Driving school scams
This page was written way back in 2003 when the driving school industry was very different to how it is today. Since then, big improvements have been made due to the introduction of the standards check and tighter scrutiny of driving instructors.
Cowboy driving schools are now the exception rather than the rule and I like to think that 1stDrive.com played a part in that.
The points on this page may still be valid but this page has been left up mainly for historical reasons to show how things used to be. May those days never return!
Most driving instructors are great people that work hard every day to make the roads safer and give you the freedom that only driving can bring.
Sadly there are also many cowboy instructors out there who are more interested in taking you for a ride than helping you learn. Tales of dragged out lessons and hidden charges are common but at some schools the problems go much deeper.
None of the information on this page refers specifically to any school. These are general points to look out for, whoever you choose to learn with.
Misleading intro offers
Many schools offer 5 lessons for £50, 10 for £99 etc but these seemingly cheap offers can end up costing you a fortune. It’s often not the first 5 cheap but the 1st, 5th, 10th, 15th etc so you have to pay for expensive lessons in between. If you leave they’ll keep the deposit you paid. These offers only apply to complete beginners so most pupils won’t get them anyway.
The biggest problem of all with these offers is that if you don’t like your instructor then you won’t get your money back. I’ve met dozens of pupils who paid £100 up front for 10 hours and after 2 hours they didn’t want anymore and were refused a refund or change of instructor. Those “cheap” lessons have just cost you £50 an hour. It’s just a con to hook you in and get you on their books and then they don’t care about you.
Why do so many schools do these offers? Because they allow people who aren’t fully qualified instructors to work for them. You get used as a guinea pig for them to practice on and they need so many pupils to feed them all that they have to do these silly offers to get lots of pupils in. You can read about that in my next point.
Trainee driving instructors
Did you know that many driving schools have instructors that aren’t even qualified? They take on people to work as instructors while they’re still training. These people pay the school £100+ per week for a car and work. Over 70% of these people fail their exams because they can’t teach and yet they are out there teaching you. The schools don’t care because they’re making millions a year.
Always ask to see an instructors ADI badge such as the one in the picture below. If it’s pink and not green then they aren’t fully qualified. If they can’t show you a badge then they are teaching illegally because all instructors must have the badge with them by law whenever teaching.
Being a trainee instructor isn’t a scam. It’s the way that some schools hide it that I don’t like. I think that it should be made clear to any pupil that their instructor is still a trainee. Just being fully qualified doesn’t mean they’re any good though, as you can read about in my next point.
Fully qualified driving instructors are known as ADI’s (Approved Driving Instructors) and have a green badge like the one above
Fully qualified instructors
Some schools boast about how all of their instructors are fully qualified. Fully qualified they may be but experienced they’re not! Very often these fully qualified instructors have never taught a real learner before. They may have just qualified last week and have only ever taught other instructors and examiners that were pretending to be pupils. This is why sometimes a trainee instructor can be more experienced and better than a fully qualified instructor! At least a trainee instructor is out there on the road getting experience with real learners.
When I was a trainee I told everyone and offered discounts to make up for my lack of experience. When the manager of the branch I worked at found out he went mad but I think it was only fair.
There is one national school that used trainee instructors for years and then suddenly turned their backs on them. They starting boasting about how all of their instructors are fully qualified and that you should never learn with a trainee. They were quite happy to use trainees for years to grow their business and made millions off them but now they’re stabbing them in the back.
I emailed this school pointing out that if they hated trainees so much then they should refund everyone who ever learnt with a trainee while at their school. I never had a reply.
In 2018 they have now started using trainee instructors again…
Drive on your first lesson
“Drive on your first lesson!” can be translated into “We aren’t teaching properly!”. It sounds good because you’ll get to drive on your first lesson and not be sat chatting for an hour. The problem is that these schools often just take you out and put you into situations that you aren’t ready to handle to try and impress you to make themselves look great.
I worked at a school once that promised people they’d be driving in the first hour. We were told to get people turning corners, doing reversing etc. on the first lesson so that the pupils would tell their friends how much they did on their first lesson, they’d all be impressed and want to learn with our school too. It’s just a sales gimmick.
With a good driving instructor you would spend at least 15 minutes talking about the controls of the car because you need to know what they are. What happens if you need to brake but the instructor hasn’t told you which pedal the brake is?
You should only drive a short distance on your first lesson. Not because you’re being ripped off, because you need to learn to walk before you can run.
On February 20th 2013, Police in London arrested a driving test examiner along with several instructors who had been issuing licences for payments of £3000 a time. Click here to see a BBC report on the story.
Some big schools are happy to use a brand name to attract pupils. When you come to complain you find out that the big name wants nothing to do with you. All driving instructors are self employed and those working for big names are just renting a car with a logo on. They may use the big name to attract work but as soon as anything goes wrong the company won’t want to know and you’ll be told that you need to complain directly to the instructor.
