The great tuition rip-off

The past few years, I’ve mostly been working as an agency driver. That was after a very inactive 18 months after leaving university, during which I tried to get office work, and never succeeded in getting more than a few days here and there, and most of it was just data entry. I had the skills, but for some reason, nobody was interested. Recently, driving work has been getting thinner and thinner on the ground, which has resulted in my spending almost all of what I earned in August and September. Over the past week, I saw two things which made me look into becoming a driving instructor, since with my clean 15-year driving record, I figured it was a skill I could pass on. One was a comment on a BBC article about bullying at work, by someone who said he’d escaped office life and its nasty culture to be his own boss as a driving instructor (here, but the post about being a driving instructor has gone - I wonder why?). The second was an advert on a jobs circular headlined “become a driving instructor”. I followed it up and was put in touch with an instructor training school in Wimbledon.

I was struck by how quickly they managed to get me in - despite my online application having got lost in the system, I asked them on the phone just after noon on Monday when the next available slot was. I was eventually told that I could come in that afternoon at 3:30 if I wanted, so that’s what I did. The woman running the intro immediately began giving a sales pitch, telling me and one other applicant that it was a job for life, that there is never any shortage of demand for driving lessons and never has been in the 30 years she has been an instructor, and that you can earn £30,000 a year - net, not gross. The cost was just short of £4,000, and included the tuition (as long as it takes), one shot at each of the tests (there are three), your first instructor’s licence (which you have to buy, having paid to take each test), the use of some tax accountancy firm, assistance in getting a job after completing the training, and subscription to a magazine.

It all seemed a bit too good to be true, so I asked if that wasn’t a “boom-time deal”, i.e. a product of the economic climate which prevailed until the credit crunch which is now going to go the way of so many of the “financial products” of that era. She said no, it had always been that way. If you could not stump up the money straight away, don’t worry - there was a 1-year interest-free finance deal available, and there was no way you couldn’t pay it back in that time (although if you didn’t, you’d get clobbered for interest) if you were taking home £600 a week.

Clearly, I went home very much interested, having assured them I would talk it over before committing myself. At that point, I was all but ready to do just that. That changed when I got home and did a brief Google search for the name of the college. Some of the complaints on forums like Gumtree may well have been from disgruntled pupils who did not make the grade but still paid for the package, but what stuck out was that several of the claims the saleswoman had made were flat-out lies. The inquiry led to this page, and to this report from the Guardian. What I wasn’t told in the talk included:

  • That there had been a general falling-off in uptake, due to falling birth rates in the 1980s
  • That there had been a sharp fall-off in uptake due to the economic situation
  • That the £30,000 net annual pay figure is for people who work flat-out (and therefore, should not be used to sell a one-year finance deal)
  • That, while just under half of people who take the first two tests (theory and driving) pass, less than 30% of people who take the third test pass.

I tried to get statistics out of this woman for how many people pass these tests. She responded “how long is a piece of string”. What a stupid answer! Of course, it’s not stupid if you are looking to hide the fact that if you take the test and you rely on the tuition they provide, and particularly if you don’t put in an awful lot of private study, you probably will not pass that test. You get three chances, and if you fail a third time, it is back to square one. She also said that the bit about one shot at the tests was a special offer, valid the first two weeks in November alone (i.e. it expires on Friday). I asked why the company whose name was on the adverts had a different name from the company whose offices I visited for the presentation, and was told that the driving school is just one of many schools for whom they train drivers, which is not true - they are in fact owned by the same parent company.

I also contacted a relative who had also gone through this same organisation ten years ago, and briefly worked for a major driving school before giving up. He told me that his tuition only cost £1,000 and that, while he did get work, it involved an awful lot of “dead time” and anti-social hours, and that costs such as the franchise fee (which is a fixed rate, which can be up to the first 14 hours of training you provide every week) will severely eat into one’s takings. His advice was “think twice”, which is exactly what I have done. I am no longer seriously considering using this organisation’s services. (Another relative of mine worked for a similar company based at Tolworth a few years ago, and did not like working there much, and also had a look at what Gumtree contributors said about them, and it amounted to “don’t go near them, they’re shysters”.)

While the tuition seems like a rip-off, the government are partly to blame for the ridiculous costs of becoming a driver, let alone a driving instructor. When I qualified to drive in the mid-1990s, lessons cost £10 a go if you did not go to a “name” driving school (it cost more if you did); the test, if I remember correctly, cost something like £35, and there was no theory test then. Now, the theory test alone costs £30 and the practical £56.50, or £67 in the evening or on a Saturday. Of course, if you do not pass first time, and most people do not (it took me four attempts), you will run up these costs several times. For a potential instructor, the theory test costs £80, and keep in mind that there are two more tests, which currently cost £99 (there are plans to increase this to £112, in the “DSA Business Plan 2008/9”). After you pass the third test, you have to apply for an ADI licence disc, which costs another £300 at present, and is valid only for four years.

(On the subject of licence discs: if you are getting driving lessons through a “name” driving school, there are two types of licence discs, one with a green octagon which signifies that the instructor is qualified, and one with a pink triangle, of all things, which signifies that he is a trainee. They pay them the same, believe it or not, but the pink triangle is valid for six months, although it can sometimes be renewed. If you want a fully-qualified instructor, try asking for one - or go to a one-man driving school, because only fully-qualified instructors can run their own schools.)

I find the obsession with “market logic” in running public services puzzling. These are public services. They are not providing a service to the drivers and instructors, but to the general public, by keeping incompetent drivers off the roads and making sure people are taught by decent instructors. Since we all benefit, surely they should be subsidised more by the taxpayers and less by people who want to drive, or teach people to drive, and do it by the book rather than be a menace on the road or a cowboy instructor? The same is true of motorway service stations: they are a social necessity to stop people nodding off at the wheel; but the services and food provided are sold at a premium. A common excuse is the cost of providing free parking, but surely things which benefit everyone, not just thost who directly use them, should be paid for by everyone?

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