Welcome, my name is Tom Ingram, I am the owner of the BIG TOM Driving School Franchise. I have created here a 20 minute audio clip primarily aimed for any PDI’s out there who feel like they could do with a helping hand. So if you are an ADI and know of any PDI colleagues or friends, do share this with them as it could really make the difference for them. Listen to this on the move, walking the dog, in the car, or sat at home with a nice cup of tea….. enjoy.
What I am going to include in this audio file is content that is so important for anyone who is wanting to qualify as a driving instructor and start up their own driving school business. If I fail in that objective, be sure to let me know in the comments; feedback is just as important to me as it is to any business owner. I need to have confirmation that what I am providing is truly of value and bringing benefits to the listener. But I offer this in the spirit of, ” it’s just plain old good advice” and probably worth doing than not; a bit like adding salt to your dishwasher. We all know that as much of a pain as it is, it’s best to fill the dishwasher with salt….it makes a difference. So here I offer you a bag of salt, you just need to put it in the dishwasher to make a difference.
But without wanting to appear smug or complacent, I am pretty confident that if you are currently a PDI, this audio will be worth the time and effort to listen to. I am going to talk about three core topics that when taken together and utilised in the correct balance, will help your new driving school business spark into life. In chess, it is generally recognised that to sustain an effective attack, you will be needing to use at least 3 major pieces, well you will hear in the following more on this subject of a trio that packs a punch.
It is a tricky path I tread here because I do not want to be scare-mongering, but the sad fact is that there are many ADI’s who qualify and then struggle to achieve the required balance of these three elements needed for a successful business. And it can be incredibly frustrating; I speak here from experience. When I put all the effort in to qualify which created much stress, anxiety, confusion, nerves and financial burden – it takes me a while to learn things, I was mortified to discover that what I thought was going to be involved in setting up my new driving school business was far from reality. In hindsight, I had no idea what was needed and it was an extremely painful realisation.
But of course, all of us operating in the way that we do, we don’t necessarily do the best preparation for new ventures, because we get carried away and excited at the prospect of qualifying and then earning some wonga! So it is very easy for anyone listening to my introduction here to think that this will not apply to them, they don’t need to invest the time and effort because they are going to succeed. This optimistic attitude to starting your business does have its uses, but unfortunately it can also leave us exposed too. Think of it a little bit like starting a new hobby, sport, venture or physical challenge – you will need an element of positivity just to get your arse off the couch to take some form of action, rather than just pondering about it all the time. We all need a “get up and go” approach for sure, but it would be unwise to steam into something new unprepared and blinded by our optimism. It is one thing giving up the goals relating to piano lessons or reducing the golf handicap, but when effort levels are being used of the magnitude to qualify as a driving instructor and start a new driving school – the potential for disappointment, anger, loss of dignity etc are very real and could leave a nasty mental scar.
Firstly, you might be wondering what qualifications or authority do I have that justifies me making such bold claims and also, what is my motivation for taking the time and trouble to share my knowledge. I started my driving school business in the spring of 2009 in the midst of an economic recession and I found myself making lots of mistakes, falling short on many business skills and generally making a mess of starting up a new business. I initially considered all fellow driving instructors to be competition but have come to realise with the passing of time that we are more like an endangered species and need all of the protection that we can afford ourselves – and that primarily answers the second question about my motivation. And I do not make that statement lightly, it can be incredibly frightening, lonely and bewildering starting up a driving school business. The day to day physical running of the business is one thing but you soon start to realise that the regulator performs a rather ‘Jeckyll and Hyde’ part in your working life. At times, the DVSA appear to offer a great deal of guidance and support but at other times, they are the source of much fear. I don’t like fear, no, fear is to be avoided in my book – I bet you feel the same way about it too. You don’t get to be in the mid-term of your life only to be subjected to regulatory actions that instil fear in you. That is not what running a business is supposed to be about.
So as you can hear from my response, I do not make claims of expertise in any given subject like coaching or marketing or seo or teaching techniques but, in my defence, I have been paying attention over the years and I have been heavily investing in my personal growth. I read a great deal, I attend courses and conferences, I enrol on online courses and one of my few seemingly natural strengths that I should really be grateful to my parents for, is my ability to just keep going – it is not in all of us, but I do tend to stick with it, even when it is pretty grim. It is on this basis that I offer the listener my advice, I do not pretend that it is going to make you millions or win you the “Best instructor” award for 2024, but if it just helps you to keep your ahead above the water for the first couple of years in your new business, then hey, I’ll happily contribute to that goal.
