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Why Do Theory Test Pass Rates Vary by Area?

When there's a big test looming on the horizon, most of us tend to do everything we can to get ready for it. After all, preparation is the key to success! However, there may sometimes be factors beyond our control that, nevertheless, impact upon our chances of passing. Take the driving test, for example: while the format of the test is the same across the country, differing local road conditions mean that pass rates vary dramatically from place to place.

You wouldn't expect that this geographical variation also applied to the theory test. No matter where you are in the country, the test is taken indoors, sat at a computer—as close to a completely uniform test as possible. And yet, year after year, huge gulfs open up between the best and worst-performing test centres. So, why do theory test pass rates vary by area? We'll take a look at the stats to find out.

Which test centres have the best and worst pass rates?

Before look at the reasons why theory test pass rates vary by area, it's important to take a look at exactly which test centres we're talking about. We're not going to do a deep dive into the stats here—to find out more, you can check out our guide to theory test centre pass rates. We will, though, take a look at the top and bottom ten test centres in the country.

TOP TEN BOTTOM TEN
1 Isle of Tiree 83.3% 1 Driffield 24.4%
2 Isle of Arran 72.2% 2 Isles of Scilly 35.7%
3 Isle of Mull (Salen) 71.4% 3 Isle of Barra 39.1%
4 Axminster 64.2% 4 Bodmin 40.0%
5 Gairloch 62.5% 5 Peterhead 40.3%
6 Isle of Benbecula 60.0% 6 Ely 40.4%
7 Dereham 59.5% 7 Isle of Islay 41.4%
8 Kyle of Lochalsh 58.9% 8 Bradford 41.8%
9 Tongue 58.8% 9 New Romney 41.8%
10 Wick 57.9% 10 Skegness 42.4%

A few things are likely to jump out at you when looking at these stats. The first is that the top ten test centres are all found in rural areas, and are predominantly Scottish—the same kind of trend we see when it comes to practical test centres.

However, the bottom ten is a little unexpected. While there is a major city to be found on the list, this list is also dominated by rural test centres, including a couple of Scottish islands we'd normally expect to be much higher up the list. So, what's the reason? We'll take a look at a few possible explanations.

Statistical fluctuation

When a centre plays host to very few theory tests, each individual result matters more. One person passing or failing at Southwark test centre, for example, where 58,081 tests were taken in 2017/18, won't shift the figures very much. At the Isle of Mull (Salen) test centre, though, there were only 14 tests in total. 10 of those were passes—but if just one of these had slipped up, the pass rate would have dipped by 7%!

As a result, it shouldn't actually be too surprising to see a number of rural test centres in the bottom ten. When there are so few candidates every year, the luck of the draw comes into play. Take the aforementioned Isle of Mull test centre. It's made it into the top ten for four of the past five years—but in 2016/17, it had the second-lowest pass rate in the country, at just 29.4%.

With this in mind, it's also worth noting that—unlike practical test centres—the best and worst performing theory test centres tend to be quite inconsistent from year to year. There's no single test centre that's finished in the bottom ten for each of the past five years, and only one that's made it into the top ten five times in a row (Gairloch).

Nonetheless, we can still see some patterns. Bradford, for example, has finished near the bottom in four of the past five years, with Boston, Birmingham, Ilford, Luton and Uxbridge not far behind. Meanwhile, the Isle of Mull, Isle of Scilly and Ullapool all came close to equalling Gairloch's perfect record. Why are these test centres under- and over-performing?

More experience with driving

While the stats show that it's possible for a test centre in rural Scotland to have an off year, many test centres in the highlands and islands are amongst the consistent high performers—while England's cities provide many of those found hanging close to the bottom on a regular basis. It's an eerily similar pattern to that seen in the practical test—and it's unlikely this is purely coincidental.

Think about it: while the theory and practical tests play out in very different fashions, both of them rely on a solid foundation of driving knowledge. Of course, it's possible for someone who's never once sat behind the wheel of a car to acquire this knowledge using a theory test app—but those who've spent plenty of time on the road all of their life have an advantage.

In the countryside, where public transport may be scarce or non-existent, many rely on cars to get around. This means those living in rural areas are likely to become familiar with some of the basics of the road—such as the workings of a car and the meanings of road markings and traffic signs—well before they're eligible to drive for themselves. It may also be the case that learners in rural areas realise the enormity of the challenge in front of them and prepare better as a result—after all, if you see someone else driving often, you'll realise how complicated it can be!

City dwellers, meanwhile, often have greater flexibility in terms of catching a bus, tram, tube, or simply getting around on foot. As a result, the basic motoring knowledge that rural residents may see as second nature is not nearly as ingrained in urbanites. With this in mind, we can explain why test centres in the London, Birmingham and Bradford areas are among the few consistent poor performers.

Does the difference in pass rates matter?

While the rural/urban divide, poor preparation and even language barriers have all been proposed as possible reasons for differing theory test pass rates, one question hasn't yet been answered: does any of it matter?

It's certainly true that it can be disheartening to book your theory in, only to realise that six in every ten people who take their test at your local centre fail. However, it's important to remember that the theory test is ultimately the same at every test centre across the country. Travelling further afield won't give you an advantage here—the only way to increase your chances of success is to study hard!

Another reason why you shouldn't worry is that—outside of a few, generally very small outlying test centres—the difference in pass rates isn't too great. If we looked only at the test centres where there were a substantial number of tests taken (1,000 or more per year), the figures are far less dramatic.

Of the 142 test centres which hosted over 1,000 tests, Bradford's 41.8% pass rate is the worst—but at only 6.9% below the national average, it's not worth sweating over. Meanwhile, no fewer than 82 out of these test centres beat the average, with Tunbridge Wells' candidates doing best with an impressive 57.5% pass rate.

If you're still worried, then, the key is to start preparing. Here are a few of our top tips:

  • Get a solid knowledge of the Highway Code—all the multiple choice questions on your test will be based on its rules and regulations
  • Download the official DVSA Theory Test app for Android or iOS to prepare on the go
  • Don't forget to prep for the hazard perception section, where you'll need to click every time you see a developing hazard
  • Set aside time to study every day to get into good habits
  • Make sure to get a good night's sleep before the big day!

Want extra advice? Check out our guide on how to prepare for the theory test. Good luck!

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