Never Giving Up: the A1 Driving School
Sarah started her career as a driving instructor over 14 years ago.
Inspired by her driving instructor in Cardiff, she went on to obtain a Diploma in Driver Education (Dip DE) which gives her more in-depth knowledge than the average driving instructor.
Sarah uses her many skills as an assessor in driving education with her business, A1 Roadskills, in Haverfordwest, along with her partner and a dedicated team of nine instructors.
Mallan House Theory Training Centre was opened the week after her beloved father passed away. It is named for her dad, Alan, and her mum, Marilyn.
All of her team have diversity training and come from a background of working with people with learning disabilities.
“My dad was a wheelchair-user so I learned early on of the importance of mobility to one’s self-esteem and independence. You can blend in a car and with suitable adaptations, most people can drive. Being able to drive is freedom.”
Sarah started to work with people who were anxious. She realised that some instructors gave up, which affected pupils’ confidence. People started to come to her and her successes quickly grew.
“My view is that you never give up. Sometimes it takes a long time, the longest was 18 months, but I tell people: ‘I will hold on to your ankles. I won’t let go.’ When people pass, they are so excited and happy.”
You must have to be very adaptable and creative.
Sarah agrees: “We found that the theory test was presenting so many challenges to people who might have autism, dyslexia or anxiety, so we designed a structured programme tailored to meet the needs of each individual.
“There is so much to think about, including environment. We have hosted theory tests at the training centre because the access to the local training centre has about 27 steps. The next nearest training centres are either Swansea or Aberystwyth.”
That sounds like a huge barrier for disabled people.
Sarah says: “We understand about accessibility. Our training centre is open and painted white. No distractions. We prepare people not just for their test but for the whole experience of being at the Theory Centre. There are more security checks there than at the airport which is intimidating for anyone. If you are challenged with anxiety, or a spectrum disorder, we know you will need to manage the feelings that can overwhelm you. We do all of this in preparation, before the test.”
What else does she do to support disabled pupils?
“We work very much on an individual basis. For example, we will do our best to match people with cars that will be best for them. Even colours can be an issue for some people. Then there are other sensory issues. One autistic girl I worked with would keep taking her hands off the wheel. I realised that she didn’t like the feel of the steering wheel, so I put different covers on. She chose the furry cover. We have some people who used ear-defenders so they can still hear me, but the engine noise, which made them anxious, is toned down.
“I realised with one person who kept touching the roof of the car that if I stuck some of the same fabric on the side of the steering wheel, they would be able to focus better.”
Sarah sees being able to drive as life-changing freedom.
“Everyone has a folder with homework and a plan of what is happening next. Some of my pupils ask for homework for mum and dad too. Families join in. Lots of them come to theory sessions and they are welcome in the car. Whatever helps my pupil feel confident.”
Having helped hundreds of people from a variety of cultures, including Filipino, Chinese, Syrian and Romanian, to enjoy this freedom of the open road, she stresses that English not being someone’s first language is no bar to learning to drive. Neither is age. Her youngest pupils start off-road at aged 14. Her oldest pupil was 81. They are all taught, not just the pleasure but also the huge responsibility of being a driver.
While obviously a warm and caring person with her pupils, Sarah is quite fierce about bad driving.
“We offered free lessons about a year ago to help people understand about the roundabout at Morrisons, Haverfordwest, which everyone complains about.”
Sarah has shown me how to negotiate that roundabout correctly, so I know how valuable that lesson is.
What does Sarah think is the worst reason for bad driving?
“As far as I am concerned, people thinking they are better drivers than they are. It’s very dangerous. The other main problem is speeding. The two often go together.”
What would Sarah do to make our roads safer?
“I would redesign the roads and put in proper cycle paths like in Europe. People get upset about cyclists but it’s an older form of transport than the car, and bikes have the right to use the road safely. I would also insist on standard indicators on cars, as the variety is distracting. The weird and wonderful array of indicator lights on cars is very confusing.”
“Drivers should indicate more,” she goes on. “ And I think everyone should read the highway code… update their knowledge every three years. There are 3,017 rules in there at the moment.”
Sarah hasn’t confined her driving to the UK. She has driven all over Europe, citing Italy as a bit of a nightmare. “Driving in Italy is rather erratic and the roads are full of potholes.”
She laughs: “It makes driving in Pembrokeshire feel like a dream.”
She has also been to Doha, in Qatar, five times to run a driving education programme for the biggest fertiliser company in the world.
“I get treated like a queen there,” she smiles. “Chauffeured to work at 6am, finishing at 1pm because of the heat.”
To contact Sarah: