Some tough lessons about how to pay for a driving school

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In 2021 we bought our 17-year-old a voucher for lessons with Ooosh! driving school and paid £600 by bank transfer. Shortly afterwards, the instructor, Mike Vallis, said there had been a “family tragedy” and he couldn’t start the lessons for a few weeks. After a couple of months we tried to contact him, but he couldn’t be reached.

Ooosh! said he’d been dropped because he was unreliable. It eventually arranged for another instructor, but said we would have to pay again as fees are paid directly to instructors. Since April, we have been trying to get a refund of our initial £600 from Ooosh! and Vallis.
SH, Omeath, County Louth

You say you chose Ooosh! because it’s a familiar name in the north-west of England, where you were living at the time, and offers courses across the country. You trusted the brand.

What you didn’t know is that most driving schools are franchises. Customers’ contracts are with individual instructors who pay the school a fee to use their name.

You didn’t know this because the terms and conditions on the Ooosh! website made no mention of it. In fact, they specifically referred to the school’s responsibilities if a lesson is postponed. You say no T’s & C’s were provided with the voucher.

Jamie Traynor, managing director of Ooosh!, tells me he has helped “over 70” other customers obtain a refund from Vallis. “The school doesn’t handle any money, all instructors are self-employed and handle payments from learners,” says Traynor. “We thoroughly vet instructors, and Mike initially had a good relationship with his learners, but then we started getting complaints he was unreliable.”

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Traynor insisted the terms and conditions were clear, although the reference to the school’s responsibilities has since been removed.

When I tracked down Vallis, he claimed he’d unwittingly overbooked his diary and found himself unable to fulfil, or refund, the lessons customers had paid for.

He said he also failed his instructor training lessons three times and blamed Ooosh! for failing to mentor him. “I fully intend to refund SH if I had the money, but this has broken my mental health and I’m unable to work,” he said.

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It may come as a surprise to know that trainee instructors are allowed to give paid-for lessons before they have passed their qualifying exams, provided they are registered on the Driver & Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) database as a potential driving instructor (PDI).

Customers with concerns about a potential, or approved, instructor can complain to the DVSA, which can prohibit them from teaching if they are found to have breached regulations. However, the DVSA can only investigate registered instructors, and Vallis’s PDI registration has expired. Nor does it have powers to enforce refunds.

People can go down the small claims track. But this opens a new can of worms. If a county court judgment is won, it may not be enforceable if the person has insufficient assets. However, there could be a case against Ooosh!, according to Gary Rycroft, a consumer lawyer and partner at Joseph A Jones.

“The school’s argument that it acts as an agent only is undermined by the terms and conditions which refer to it being an active party to delivery of services under the contract,” he said. “On the face of it, an argument that it is not responsible for performance of the contract would fail.”

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Learner drivers should try to pay by credit card so they can claim against their bank under section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act if there is a breach of contract. Debit card payments may be protected by the voluntary chargeback scheme. Most important, learners should ensure that they choose an approved instructor from the DVSA database.

But here’s another surprise. Instructors can opt out of appearing on the online database, so anyone wanting to check out an individual who does not appear has to call the DVSA and endure its automated queueing system.

Why? The DVSA wouldn’t say, but it did tell me it’s recently consulted on possible changes to how it publishes this information.

On the right road for good news

It’s healthful for our collective blood pressure to hear of companies that demonstrate they value their customers:
I bought my boyfriend a small box of chocolates from Hotel Chocolat. When we opened them later that day some had melted. I messaged the company on Instagram, and within an hour it had apologised. The next day a voucher arrived exceeding the cost of the original box!
BL, Exeter

I bought a pair of Wilkinson Sword loppers with a 10-year guarantee two years ago for £40. They developed a fault and I contacted EP Barrus, which owns the brand. I received a reply within an hour and a replacement three days later.
NP Stroud, Gloucestershire

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