believe. Every few years, one particular (and different each time) school’s name will appear on the radar, and there does appear to be some substance to claims about what they’ve done. But they are not the norm.

You will inevitably hear a lot of negative comments about RED driving school. Ignore those comments completely – or at least, take them with a pinch of salt. RED as it exists today is not the same company that existed ten years ago. It went bust and was bought by a venture capital outfit, who retained the name. Most of the attitude towards RED is rooted in the past – it used to advertise widely as an instructor trainer, and there were a lot of disgruntled people who signed up, then changed their minds when they found out how difficult it was to become an ADI. They then had trouble getting refunds because it was they who were in breach of contract in most cases. These days, RED is the same as any of the national schools and although it still does instructor training, it is primarily a driving school franchiser – it doesn’t set out to piss people off, but it inevitably does. Like most schools.

You will also hear a lot of negative information about BSM. Ignore those, too. 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. 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 really is you who is at fault, mainly for not doing your homework first.

Why do people have these bad experiences?

Almost exclusively because they haven’t planned ahead properly when they decided on this career. I’ve seen a few examples in discussion forums over the last year or so, where someone desperately wanted out of the RED contract – which has a minimum running period – because they didn’t have enough hours. But in both cases, the original poster mentioned they had kids they needed to feed or manage (in one case, a child with special needs).

I hope I’ve made it clear from the rest of this article that you cannot just turn on the tap whenever you want pupils, and the pupils you do get will likely not be able to fit in with your schedule if you have imposed strict time windows when you can work. RED – or anyone else – cannot sift out pupils who can only do your time slots, because that information is often not available, and only develops later in many cases (and it would be unfair on all their other franchisees). If you won’t work school runs, evenings, and weekends because of your kids, you immediately lose a lot of potential pupils. And there’s no system in place to ensure you get paid even when you’re not giving lessons – you need to understand what being self-employed means.

Having kids is only one example, but it does show how badly some people have thought this career choice through if they have a huge personal burden of some sort to manage, and one which involves their finances and/or time constraints, and then they take on a fixed term franchise contract on top of it. If you go ahead and sign up, it’s partly your fault if you run into problems. A 12-month contract is likely to have a 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.

Basically, you should not be signing for any sort of financial obligation under these circumstances (and that includes car leases and loans) unless you are fully aware of what you are doing. And especially not one which has a fixed running period, and an expensive buy-out clause. It’s no different to mobile phone contracts. And in all honesty, it is questionable whether this career is suited to people who have such burdens in the first place – you cannot make a full salary working part-time hours.

Franchises are too expensive!

As I mentioned earlier, independent ADIs frequently imply that that they pay £200 less per week than an instructor whose franchise costs that much. They are totally wrong, and are just showing how bad they are at the business side of this job. The difference in most cases 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? In the first example your annual wage would equate to about £13,000 (without advertising costs), whereas the second it’d be around £22,000 (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).

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!

You have to work “for nothing” to pay your overheads no matter how you do it. You have to do four hours more lessons than you would as an independent if you are on a franchise. Just four hours. And that’s on one of the more expensive ones.

Since you will likely be working up to twice the number of hours you would be as an independent in this scenario, the pay out from that four hour investment speaks for itself.

If you have lots of work, and no sign of it dropping off, independent is undoubtedly the best option. If you are struggling, it definitely isn’t.

Only franchised ADIs work weekends – because they have to

All ADIs have to work several hours a week to pay off their overheads. Franchised instructors have to work a mere four hours more to do so – but since they will have up to twice as much work if the franchise has delivered, and a correspondingly greater income, that’s a price worth paying, especially if they are just starting out. It may well be that with all that work, doing lessons at weekends becomes necessary. Or it may be that they just want an even bigger income. But it isn’t because they “have to pay the franchise”.

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 do if I didn’t. I do it because I want to – and because there’s a big market for people who want me to.

