Reflections of a driving instructor Part 2 Introduction
1st August 2023
Reflections of a driving instructor Pt2 Ep 2 How we learn
28th August 2023

Reflections of a driving instructor Pt 2 Ep 1 The Dream

Reflections of a driving instructor part 2 Ep 1 The Dream 


The dream is to run your own driving school business. The subject may have been cropping up in your mind on several occasions of late. There can be a variety of triggers such as: feeling fed up with boring work, having this nagging doubt that you really aren’t fulfilling your potential, wanting to increase your earnings, being attracted to the flexible hours you can work, wanting less stress than you currently have in your job, preferring to be your own boss because you would quite like to use your current one as a toilet cleaner, having more control of your diary, getting a better work/life balance, being able to respond if an emergency crops up with one of the kids at school, wanting more job satisfaction, liking to help people, you like the idea of working outside, you just enjoy driving. 

All of these can be great motivators and there could well be many others. If there is one motivator that could turn out to be the difference between success and failure in this venture, it would be to have an inner drive. Possessing an intrinsic motivation for your dream is pretty much an essential. Others that are also valid would be bringing with you a great attitude, having an open mind, being prepared to put tons of effort in. A positive work ethic is not something that can be purchased, this is why qualifying to be a driving instructor is never going to be about handing over thousands of pounds to a large national driving school. The size of the driving school, the amount you hand over to them, the glossy magazines and guarantees of brand new driving school cars all stands for nothing if you do not possess the dogged determination and perseverance to achieve your goal. When you hear this, you might be capable of truly discovering the message, but it is perfectly possible that you may not. Listening skills vary in all of us. You can listen to a question that a pupil of yours asks and just answer it or you can have an ability to truly understand where that pupil is coming from before you even start to provide an answer. 

This might sound a bit like a cop out, or excuse coming from me so early into this series of episodes but honestly, it is best for you to find this fact out now, rather than after you have committed £4000 towards a course where you stand virtually zero probability of getting a successful result. If you care about people, you can pay attention to detail, you are authentic, you have a track record of supporting people, you can ignore everyone else’s opinion and just concern yourself with what you do, you are prepared to make mistakes, you perceive things like this as a challenge rather than a threat, you know how to get the best out of people, yes, all of these things would be very encouraging and certainly traits that good instructors have. So having given you a steer of the traits and characteristics needed to enter the driving training industry as a driving instructor, let me now suggest to those of you that having qualified, the path to success has really only just begun. 

As much as people might not like to consider the following, in the spirit of openness and transparency I would draw your attention to the ADI register and the numbers of instructors entering and leaving the register. As you can hear me describe in this video here, Driving School Franchise Success despite there being approximately 2000+ new ADI’s coming in annually, the DVSA statistics indicate that over the last 10 years the amount of instructors has declined by 8000. No less than 28,000 instructors have left the industry over 10 years, a figure that represents over 50% of the total. For the precise figures and source of the information do take a look at the video which was released relatively recently in January 2023. It begs the question, with the natural churn of retirees being accepted, what on earth is going on? How can you have over half the register of driving instructors leaving the industry every 10 years? Something is not right, and it probably would be advantageous to at least be aware of the possible reasons.  

It is pretty much a given that as people experience more in their line of work, their skills tend to improve; that seems to be true in any walk of life. So it begs the question, when are ADI’s deciding to leave the industry? I recall working with an elderly retired English teacher many years ago who was quite open with me about his frustrations in education and in the end, he considered it was more trouble than it was worth and retired early. Imagine the experience and expertise that left that school when that chap reluctantly called it a day. It doesn’t take much imagination to foresee how schools, hospitals, corporates and even the small business industry would feel the pain when people with vast knowledge and experience leave in numbers. When we consider services specifically involved in 1:1 aiding of the public though, there does appear to be a conflict between setting goals relating to maximising efficiency, versus doing the right thing in the given circumstance. We appear to live in a culture now where management who are heavily biased with cognitive skill if I can use that term, can have an entirely different set of values to workers led by their heart, who instinctively differ in opinion of what ‘doing the right thing’ means. As a result, driving instructors now find that they are being monitored and formally assessed in a manner which has less to do with the art of facilitating learning for all types of learners, and it would not surprise me if many found that so unnatural that they choose to leave. I have discovered over the years instructors to be quietly ‘matter of fact’ people, pretty grounded, I guess you need to be in this line of work.    