My opening for this short clip is to ask you to visualise three topics in a Venn diagram arrangement, as follows:
Driving instructor skills and knowledge
The reason why I mention about the format of the circles is because the mixture or balance of your ability in these three topics will be crucial to outcomes. For the sake of clarity, let’s go over them seperately to begin with.
A driving school owner is going to need an array of skills to conduct their business and a base of knowledge. Much like the DVSA examiner’s expectation with learner candidates is not to see perfection, because there will be plenty of further development post-test. Likewise, you will need to have an open attitude for continuing to learn new skills. These include skills on interacting effectively with pupils and funders, business skills to optimise performance, knowledge of the rules of the road and how to apply them, and knowledge of how people learn. If your initial reaction to this is that it looks uncannily like parts 2 & 3 of the qualifying criteria, then I’m afraid you are mistaken. There is a great deal to learn that is outside the scope of the competencies set out in roles 1 – 6 [see National standard for driving cars and light vans & National standard for driver and rider training]. I am not suggesting for one moment that the competencies are not needed, refer to Unit 5 of Role 6 for example on guidance of the continual evaluation of knowledge, understanding and skills in the industry, but my point is more biased towards the running of a successful business. A successful business must create happy customers and that involves more than the competencies listed in the standards.
So as a PDI, you would be forgiven for wondering to yourself, who is providing the training of the kind I have just mentioned. This is a very good question and brings me neatly on to the second topic of “Test Know-how” because it is this topic that most of the industry troubles itself with. When I mentioned earlier about Venn diagram circles, in the current state of our industry, this circle looms large, it is where most of the attention is centred. It is a very unbalanced trio of circles and unfortunately, not only is much of the qualifying training limited to how to pass parts 1, 2 and 3 but also much of the targeted CPD activity is also biased towards how to pass Standards Check tests. It is a very unfortunate state of affairs because it is so misleading. It’s a personal reminder of how the UK school educational system is biased towards this academic approach to acquiring knowledge in the short-term and very little preparation for the skills one needs to cope with life. So it is with the vast majority of driving instructor training – it is an industry that feeds itself if you think about it. The poor scope of training provided for qualification purposes, helps to create the poor performance of the business and inevitably that means driving school owners revert to an ‘academic’ approach to providing driving training – resulting in an unsatisfactory service to the pupil. To clarify, what I am suggesting is that the lack of skills in effectively running a driving school business results in a lower quality of training of pupils and that in turn brings the instructor to the attention of the regulator.
I do recognise that assessment criteria of the kind in parts 2 and 3 and the Standards Check will naturally attract an element of ‘gaming’ or ‘coaching’ simply to be seen to jump through the hoops, or tick the boxes. But the assessments bear little resemblance to the reality of providing meaningful training to pupils. I would go further than that and suggest that if we were to treat our pupils on a day to day basis in the manner in which the DVSA want to see us treat them on Standards Checks, it would have a very negative impact on the success of the driving school because that is no way to treat customers. It is an unfortunate situation which the regulator has never got around to resolving which does make one wonder why. At times it comes across as an instructor who only needs to regurgitate certain words/phrases in specific situations. It is like learning by rote certain words/phrases in a foreign language that are systematically rehearsed in response to specific trigger words – and yet having very low competence of speaking the foreign language outside of this narrow remit.
I can imagine listeners to this wondering what on earth is the answer to this problem. My advice is to not feed the monster. You do not have to play the game in this manner, I haven’t for 14 years now and have felt no negative consequence in doing so. I am a very happy Grade B driving instructor with a clear conscience and feel no need to feather the nests of the ‘nodding dog’ style “Trainers”. I have driving test Parameters that are not even close to triggering, my business performance allows me to have several weeks holiday in a year and still earn more than the industry average. My sole objective is to create value for my customers, and that brings me nicely on to the third of the topics, “Value”.
Doing everything we can reasonably do to create value for our customers is a worthwhile goal. Clearly you will have to make a judgement on how that is achieved, some resources that are provided need a careful cost vs benefit analysis. But a willingness to be creative and think what would YOU have liked to have been offered when you learnt to drive, or even, how would YOU like to have been treated as a pupil is time well spent. It really is not very difficult at all to create additional value to what the ‘average’ driving instructor provides and yet the reward is high. If you don’t have any inclination or ability to consider the service you provide in this manner, and not everyone does of course, then at least align your business with a franchise such as my own, where the organisation has a proven record of creating successful business outcomes – that dependability is why franchisees invest in this manner; it does take a lot of the hard work out of the equation.
