But even amongst driving instructors, there is debate about how it is best for a learner to learn. We are all attempting to develop safe, competent, and confident independent drivers who can drive anywhere in the UK. Some might even say abroad too, but personally speaking, that is a bridge too far for it to be meaningful as quite simply, we would not be able to provide systematic practice abroad. But to be able to drive competently OUTSIDE of a pupil’s hometown is a worthy goal.
There are numerous towns in the UK that have a driving test centre operating, where the scope of the technical challenge is limited e.g. they may have no national speed limit dual-carriageways with entry/exit slip roads, no country roads, the town centre is not overly busy, there are very few hills, cyclists are in short supply, limited pedestrian crossings, little range in types of roundabouts. Boston in Lincolnshire and Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire are a case in point, the town centre can be busy at times, but otherwise, it is not particularly technically difficult which is reflected in the above-average pass rates. These driving test centres that are in “satellite” locations away from major cities, typically do have higher than average pass rates when you look at the relevant tables, but it does not necessarily mean those pupils are as well prepared for driving OUTSIDE of those locations.
If as a driving instructor you agree with the above objective, then the next question is how to deliver training so that a pupil can experience these different driving scenarios. To offer a solution, I’ll give my location as an example: Bourne in Lincolnshire. It is a small town; the nearest driving test centres are about half an hour away in either Grantham or Peterborough. The technical challenge of driving in Bourne, Grantham and Peterborough vary quite considerably. An instructor from Bourne might have the opinion that most of the practice occurs in Bourne, finishing off in the location where the pupil is going to test. Another instructor might not spend much time at all driving around in a quiet, small town and prefer to practice where the pupil is going to test. Or another instructor might have the view that the pupil should experience all those locations and any others that are nearby too such as Stamford, Spalding, and Sleaford.
Now let us quickly consider what an instructor in Boston might do. They could have the opinion that their pupils just practice in their hometown because that is where they will be going to test. Why overcomplicate things, just practice where they go to test. The instructor might think that once their pupil passes the test, they are not the finished article, and they can go on to then learn about entry/exit slip roads on dual-carriageways and steep hills as and when they drive out of Boston. A different instructor from Boston may not be happy leaving matters of road safety to chance like that and may get their pupils to at least drive on a dual-carriageway in Sleaford at least once or twice prior to going to the test. Another instructor from Boston might encourage their pupil to invest the time and effort to travel a bit further afield to Peterborough and experience lots of differing roundabouts and dual-carriageway practice.
There is a degree of flexibility demonstrated above as to how a pupil learns to drive that is often controlled by their driving instructor. One could have the attitude that once I have got my pupil passed their driving test, I have done my job. The pupil is happy because they have their licence after very few hours of practice and wax lyrical about the fabulous instructor, and the parents are being guided by what the instructor thinks is best (“they are the expert here, they know best”). But you can see that while the driving tests are being passed, the actual objective mentioned at the start is not being achieved. As a group of driving instructors should we be concerning ourselves that our pupils who are passing driving tests do not have experience travelling on fast dual-carriageways, navigating around large multi-lane roundabouts, or interacting effectively with vulnerable road users like cyclists? It is presently a matter for the driving instructor concerned because the regulator does not assess instructors with this consideration at all. The regulator is simply monitoring pass rates, faults committed per test, how regularly an examiner intervenes and how many serious faults a pupil makes. The regulator makes no assessment at all, of how a driving instructor goes about teaching a pupil – only what happens on driving tests.
At BIG TOM we have long held the view that the more experience a pupil can have in varied driving conditions the better. Our intensive driving courses regularly involve pupils driving in many different towns and cities. The duration of sessions is typically 4 hours long. This gives us plenty of time to travel further afield. But not all intensive course providers share this view. Some providers will have a fixed number of practice hours that offer little scope for variety because they limit the duration of practice to 2 hours. Unfortunately, there do exist agency-type organisations who leach on to the name of intensive course providers, and quite simply link a customer with any driving instructor and make little effort in creating a meaningful training programme.
The missing link here is that the regulator does not have any inclination to see physical evidence of how a pupil is taught. For example, pupils could be made to demonstrate they record where they practice and what they practice, and so an assessment of pupil records could quickly raise the standard of training across the board. When a pupil goes to a test, the regulator could make it a requirement that the pupil brings their practice record. The examiner then has the duty for a certain number of tests in their working day to view the practice record and ensure that there is evidence of the depth of practice. Clearly, there will be certain driving test centres located where the need to see this is much less than in other locations. And that would be a matter for the regulator to evaluate which locations have a higher need to conduct this assessment than others.
Pupils would own their practice record, and if they switch instructors it is their responsibility to ensure the new instructor sees the previous driving experiences. If a pupil does not have their practice record, then the new instructor starts afresh. It is the responsibility of the pupil to present a practice record that demonstrates their readiness to go to the test. Pupils who practice with no driving instructor involvement (or limited) would also be required to present their practice record. Although I am not IT-minded, I would imagine that it would be possible for much of this to become digitally recorded without compromising the integrity of the record. It may even be possible to insist that at a certain point before a driving test, the pupil must digitally send the practice record to the regulator to authenticate the justification for the driving test. I believe it will be this type of systematic change that would be much more effective at raising training standards in the UK.