It wouldn’t be wise though to assume that all of the instructors who are leaving have finally had enough of the changing demands of the regulator. It is possible that many instructors who qualify, discover reasonably quickly that the day to day work of an instructor is not quite what they thought it was. For example, it is one thing to “teach” a son or daughter how to drive as a parent, but something else to assist a person not known to you who may have very specific learning difficulties. When I speak to people who are in careers outside of driving training, the general view held is that they could not possibly do the job, because they wouldn’t have the patience. I will expand on this subject in another episode because although I cannot corroborate this, I sense that it would be very easy to assume that the work involved of “teaching” someone to drive is pretty straightforward and routine – maybe newly qualified instructors decide to leave after a while, when they realise this is not necessarily the case.  

The gap between how the DVSA decide to assess learners and PDI’s and then what literally happens in the daily work with pupils is an interesting one and worthy of exploring further. I will break it down into skills and explore the differences between the skills observed on tests (both for learner drivers and PDI’s) versus the skills needed post-test.  

But to continue this theme of why lesser experienced ADI’s leave the industry, it might also be the enormity or complexity of the tasks needed to run the business as the owner of a driving school. It is not easy to build a small business especially in a location where there is a significant amount of competition. There will be a great deal of ‘hurdles’ that need to be jumped over that will hinder the momentum of success, but with time, generally speaking the height and frequency of the ‘hurdles’ decline. It would not surprise me in the slightest if many newcomers to the industry find the initial barrage of hurdles overwhelming. Branching out to your network of friends/peers is vital to not only keep you sane but probably wise in maintaining your relationship with your other half at home too. We all benefit greatly from sharing our experiences and there are plenty of opportunities online these days to discuss matters with others and also observe how others do their work. For example it is possible as a driving instructor to earn a revenue of over £60k while also taking 7 weeks of the year off on holiday, and accommodating a week off for sickness, and having your Bank Holidays off like the majority of the working population, but as a newly qualified instructor you would never know that if you do not create relationships with peers and see the potential out there. Without that awareness, it is so easy to feel isolated, helpless, and become disheartened that what you are trying to do is just impossible. There are a good number of driving instructors who are only too willing to assist others in this regard, with no personal gain – it is a characteristic of this industry which is pretty indicative of the point made above about how many people in driving training are motivated by the heart. 

A common behavioural trait that many of us do is to believe we have more ability than we do. It is known as the Dunning Kruger Effect; it can affect your learner pupils and perhaps you too on your path as a PDI. It could be said that the subject of driving training is even more susceptible to this disadvantage because so many people can relate to the act of driving. A small amount of achievement is gained and we think we are near to the finish line. We probably know plenty of people who drive, we consciously or not have a perception of the ease of either learning to drive or helping others to learn to drive. “It can’t be that hard, John passed his driving test, and if he can, anyone can.” Or if a person discovered when they learnt to drive that they have a natural aptitude for it, they make comparisons with the effort they put in, and assume everyone else likewise finds it reasonably easy to learn. Or perhaps a person keeps hearing from friends or family members how easy they found learning to drive, maybe how they breezed the driving test on the first occasion, or perhaps that they learnt to drive in 6 lessons. All of these factors can give an impression of ease. In the early days of progress, after a handful of lessons when a pupil has control of the car, they might have an over-inflated idea of how good they are – we all do it, it is to be expected. But do just bear this one in mind when you start on your path to qualifying as a driving instructor or even after you have qualified and start your own driving school business, there is still much to learn. 