But what I would strongly advise you do not do is to fall into the trap of always considering the customer is right – they often are not. Some driving instructors, (and in my experience this is not limited to only newly qualified ADI’s), get this concept of ‘adding value’ to equate to a 100% compliance to the customer’s wishes. Absolutely not! There are going to be plenty of pupils who have a rather strange idea of what effective learning looks and feels like. I am not suggesting that we go out of our way to judge and criticise them, but we also do not have to present them for a test if they are not ready to be taking it. Personally, and I accept this is purely my opinion, I wouldn’t even conduct a mock test for such a pupil let alone present them for an actual driving test. Believe it or not, this problem looms large in our industry for various reasons. Not only do we need to have a clear conscience (as we do have a moral responsibility to do everything that we can to positively contribute towards UK road safety), but as if that were not enough of a reason, the probable test fail(s) that result adversely affect our Parameters which increases the probability of being recalled. Now I do realise that for a newly qualified driving instructor this subject of accurately knowing when the timing is right to present a pupil for test is not a given, but I would advise that the assessment is an objective one based on fact (and recorded as such for all to see), rather than a subjective one based on opinion and/emotion. When you run a driving school business, you have to get quite used to the idea of making decisions firmly on evidence rather than a ‘finger in the air’ hunch. I can conduct an authentic mock test which is extremely close to the actual driving test and this is a skill that a franchisee can develop with some inclusive training within the franchise.
Are there other resources that a PDI could do to add value? I would suggest to try and think of this in terms of how your pupil is perceiving the experiences, because this could be the factor that increases your pupil retention figures. Naturally, instructors can feel the need to be at the centre of decision making within training sessions – maybe this is the experience that the instructor has been subjected to the most and so it stands to reason that they feel there is an expectation to control what happens, when and how. With some careful development of further skills it is possible to maximise the learning for the pupil (and therefore provide increased value) by allowing the pupil to be at the heart of the decision making. This doesn’t mean that we sit back passively allowing the pupil to run riot (although on some social media video clips, this seems to be precisely what is happening), we still have a responsibility for the safety of all, and ensuring that our pupil makes positive progress. There are skills involved in transferring this balance of power so that the pupil is at the heart of the experience, and the benefits make the learning of these skills worthwhile. Pupils who are taught in this manner are better prepared for driving post-test as they will have developed more advanced risk management skills. Pupils stay motivated and sense ownership of the learning process. These pupils will have a more enjoyable experience as they get more opportunity to control the practice structure – this will make the learning process unique to the pupil and raise engagement levels. All of this is very good for the rate of progress a pupil makes. What is interesting with this subject is that if the pupil and instructor were ONLY interested in the goal of passing the driving test, then either approach to the balance of power could satisfactorily achieve that goal. But in much the same way that a novice tradesperson can still achieve the end goal of the desired task, how they actually go about achieving it can be entirely different when compared to another skilled tradesperson.
This brings me to what I believe is a very important point and it involves how we go about our business. When you start working with pupils and start to see how they proceed through the driving tests, you will start to see how it is not so much about whether they can operate the vehicle, but more about how well they can operate the vehicle in varying conditions. You can have two pupils who achieve the goal of passing a driving test, but you might feel entirely different about each of their competencies. Well it is THE same when you consider how the driving instructor goes about providing their driving training. The efficiency and effectiveness of the training can be measured – it is amazing how few driving instructors do this, but if you want to run a successful business, then you will learn how important it is to measure performance. Running any business without recording performance measures is not smart, and running a driving school business blind is bordering on reckless. Think for a moment of a parent who wants to know how much “value” is being provided on a typical driving lesson, wouldn’t it be great if they could observe a visible meter on the roof top of the driving school car that displays the amount of value at any given moment of time in the lesson. But they clearly don’t have that option, so how do you think they go about assessing the value that is being provided to their son/daughter? Now think about how you can measure business performance for your driving school – you also will want to know these figures if you want success.
The popular but unwise way to measure business performance is to pick one metric such as the pass rate, and take periodic observations. There are many other ways to assess the performance of your business regarding costs or lost/wasted time or reviews/surveys or collisions/near misses or pupil satisfaction. Making these systematic means that the business is being routinely monitored and enables transparency for continuous improvement.
Attention to any one of these three topics in isolation is positive, but where optimal business performance starts to occur is when they are working in harmony with each other. Many ADI’s tend to gravitate towards the topic that is shrouded in the fear of failing assessments but I suggest that more emphasis should be placed on the other two. I’ll leave you with this thought; try to think beyond the ‘tactics’ of DVSA assessment criteria, think more about the ‘strategy’ involved in the harmonious application of these three topics I have been talking about today.
I would be interested to hear your view on where your strengths and weaknesses are with those topics.