In this interview with Tom Ingram (Owner of BIG TOM Driving School), he talks about the current status of driving training in the UK.
Before we start, can I ask what your general opinion is of driving training?
My experience since 2009 is in Learner training for driving cars, and driving instructors, so I would not comment on driving training outside of that scope. The situation is pretty poor. When we talk in general terms of “how good” an aspect of training is, we really must assess the end product of our endeavours properly. It is simply not smart to only consider pass rates. As it happens, the national pass rate performance is woeful in itself, but just as significant a measure is literally how well prepared are our newly qualified drivers for safe driving post-test. Car insurance premiums and the dependence on telematics (black box technology) in order to control driving behaviour would tend to suggest not too well.
And why are pass rates so low?
To answer that question, we really do need to examine in detail how we develop learning in our schooling in this country. Our education system is becoming increasingly standardised as schooling gets ever more fixated with grades and the UK position in the PISA tables. Our children and young adults have for decades, and increasingly continue, to be exposed to an educational culture which is based entirely on reducing the scope of learning subjects so that more and more time and effort is being directed towards preparing for tests in science, maths and English. And this is precisely what is happening in the driving training industry. These same young adults are conditioned to be fixated on tests; they have just spent 12 years within an educational environment that learns by testing, and the scope of the learning is defined by the test. As a result, the majority of the learner market involves people who are only interested in test standards – how could anyone criticise them for being so fixated with trying to understand how they pass the test? The problem unfortunately, is that they soon realise how this strategy used within academia literally does not work when learning a life skill such as driving. For starters the conduct of the assessment is not fixed and sterile as it is in an academic examination, and perhaps more importantly they soon recognise that whilst cramming with revision might be effective in achieving higher grades for exams, the passing of a driving test is not where the learning ends. Related to this subject is the message that re-taking of exams gives students; I understand that this modular way of teaching may be on the way out to the more traditional linear approach, and I would welcome this change as it certainly does not assist driving instructors when they are attempting to maximise driving competency rather than pitch training at the level of what is just about a driving test pass. On a more general point though, often learning to drive is quite simply under-estimated in terms of difficulty. Factors like poor modelling by qualified drivers, inaccurate perceptions from family members who trained decades ago, and not having the ability to overcome learning obstacles are examples of the difficulties some learners find it hard to come to terms with at times.
So you think the way we teach learners how to drive is not effective?
There are two aspects to that question. Firstly, look at it from the point of view of the “consumer”. The person who is wanting to pass the test (remember, that is how they describe their goal, not to “learn to drive”) is naturally looking for the least painful way to get that outcome. And then look at it from the trainers perspective – training providers are quite understandably influenced by the market; customers will be drawn to providers who create the least amount of ‘pain’. ‘Pain’ means different things to different learners: how soon they can get to test; how cheap they can receive lessons; how few lessons they endure before going to test; how uncomfortable the training is; how stressful the training is etc etc. So as a result of this fact, we have had a general “dumbing down” of driving training within the industry, whereby instructors are providing lessons at rates of less than £20/hr, driving training that only covers test routes, and customers are swapping between instructors constantly in order to find someone who will just take them to test. Unfortunately, there is too much emphasis on “teaching” pupils on driving lessons, that tends to be centred around driving tests, rather than concentrating on the “learning” that is taking place which is centred around the pupils needs.
Do all driving instructors take that approach?
No – but if you were a parent searching the internet for a driving instructor and came across some of the spectacularly low prices and/or claims of “guarantees” that are being made, you would be hard pushed not to be attracted to these marketing gimmicks.
What makes a good driving instructor then?