There are considered to be 4 phases of competence that we go through, as I say this can relate to anything but keeping on the theme of learners and PDI’s: 

Unconsciously incompetent: the person has no awareness of what they do not know, it is very early days, the learning curve is steep but while there is undoubtedly progress being made, the true significance and meaning of the learning has not yet developed. Think of this when you hear someone say to you, “Oh my, how little I knew at that stage, I had really no idea what I was doing.” the person is blissfully unaware of how little they actually know at this stage. The effort levels are high though because the person is encountering lots of new situations and experiences – some of these are not expected so there is an added shock factor. Mistakes are made and the gravity/seriousness of the error is unappreciated, the person concerned struggles to make any judgement because there is little experience to refer to. 


Consciously incompetent: the awareness levels are beginning to be raised, the extent of the task is becoming clearer. Effort levels are high, determination is high, the learning curve is steep. This phase is tiring mentally. The person concerned can begin to start recognising the areas of strength and weakness and areas that have not even been started yet.  


Consciously competent: effort levels begin to taper down somewhat but the motivation is as strong as ever because now, the person can start to see the product of their labour. With driving training, this can be a tricky time, because while the person starts to recognise that less effort is needed as “muscle memory” begins to form, there will be the occasional and unpredictable dropping of the ball – where an out of context mistake is made. Again, this is highly normal and quite natural but just reinforces the fact that there is no room for complacency though. 


Unconsciously competent: the pupil is physically and mentally calmer. Actions and behaviours have become second nature and effort levels while still being present have become tolerable and the activity is enjoyable. Pupils are driving at a standard equal if not better than the instructors driving ability. 


It might be useful to look at this in the typical thoughts that could occur for ADI’s and pupils as they progress through the learning path. The following is not intended to be an exhaustive list of all the possible thoughts and feelings but just snippets of things that can crop up, not listed in any particular order. 


Two typical scenarios demonstrating examples of Unconscious Incompetence: 

The pupil has never sat in the drivers seat before and their pulse and nerves are firing. The pupil knows nothing, absolutely nothing but they have been a passenger before in vehicles, they may have experience of gears by riding bikes/mopeds, they could have knowledge of the rules of the road, they may have driven agricultural vehicles or been karting before. The pupil has not realised that the gas pedal is lower than the brake pedal, they do not know that the reverse light goes on when in reverse or that it is a white light. The pupil would not think about checking that the doors are closed or that seatbelts or on and working. Any concept of speed, gears, fuel levels, need for wipers in the rain, none of these will necessarily be obvious in the early days. Why should they be? The amount of information coming the way of the pupil surprises them, they find they are having to pay far more attention than they thought they would. They will steer however they naturally steer, they might change gear really fast for some reason and the use of mirrors is a distant notion from their immediate attention. Thoughts are consumed by not hitting anyone or anything, not wanting to inconvenience anyone, while all the time really having very low self-awareness of the effect their driving is having on the vehicle. Breathing might be very shallow, muscles ache, the brain is working overtime, the heart might be pounding like it wants to come out of the chest, the senses of hearing might reduce due to the concentration levels so that they can barely even hear what the instructor is saying. The ability to judge space around the vehicle is varied, likewise with the position in the road. Starting and stopping the vehicle is a bind because it is so complex and involved, the pupil would much prefer if they are able to, to just keep the car moving rather than stop. It can be exhilarating, scary, fascinating, liberating, confusing, overwhelming, easy, bewildering, frightening or a completely alien concept. The pupil has passed the theory test but has not retained a vast amount of knowledge, not realising what the implications will be. 