Many pupils choose to learn with a big brand because they think they only have the best instructors. Not true; if their instructors are so good then why don’t they have their own school? Instructors at some big schools get work because the company spends millions on advertising. Instructors, or driver trainers, such as myself attract work through recommendations and reputation. Which is the better reason for choosing an instructor?
Don’t be fooled by big names. Some of them will take on anybody because the more instructors they have, the more money they make. They don’t have better instructors and there are often no interviews to pass to work for a school. Make a complaint and you’ll get the standard reply – “All our driving instructors are self employed and we cannot be held responsible for their actions.”.
Dragged out lessons
I’d say this is the most common thing pupils of mine that have come to me from other schools complain of. After 6 months of lessons the instructor had only just let them book their theory test and a year later they were still taking lessons with no mention at all of a test.
I let pupils book a driving test after the first lesson, you can move it 3 times or get a refund if you aren’t ready and you can book it weeks away if needed. There are often waiting times of several months for driving tests so booking one should be one of the first things you do.
Some schools charge by the lesson and not by the hour. For example they could charge £15 a lesson but the lesson is only 45 minutes long. That’s the same as £20 per hour, it just looks cheaper. Another trick used is finishing every lesson 10 minutes early and hoping pupils won’t notice. 10 minutes out of 20 lessons is over 3 hours you’ve lost.
Some schools may use phrases to trick you. “DVSA approved/registered instructors” means they use trainees. They are DVSA approved – to train! If they say “Fully qualified instructors” that doesn’t mean they’re all fully qualified. “Years of experience”. Experience of what? Not teaching. I know of one instructor who had only been teaching for 1 year and yet he claimed “years of experience”. He meant of driving, not teaching.
High pass rates
Lots of schools claim the highest pass rate but they can’t all have the highest. Some only count pupils that eventually pass. If pupils fail 3 tests then pass they still call that a 100% pass rate. If a pupil fails 3 times then leaves they don’t count that. Heads i win, tails you lose! Try asking schools for proof of these pass rates and see what excuses they come up with. See my myths of the driving test page for more details.
Free 2nd tests
The second test isn’t always as free as it seems if you fail the first because you sometimes have to pay for another 10 hours before they’ll book it. That’s £200+ to get a “free” test worth £62. If you needed 10 more hours of lessons then why did they take you for the first test anyway? Another trick is that you need to take a minimum number of hours, usually 50 or more, before your 1st test to qualify.
Hidden charges in the small print
Some schools have lots of charges hidden away in tiny print such as the test fee where you need to pay up to £100 on the day of your test. Others include paying for damage to the car when there is none, a fee for leaving the school, a charge of £10 for moving a lesson or £1 for booking a lesson.
I used to work at a national school and when I booked in three tests in the same week and they went mad at me. “Never do more than one test per month or you’ll use up pupils too quickly and we won’t meet our targets!!” they said. Top selling staff can get bonuses such as free European holidays but your test will be delayed for months to pay for them.
Fastest growing schools
Lots of schools claim to be the fastest growing in the area. It makes me laugh when i read this because it should be about quality, not quantity. It’s better to be the slowest growing school with good instructors than just be taking on anybody for the sake of being the fastest growing.
Constant price rises
Fuel goes up all the time but some schools use this as an excuse to add £1 an hour on your lessons every few weeks. It’s a myth that it costs a lot to insure a learner car, it costs £430 a year to insure a brand new Fiesta to teach in. They just want you to think it’s a lot to give them an excuse to keep putting prices up
Pass in 5 days scams
Cowboys love crash courses because they can take large amounts of money off people. The promise of a quick, easy licence is too much for some pupils to resist. Pupils I’ve taught who have been on some of these courses had 30 low quality hours rushed into a week with vital topics such as crossroads completely missed out to save time. The tests can be booked miles away, hardly anyone gets to do the test and those that do rarely pass based on the ones I’ve met.
No school can guarantee you’ll pass. What they sometimes mean is they’ll charge around £2000 up front and keep booking tests until you eventually fluke it. I’ve met people who have taken 8 tests on these schemes and then been refused anymore or a refund. Why not just teach properly in the first place? Because they can’t teach.
I would never guarantee a pass because I’m too experienced for that. Only a novice would be stupid enough to guarantee that anybody will pass. How can they guarantee you will pass when it’s you, not them, taking the test?
Extra charges for evenings/weekends
Why should you have to pay more for evenings and weekends? Do the tyres wear down faster on a Saturday? Does the car burn fuel twice as fast on an evening? No, it’s just another way of exploiting people who aren’t free in the daytime
Extra charges for booking tests
Only ever book your theory/practical tests via the official DVSA website. There are several sites and schools now offering to book tests for you. but they’ll charge you more for something you could do yourself. The theory test costs £31 but they will charge £50. Many people have paid £100 for a practical test that should only cost £62.
Free theory training
The free training is sometimes designed to take weeks to finish. This delays you taking your theory test and the practical test so you have to spend more on lessons. All instructors do free theory training anyway. If you ask us what a road sign means we aren’t going to charge you extra.