I was interested to note that the BBC’s consumer affairs programme, Watchdog, subjected the British School of Motoring to the Anne Robinson treatment this week. I was curious because I first started learning to drive with BSM about twenty-odd years ago, and I was interested to see just how much recent reports compared with my experience. Let’s just say that said experience didn’t quite live up to my expectations at the time.
I think the problem was more down to the fact that I got a bad driving instructor rather than BSM itself though. I’ve known people to learn with BSM without any problems whatsoever. Whether you’re with a large driving school or an independent, it largely boils down to what kind of an instructor you get: some of them are very good, others are not so good. Unfortunately, I drew the short straw.
He advised us that I’d need about 24 lessons to get through my test, and told Dad not to let me anywhere near the family car that we had at the time — a Rover 2600 — because its 2.6 litre engine was “too big for a learner driver.” While this sounded reasonable enough advice at the time, I sometimes wonder if it was a bit of an excuse to make sure that my entire driving experience would be restricted to the lessons so he’d get more money.
There were two other problems with him.
- He would start every single lesson putting me in the front passenger seat and driving me off to a “quiet back road” to start off. This would typically be nearly ten miles away and would use up half an hour of every lesson. On top of that, he was always late, never apologised but only made excuses, and sometimes cancelled lessons for the most ridiculous reasons, such as “fog” — on a perfectly clear day.
- Although he was normally very friendly and chatty, when I got behind the wheel he would shout at me for tiny, ridiculous things. I’m not talking about dangerous mistakes: I’m talking about taking too long at roundabouts, stalling the car, failing to find the biting point of the clutch quickly enough, and other things that every learner driver does over and over again.
I had fourteen lessons with him before I eventually sacked him after a particularly disastrous episode in which he blew his top at me for telling him that a roundabout we’d just crossed had five exits instead of four. This is the roundabout in question: judge for yourself how many exits it has.
Folks, if your driving instructor treats you like that, for your own sanity’s sake, sack him immediately. Unless you are wantonly and deliberately being a jerk, it is totally inexcusable for your instructor to shout at you. You will make mistakes, you will stall the engine, you will be hesitant and cautious, you will screw up, and you will lose your nerve. Everybody does: it’s called “learning.” You have L plates on the car to warn other drivers that you’re learning and that they need to give you space. Your instructor has dual controls to stop you from putting your life at risk. If he puts you in situations that you can’t handle because you’re not ready for them, that’s his fault, not yours. Shouting at you just causes you to lose your nerve, make more mistakes, and get less value for money out of the lessons. It robs you of your confidence and it could even be dangerous.
Likewise, while your instructor may occasionally be late or have to cancel, this should be the exception rather than the rule. If he is late, you have the right to a full hour’s tuition if that is what you paid for. If he cancels a lesson that you have already paid for, you have a right to a refund. With the possible exception of your first lesson, you should expect to be put in the driver’s seat as soon as you are picked up, and stay in it till you return home. Being driven twenty minutes to a starting point ten miles away is not tuition, and not what you are paying for.
I eventually passed my test after five lessons with a local independent instructor called Colin Blackwell. He was consistently on time, gave me full value for money, and never once raised his voice. His policy was to encourage his pupils to get as much practice as they possibly could from the word go, and he frequently got them through their tests after only half a dozen lessons or so. And the car in which I passed my test? The Rover 2600.