The instructor is in two minds where to start the lesson, whether to drive to a certain location or let the pupil drive off from home. The possible effect(s) this one decision might have on the pupil are completely unknown by the instructor. When the instructor observes the pupil, it is clear that there are signs of anxiety but rather than dwell on the fact, the instructor might have the opinion to just get moving and hopefully the pupil will calm down naturally. The instructor might feel the need to really go into the minutest details of the safety and cockpit checks with no awareness of how this is overloading the pupil with so much information, they do not stand a chance to remember half of it. Likewise, the degree to introduce all the controls and instruments is something that the instructor often wonders about and unknowingly often takes a great deal of time telling pupils about things they already know. The instructor might have a very clear idea of what is expected to be achieved on the first lesson, this may or may not be communicated with the pupil and the feelings of the pupil throughout the lesson may not be a concern as the instructor unwittingly is focussing on “teaching” and wants to cover the pre-fixed scope for this lesson as may be done with every other pupil at this stage. The instructor may be in touch with how they feel in themselves, their fatigue levels, patience and tolerance levels, they may recognise that they feel agitated or lethargic but perhaps they don’t – the instructor may never have considered the effect(s) of how they feel can go on to affect outcomes for the pupil. The instructor might have very clear ideas of how to maintain safety in the lesson; use of duals, grabbing the steering wheel or even handling the gear lever or parking brake are all possible and one might say likely in the early days – the instructor may consider this a sole responsibility which the pupil has no say in or ability to contribute towards. In doing so, the instructor might have no awareness of how the pupil is being denied the ability to develop thoughts around responsibilities, maintaining safety or risk assessment. The instructor may be of the opinion that by controlling what is practised and where and how, they are doing the very best for the pupil. When pupils move off, the instructor without realising, doesn’t always do a blindspot check. The instructor has no knowledge of how to develop trust within the working relationship with pupils, and even less of the benefits that it brings. The instructor does not at this stage fully appreciate the guidance provided in Element 6.3 of the standard and how that can benefit both pupils and personal development. 



Consciously incompetent: 


The pupil is repeatedly being made aware of the speed of the vehicle and the maximum speed limit. For some reason the pupil is approaching junctions much too quickly, the instructor is trying to help out with prompts about braking and speed and then which gear but it is still too quickly. The pupil is beginning to think that the affect of drivers behind is creating a pressure within them to drive quicker than they really want to. The pupil keeps getting lefts and rights mixed up, it is an age old problem that never goes away. The pupil feels uneasy about merging on to a dual carriageway, what they can see in the right side mirror is not very clear with regards to how far the vehicles are or which lanes they are in, on the dual carriageway. Every time the pupil enters into a car park to park in a bay, they forget to put the clutch down and pause for a moment – the instructor has been encouraging this for a while, but the pupil tends to get distracted when there are lots of cars and people in the car park. Occasionally, the pupil is leaving the foot on the gas just a bit too long before putting the clutch down to change gear. The push/pull method of steering is something the pupil finds really difficult, the left hand just does not want to put in any work. The pupil is getting the balance of pace of the car versus technical correctness entirely wrong, for some reason there is something making the pupil do things quicker and lots of silly errors are being made. 


The instructor struggles with the balance of just telling a pupil what to do versus prompting them – the aim of trying to help the pupil think for themselves is difficult when the instructor wants to maintain safety for all. The instructor loses a lot of pupils about half way through learning to drive, it’s not obvious why this is happening but a few pupils have mentioned that they find the atmosphere a bit overbearing. Many pupils were not getting back to the instructor to book another lesson, but now the system is that the next lesson is booked up at the end of the current lesson. Some pupils really do irritate the instructor, there seems to be a pattern when it is pupils who act very arrogantly and think they are a far better driver than they actually are. The instructor finds it difficult to hide their frustration and irritation at these types of pupils. Lesson planning is difficult for the instructor, knowing what is the correct subject for the pupil and where – the instructor is trying to involve the pupil a lot more in the decision making. Too many rear end shunts are occurring in any given year, the instructor realises this can’t all be the responsibility of either the pupil or the vehicles behind, and the instructor really needs to work out why this is regularly happening. The timing of the lessons is difficult to judge correctly, often the de-briefs are either too short or too long depending on the accuracy of timing for getting back to the pupil’s address. Demonstrating forward planning to pupils is quite troublesome because the instructor does not feel entirely confident with ‘commentary driving’. The instructor is actively making attempts to tap into the thoughts and beliefs of pupils so that learning is not limited to being test-specific – this is not being applied all the time yet, but it is the long-term goal of the instructor.  



