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Colleges gear up for driving test windfall

Colleges are revving up to share in the lucrative new driving theory test market worth up to Pounds 150 million a year in teaching and exam fees.

With around 1.5m first-time drivers a year required to take the test from July 1, rich pickings are promised.

"It's the only crash course I know designed to improve safety," said the spokesman for one of the first colleges on track for the cash. "The Government may have put the brakes on spending on colleges but that won't push us off course."

One in four colleges - most of those currently involved in vehicle training and maintenance courses - are expected to rally round. Schemes just about up and running range from Swansea's Coleg Gorseinon's Pounds 30-a-course driving school theory class (inclusive of Pounds 13 exam fees) to the National Extension College Pounds 90 course, designed with the help of the AA and Associated Examining Board.

New Government regulations, designed to improve safety and driving standards, particularly among the young, set the wheels in motion. The AEB with City and Guilds were first off the grid. With a 10-year history of road user courses, they are launching a Certificate in Road User Studies this summer.

Successful candidates are likely to be exempt the new theory test, controlled and accredited by the Government's Driving Standards Authority. More than 100 schools and colleges inquired about the new AEBCG courses and resources in just three days. The two boards are even planning a GCSE in car studies for 1999.

George Turnbull, AEB spokesman, said: "Every student approaching 17 is thinking about their driving test and first car. If we can instil the sense of safety, all the better. In the United States it is common for school and college students to take practical exams in driving and win concessions giving them their licence earlier."

The new market could bring every college 2,000 extra short-course students a year for courses leading to the 40-minute multiple-choice paper of 35 questions. These are to be taken from 600 possible questions to be laid down by the Driving Standards Agency.

Colleges expect to offer 10 to 12-hour courses. Some will add the incentive of free driving lessons. Bolton already does this, teaching "safe driving" as part of its motor vehicle studies course, in partnership with the local authority, traffic police and District Driving Instructors Association.

The biggest Government contract, worth Pounds 70 million has already gone to the private consortium DriveSafe Ltd, which will administer the tests and mark papers for 140 centres (including some colleges). Many colleges have spotted other markets as tuition centres, approved test centres and support teams for private driving schools.

David Lloyd Jones, spokesman for Coleg Gorseinon, said: "Driving schools have been wondering how they can teach the theory. Some are considering hiring rooms in hotels or business centres and running courses."

As demand surges, he is keen not to see disappointed students left crying on the hard shoulder.

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