Franchised instructors have to work half the week to pay off their franchise

Totally wrong, and it shows great ignorance on the part of anyone who claims it. Typical weekly overheads for an independent instructor doing 30 hours of lessons would see them moving into profit after the first 10 hours. For a franchisee, they’d move into profit after about 13-14 hours. The difference is only 3-4 hours.

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.

If you only ever plan to be part-time, almost nothing in the article is relevant to you anyway.

Independents can get their own pupils without paying a franchise to do it

Of course they can. Or at least, they can try. If they succeed, then they will have no trouble going independent, and everyone’s happy. But if they fail, they’re screwed, and then they’ve thrown thousands down the drain that they used to qualify in the first place. And that’s the danger when independents advise newly-qualified instructors to go independent from the outset. Work cannot be guaranteed.

I’ve seen several 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 you do have to pay for the referrals, typically starting from £15 per pupil (four of those a month, and the overhead difference between franchised and independent is all but wiped out).

My big concern is over instructors claiming they’re “independent” when they are getting their work this way. They most certainly are not independent. What they’re doing puts them halfway to being franchised, so they’re lying to themselves and misleading others as a result.

Independent ADIs can charge more

It sounds good when you say it, but the last official survey on this showed that indies charge at least £1 less per hour compared with the larger schools for their standard hourly rate.

It gets even better when you look at some school websites out there. I’ve seen people on social media claiming they charge top dollar for lessons, but when I’ve taken a look at their websites they have block-booking discounts that bring a £24 per hour stated price down to as little as £17 per hour! Even the ones that aren’t that bad still have equivalent prices of around £20-£22. You are not charging £24 per hour if you’re only taking £17 an hour from 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 advertise it, and only bring it up if I have a phone enquiry, if they ask about discounts, or when it comes to paying for their first lesson, I do offer it to everyone at some stage, and not everyone takes it (about 20% do), but I just don’t advertise it.

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

This is not true. Not across the board. An independent ADI definitely has lower overheads to the tune of about £100 per week. But that only matters if their turnover is at least the same as whoever they are comparing themselves with. They can only have the same turnover if they are doing the same number of hours and/or are charging the same hourly rate.

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 than a franchisee – by about £100 per week on average.

As I have already pointed out, you cannot guarantee 30 hours of work every week, nor can you necessarily get away with charging the highest price in your area. If you’re just starting out, you will have nowhere near 30 hours of work, and it may well be that even after a year you still won’t – unless you find a successful way of advertising, or consider outside help by way of a franchise. Evidence suggests there are a lot of independents who have nowhere near 30 hours of work (this is also true for some franchisees).

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, and in the past some people have tried to employ salaried ADIs (Mercedes, for example). Until recently, and I can’t remember who it is/was, there’s at least one place that still does it. The problem ultimately lies with how much people are prepared to pay for lessons.

Think about it. Being in business means making money on top of what you have to pay to stay in business – your turnover has to be bigger than your overhead bill. In the case of an ADI, he has to pay several thousand pounds a year to keep a car on the road, attract pupils, and so get enough work to pay off those overheads and make a clear profit. The accepted lesson price is pretty much in the range £25-£30 per hour in most areas, and cannot be changed. As we have already seen, adding a franchiser to the chain increases overheads for the ADI by about £100 per week. However, if you build an entire employment system in – and one which is good enough to work – then the overhead costs within the chain skyrocket. The net result is that the now salaried ADI may have a lower (although guaranteed) wage. Even if it is more than he was earning while he was self-employed, it won’t be as big as it could have been if he’d have grown his business. The new company employing him will have the same issues of reliability as the franchisers have to put up with, plus there’ll be sickness and holiday issues. Unless the company turns out to be hugely successful – and I mean hugely – what is already a low-margin industry will likely end up sending it bankrupt. That’s usually what happens – the business simply cannot remain viable in all the places it has to.

Mercedes ultimately failed at it. They survived longer than most because they were charging premium prices to wealthy people learning in hi-spec cars. There is undoubtedly a market for wealthy people learning in high-spec cars in certain areas that self employed ADIs can exploit, but it isn’t big enough for a proper business to operate from, and especially not on a national scale.

