Congratulations, you have just passed your part 3 ADI test, you are now a fully qualified driving instructor and the door to the driver training industry is now wide open to you but where do you go next? Shall you join a national driving school or a smaller local company or possibly take the bold step of going out on your own? It’s a tough choice and one we have all been faced with, and making the right choice can mean the difference from enjoying your new career and building a successful driving school or hating every minute and struggling to make it pay.
This is my story
I did my training with one of the big national driving schools, when I passed my part 3 test, I took a franchise with the same company. I remained with that company for 2 years which was the full duration of my franchise contract, I then moved on to a local driving school where I remained for 2 years which was the amount of time I (verbally) agreed with the driving school, then off I went out on my own as an independent driving instructor.
The national driving schools
I believed a franchise with a national driving school would be able to supply me with students at a faster rate than a franchise with a smaller driving school or trying to self-advertise as an independent driving instructor, and that would allow me to build up my student numbers and reputation at a faster rate. I wanted the security that I believed came with having a franchise with a large national driving school, to be perfectly honest I wanted a safety blanket, I was a new instructor with no students and no reputation and this was a good way to start.
To be honest it worked for me, I was given lots students quickly and my diary was almost always full, but wow it comes with a cost, both financially and in freedom.
You will get students whenever you need them, the bigger the driving school the more “power of recall” the company name has, we can use the AA as an example, almost everyone in the country knows of them and this is a big boost for advertising, add a large advertising budget and modern website to that power of recall and that will equal lots of students, which is ultimately what you want.
Most franchises with national driving schools come with a brand-new car which is fitted with dual controls, usually insured and fully maintained, and replaced if it breaks down, which saves you a lot of time and hassle dealing with cars.
You have back up (in theory), most large driving schools have a back-office team which are there to help you, from answering calls from the students, sometimes managing payments, to sorting out car breakdowns. And there are also a lot of other instructors around which can be a useful resource if you take the time to be social, but if I am honest I never really felt part of a team just “one more instructor”.
The contract is something you must read very carefully, the contract will always be in favour of the driving school, it will also be inflexible and unbreakable, when you are in it you are in it, and you are not completely free to make your own choices, at my first meeting as a new franchisee I was told “you work for yourself but within bars” and it was true. I worked according the instructions the driving school dictated, I had to operate my diary online fill in the required paperwork, the price and length of the lessons were set by the school. That said, I did find that the day to day running of my franchise was left to me, as long as operated my driving school in keeping with company rules, filled in the required paperwork on time and had no complaints from the students and of course paid the required fees on time then I was left to my own devices.
The franchise fees
WOW this is a bad part, I paid approximately £18000 per year (that was 10 years ago now) which is a staggering amount of money, and for that I got a new dual control car (fiat 500) stationary, access to my online diary and a back office to speak to new customers and take payments, however it is simply too much money to have to make before any annual profit is made.
Instructor saturation is a problem, there are so many of us working in the same area, instructors working for the same driving school begin to compete for work. I found the attitude of the company rather bad on this point, they simply said the best way to get work is to get personal recommendations, I got the impression from the driving school they had no interest in limiting the amount of driving instructors that worked a specific area. Which did not help me in as a self-employed driving instructor.When you contract is up and you are ready to leave, the company will as a general rule try and keep the students that given to you by the company and move them to other instructors that have franchises with them, this can leave you with a shortfall of work when you move on from a national driving school.
At the end of my two year contract with the national driving school I felt I was at the point where I no longer needed a company to supply me with all my work, I was at that point in time getting around 50% of my work from recommendations so I decided to cut out the large franchise fee that came with the national driving school and moved to a more local driving school in an attempt to decrease my costs and improve my profit margins while still having the backing of a school to supply me with any work I needed.
The franchise fees are far more agreeable, on average you should pay the equivalent of 3 hours of lessons per week, at the time I paid £276 per month which was £3312 per year a good saving on my previous franchise.
No contract, all they asked for was to be given 4 weeks’ notice of leaving and that was just a verbal agreement. There was also no doubt about me being able to keep the students I had working with me when I left, I had paid for the students with my franchise fee and they were mine to keep. Which is how it should be.
No real interference in my working life if my franchise fee was paid on time and they received no complaints from the students I had little contact with the company.
I found you had more help at your disposal if you needed it, while a small company does not have as many driving instructors or a large back office team working for them compared to a national driving school I found you have a closer relationship with instructors from small/medium driving schools than from the national ones, you also get to know the managers on a more personal level, which is helpful.
Instructor saturation, this problem is worse in a local driving school than a national school. I found the instructors in a small driving school will congregate around one or two test centres which will always lead to instructors who work for the same driving school competing. It always seemed to me that there were 2 instructors to many in any one area, which I guess was the only way to compensate the driving schools advertising budget.
You must get your own car, which can be a pain, should you buy or lease? I will do a separate blog on this subject. But you will also need to get dual controls fitted, specialist car insurance and so on.
Possibility that the students will not be there when you need them, to be honest I never had this problem my recommendation rate was always high enough that I only needed the school to top my diary up and as my time with the local driving school went by my recommendation increased to the 80% of my total work. But you should always keep in mind that local driving schools will have a limited advertising budget when compared to a national driving school.
In the end I had to take the final step and go out on my own, and to be blunt it’s a nerve racking thing to do, but I was getting 85/90% of all my work through recommendations at that point and the loss of some students did not outweigh the savings I made on my franchise fees, So I went for it!
Freedom! You are truly your own boss, and that is a good feeling. You can set the rules and have the freedom to do things your way.
You can save money, I say “can” because how much you can save will very much depend on how many students you can get through recommendation, self-advertising will come with a cost.
And Freedom again! It really is the main benefit!
You are on your own, and it can be a lonely place. You are responsible for everything, setting the standard for you driving school, finding the students, keeping your business running, car, stationary the lot! You simply remove the safety blanket that comes with the franchise option. You are responsible for everything!
Getting students, and that is not always as easy as it sounds, you will need to be able to put together a working advertising plan and remember you will be competing against the local driving schools, instructors that were once working with you will not be the competition on a different level than they were before.
If I knew then what I know now would I have still gone down the path I did? That is a good question, and the answer is for the most part yes, with a few changes which I will go over now.
I think I would have missed the national driving school and gone for a slightly larger local school, one that has instructors working at 3 or 4 test centres, for the most part they will be big enough to build up your pupil numbers fairly quickly and instructor saturation will not be such a big deal as it is with the more local driving schools. I would have saved money, a lot of money, and to be honest I did not really find the national driving school great value for money, but they did what I needed at the time, but I paid for it.
Going out on my own is still something I would have done, but you need to balance the desire for freedom against the potential hard work it can be being responsible for everything, with a franchise you can just ring up and say “I need more students” you can do that when you are on your own, You really do need to decide how much that freedom means to you.
Keep driving, stay safe and I hope to see you next time.
Graeme HowardFranchise managerUnion school of email@example.com