This is something very close to my heart. What makes a good teacher in a school? For me, I think it is all about relationships. If we have 2 people working within a learning environment which is based on trust, respect, effective communication and understanding, then good outcomes will result. Driving instructors are trained to pass a test that is assessed by how they deal with driving faults that are introduced in a role-play by the examiner. As such, instructors become trained within a culture that is fault based, so they become fixated with spotting driving faults and the subsequent work needed to reduce those driving faults. Even the driving test for learners is fault based, marking only driving faults committed. This can lead to a thoroughly miserable learning environment for all concerned. The idea that pupils like to be constantly told when they are making driving errors is extremely old-fashioned and out of date. When I was training to be a Police Officer at Peel Centre in Hendon, London in 1996, the roleplays were concluded with feedback to the participants that were based on “What went well and why?” – that was 1996, 20 years ago! And yet driving instructors up and down the country are still being trained to constantly bombard a pupil with verbal feedback about how bad they are, and how they keep on making mistakes. This is not smart business. It does not make happy customers, and it is not effective learning. But, and it is a big but, if that driving school is offering driving lessons at very cheap rates, then that miserable learning environment could be construed as the price the customer pays for getting cheap driving lessons.
That does not sound good if I’m being honest.
It isn’t. We are letting down our younger generation. The way we do schooling has not changed for decades: pupils are labelled with learning difficulties unnecessarily as they resist a thoroughly miserable learning environment; the structure of the school day remains untouched; pupils are required to do ever more homework; the passion for learning is slowly but surely squeezed out of our younger generation as they endure year after year of learning to pass exams within an increasingly restricted curriculum. Any possibility of pupils discovering a love of a certain kind of music, dance, sport or art are rapidly diminishing as all the time and effort is being placed on the tests for English, Maths and Science. If employers are feeling increasingly frustrated at the attitude and ability of our younger generation when they come into the workplace, perhaps those business leaders should start understanding exactly what children and young adults are having to endure for the first 12 years of their school life.
How do you go about training learners?
The ethos of my driving school is “Drive more, to experience more, to learn more”. I actively discourage my driving instructors to be sitting at the side of the road “lecturing” customers for prolonged periods. For sure there are times when a conversation based around a pupils beliefs, expectations or what influences their driving behaviour can be extremely effective but collectively, driving instructors across the country, really do have a responsibility to be creating a learning environment that is inspiring, stimulating, safe and based on building experience. It is building layers of experience that increases confidence and competence within pupils. There is too much of treating all learners the same; whilst this is perfectly understandable given the way in which driving instructors are assessed and therefore trained, it really is not good enough. My driving school has always been concerning itself with developing self-independent drivers; a driver who is able to adapt and figure out what to do when they do not know what to do. Driving is a complex activity, there are many odd situations that can crop up – driving instructors do not have any hope in attempting to “teach” their pupils what to do in all the different situations that can develop, but what they can influence is the ability of the pupil to cope independently as and when appropriate – that skill of self-learning is vitally important and more really should be done within the schools so that young adults come out of the process being more able to then learn life-skills such as driving.
Is there light at the end of the tunnel?
Where I live in Lincolnshire, we have very challenging road conditions and far too many serious accidents. Evidence from many sources is suggesting that newly qualified drivers are unable to navigate safely around them. If, as a driving instructor that does not prick your attention and trigger some reflection, then it makes you wonder what will. Ultimately, bear in mind what I said earlier about assessing the end product, if road safety is declining, especially at the rate in which we are currently experiencing in Lincolnshire, then that demands analysis, fresh thinking and ultimately change – it is a bit like our schooling over the decades, without change, the end product will be lacking. This time last year I joined the 3 major driving instructor associations in the UK and I went out and attended conferences, AGM’s, training days, and enrolled on courses. Whilst there are glimmers of light, they are in general, overshadowed by the overall malaise generated by what can only unfortunately be described as 60+ year old males who have been in the industry so long that they have become bitter, twisted and unfortunately only contribute towards creating a depressing anchor on aspiration. Wise they may well be, but effective they certainly are not. If ever there were a time when this industry needs younger, feminine input, it is right now. But the industry appears to me to be pretty entangled in assessment and testing – training providers, customers, peers, even the DVSA are all consumed in the testing side of things, and I think it is a great shame. The industry is falling into the same trap as is happening in education, it is consumed in ‘standardisation’ and the testing phase is heavily affecting the quality of the training phase.
BIG TOM Driving School provides 5 Day Intensive Driving Courses in Peterborough, Grantham, Lincoln, Sleaford, Stamford, Boston, Spalding and Bourne. Contact us HERE