Consciously competent: 


The pupil has recognised that when approaching parked cars on both sides of the road with oncoming traffic, the sooner this is spotted and the foot comes off the gas, the easier it makes these dealing with these high pressure situations. The pupil was talking to a friend on the phone the other day about how their lessons are going, and as the conversation continued the pupil started to recognise just how much progress has been made and that they are not now making the same mistakes as the friend is. The pupil is realising that the instructor is not having to say so much, the lessons have got a different more relaxed vibe about them. The connection between tiredness levels and how hard a lesson is definitely affects how well the practice goes. Breathing deeply and regularly really helps the pupil when approaching potentially high stress situations. The pupil understands how to judge the importance of a range of driving errors. With effort and concentration, the pupil now recognises that it is possible to navigate roundabouts safely and efficiently.  



The instructor has a particular method of helping pupils recognise the use of mirrors in certain stages and it really works well. The instructor is better at chipping in with verbal help in a timely manner, there is now so much less physical intervention going on. Feedback to pupils is much more constructive now, the quality and timing of the feedback really helps to create trust within the working relationship. The instructor has recognised that it really is futile moving on to other subjects until the goal of the current practice has been achieved, when this point gets forgotten about, the consequences are very clear. It is noticeable that when measured, the result given of a mock test is very close to the result of an actual driving test. Safety levels and progress is better improved when there is a system for dealing with safety critical incidents.  


Unconsciously competent: 

The pupil can now operate a wide range of car controls without it having any adverse effect while driving. The act of driving feels a lot more natural now, and the pupil is not even realising how effortlessly they are driving around. The pupil is now driving in many different locations, managing technically difficult situations without even making mention of them.  


The instructor feels very comfortable with using intuition while providing driving training. Without having to make conscious observations, the instructor can now monitor the atmosphere in the vehicle for things like a pupil being overwhelmed or the vehicle complaining at what is happening. The working day is very comfortable, it is rare for anything untoward to occur without warning. Pupils are achieving high standards of passes on driving tests without any undue pressure. The instructor feels no ‘threat’ of a recall for a standards check. The instructor has the capacity and desire for learning more.  


A final sidenote for this episode is to explain that the above and in fact all of these episodes are an attempt to try to raise the awareness levels of what helps to be running a successful driving school. I appreciate that there will be ADI’s and even PDI’s who might consider the above onerous and I would happily concede that I need to put this in context. A driving instructor might provide a handful of 10 hours or so of driving lessons per week, and it represents more of a part-time venture*. Even then, the responsibility for outcomes in line with the regulator’s intentions remain; choosing to work with less pupils should not diminish the training standards for those few pupils. In addition to this, it is very easy I have noticed when working in isolation to become rather stale and dare I suggest that standards can quite easily actually decline with no intention on the part of the ADI. I am genuinely not saying this in a judgemental way or being critical of my fellow peers, it is quite literally my observation of one of the downfalls of working alone. When I consider my previous two careers there was a good deal of working in the ‘spotlight’ of being observed by others; this had the natural effect of maintaining standards of professionalism as I was very often being observed. Not so for driving instructors (and I would imagine quite a few other professions too), where we are working just with our pupil. Without the transparent use of the driving standard for example, how could a learner pupil or PDI have any knowledge of the thoroughness and scope of the training being provided? This is just one simple example (among many) of how trust can be nurtured in the working relationship for the benefit of all. 

*According to the DVSA driving instructor survey for 2023, 26% work 16-24hrs per week, and 38.8% work 25-34hrs per week.