The bottom line is that ADIs are self employed because it keeps costs to the lowest level the chain can accommodate. Having a franchise or car-leasing stage in the chain is about as far as you can go before it becomes unprofitable.

Should I start part time after I qualify?

As I’ve already mentioned, if you only ever plan to do this for a bit of pocket money, most of the information in here doesn’t apply to you. You’ll be doing it part-time anyway, and although you’ll not be aiming to turn a loss, it probably won’t matter if you do. However, if you plan to earn a living from it, you need to be profitable sooner rather than later.

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 listen to only negative information – it is often completely wrong, as you might have realised if you’ve read this far. You know approximately how much you can charge for lessons. You know (or can easily find out) how much a car will cost if you source it through one of the many available options, and you know (or can easily find out) how much you will have to pay for insurance and so on. So for God’s sake stop keep asking other people how much you will earn! They cannot possibly know – indeed, many of them aren’t even aware of how much they earn themselves if they think they get their car “for nothing” – but that won’t stop most of them trying to tell you.

If you’re going to go looking for more 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 – and who were suffering badly 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 (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 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 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.

In reality, you will need training for each test, quite possibly more than one try with at least one of them, and waiting times for the tests can be several months depending on where you live. Doing it over a period of between 6-24 months is most likely, with the bias 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.

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 might be so far down the list that they haven’t even considered it. It sounds cynical, but it’s true. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of newbies struggle to pass, then give up because they simply couldn’t handle the job – yet 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. And 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 be “unavailable” – ignoring texts and phone calls. In most cases, the instructors who do this are not intending to defraud on purpose. They’re just 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 part of 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. So they would much rather give lessons to other pupils who are paying on the day. So they become difficult to get hold of. Even worse is if that pupil decides to jump ship and get a refund, the instructor hasn’t got the spare cash to provide it.

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 have always ensured that any money paid in advance didn’t get spent before the lessons had been taken. Other people don’t have the same scruples, though. Ironically, 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 is more prevalent among them (sorry, but it is). 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 so repeatedly. With the lesser schools and locals, there is possibly more of an issue, though some private franchises are at least as strict as AA/BSM. Not long ago, I had a pupil whose mother explained that they had lost money to a local 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). There have been others I’ve taken on 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.

So, as I said, the alternative 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 hear. But it is only a few.

I feel that doing it this way says a lot about someone’s motivation and reasons for wanting to be an ADI. They can’t be serious about it if they’re prepared to risk at least £300 (if they pass each exam first time) to over £700 (if they take the maximum possible tries and fail (and I assumed only two goes at Part 1 in that).

Realistically, over 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 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 whose cars you never see on the road would be a bigger potential risk.

Large schools like RED, BSM, and The AA are not cowboy outfits, so be very careful listening to people who tell you otherwise. Their “advice” tends to be coloured by their own experiences, which are usually a little biased and not usually due to as much of a fault with the school in question as they claim.

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. Training packages tend to based around a set number of hours, and struggling PDIs often find they need many more hours than than that.

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. 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 income, 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. Some people will, though.

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.

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.

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 schools that I don’t think I could have handled modern day kids without risking punching one of them – which I believe is considered unacceptable these days.

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 did back then)! 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 for someone. I set up as self-employed then, and for a short time I was also a director of a company set up by the company I was consulting for. 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 depths.

Packages tend to be based on fixed numbers of training hours spaced out over a period of time. The irony is that whereas most PDIs probably expect to do it in half that time, the reality is that many would likely need half as much again to be test-ready. This is usually the crux of any 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.

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 definitely 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.

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 2020? Well… it’s hard to say. This time last year 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. My own personal view is that Brexit is going to f**k things up to the power of ten, but I am holding in there. Beyond that I can’t say – and nor can anyone else, so if they do just ignore them.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it. But if we enter any sort of deep recession then it will be extremely hard.

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