It was only a matter of time before disgraced ‘educational guru’ Yolande Beckles hit the headlines yet again for her murky financial dealings. Yes, four years after she disappeared from Britain, the Independent on Sunday have tracked her down to Hollywood, where she’s up to the same old tricks.
Why should this bother me? Well, me and Yolande go back a long way.
Yes, yours truly is not only one of the many people she’s conned, but I’m actually the man who closed down her former company, Global Graduates. Spare the applause and prepare yourself for a tale of femme fatale treachery and double crossing that would make Raymond Chandler moist.
Back in 2006, the BBC launched a three-part TV series hailing Beckles as the new tough talking woman on a mission to bring old fashioned values back to Britain’s education system. Don’t Mess With Miss Beckles treated us to the sight of her failing to make any difference whatsoever to the academic performance of school students in various parts of the country.
Despite being a BBC Birmingham production, the city of Birmingham didn’t make it on Yolande’s tour itinerary. Little wonder. For Birmingham is where you’ll find most of the skeletons in Miss Beckles’ closet.
Beckles came to Birmingham in 2002 with her company Global Graduates, having secured a major deal with BASS, the city’s education authority, to deliver two courses to a range of students across the city. Young Graduates was aimed at 14-15 year old students who were doing well at school, offering a fast-track to university for the most talented kids. Making The Grade, on the other hand, was for kids of the same age who were talented but not doing well – this course was designed to get them back on track and motivate them to succeed.
I was working as a freelance copywriter at the time but had had a colourful background in teaching and TV production; a triple talent that was of particular interest to Yolande.
A TV acquaintance called one Friday morning to tell me Global Graduates needed someone to teach a Study Skills class the following morning. I went along to talk to them and met Yolande Beckles for the first time. She was holed up in acres of very expensive office space in Millennium Point. She talked passionately and persuasively about her mission to get kids motivated and into university to fulfil their wasted talent.
It struck a chord with me because I’d gone to a crap Birmingham comprehensive and left it with a handful of embarrassing qualifications and no idea what a university actually was, let alone a notion that anyone could go to one. I only finally got to uni as a mature student after ten years of McJobs and got a First in English Literature, so I knew all about wasted talent. I decided to go along for the ride.
And what a ride she took me on.
The real story
I taught classes on both schemes throughout the summer of 2002. The Young Graduates classes were very rewarding, composed as they were of motivated children who wanted to do well. Making The Grade was another matter though: the scheme struck me immediately as badly organised. Hordes of kids were bussed in from all over the city for a week of classes, and I was the only teacher there on the first day. I struggled to captivate a group of 43 kids, most of whom I could tell had been shunted out of their schools for a day, much to the relief of their teachers. These weren’t the kids who were ‘talented but not doing well’; many of them were educationally challenged to say the least, and handling 43 of them turned out to be the worst teaching day of my life. A day that led me to cross ‘school teacher’ off my list of possible career paths.
Yolande was significantly absent that day, but by the end of the week she’d drafted in other teachers to help and a sense of sanity had returned. But it was the first hint that all was not well at Global Graduates.
On 6 June 2002 I met with her at her College of Law office in London to discuss a number of copywriting jobs. She hired me to write two major pieces: the Diversity in Law report, and a 60,000-word booklet to be published by Trotman & Co ltd entitled The Real Story, which would be a no-nonsense guide to the law sector for ethnic minority students
I worked away on both reports throughout June-November, whilst also dealing with other leaflets and brochures for which she needed snazzy copy. It seemed perfect. I’d landed two well-paid writing jobs that would sort me out financially for a good few months; the client was happy with the work I’d done and now regarded me as her own personal copywriter. Which is pretty much as good as it gets when you’re a struggling freelance writer.
Then we hit the iceberg.
On Thursday 4 July, 2002, Yolande emailed her staff to tell us that BASS, Birmingham’s education authority, had refused to pay Global Graduates for the Making The Grade course. The large team of workers in Birmingham never found out exactly why, but there were rumours that BASS had objected to bad organisation and mismanagement. Yolande took it as a personal affront and threatened high court action through her lawyers, promising that payment would soon arrive for all her trainers and myself whose invoices hadn’t been met. A fortnight later, the Millennium Point office was closed down as they looked for new premises in Birmingham.
As Yolande had assured me the money would come through, I continued working on the two reports and delivered the Diversity in Law copy to her satisfaction. Throughout the period I kept emailing her asking what the situation was regarding BASS and when I was going to get paid for my work. Expenses were getting tight and I was starting to borrow from friends and family. Then, in September, BASS made an ‘interim’ payment and Yolande came to Birmingham to meet with the team and give out some cash. She’d already opened a new (much smaller) office in the city and the staff there were preparing for the next academic year.
It was the last time I saw Yolande face to face. We talked in a café bar and she was full of plans for the future and, I remember, spitting hatred for some stuffed shirt with whom she’d just had a fruitless meeting. It was symptomatic of her growing tendency to portray herself as a misunderstood visionary constantly being screwed by myopic bureaucrats. But it was the people around that table, the staff who’d stuck by her on the promise of future payment, who were really getting screwed.
She handed me an envelope with a thousand pounds in it and gave me an affectionate goodbye, saying the remaining £6,000 would be with me soon. I didn’t know then that it would take me two and a half years to get barely a quarter of it from her.
I emailed regularly over the next two months, asking when payment would be coming and always received assurances that her lawyers were on the case and she was doing everything humanly possible to sort it out for us.
Then she stopped answering my emails.
The law’s delay
Then I got a call from the woman who’d been hired to run the new Birmingham office, warning me that she was closing the office down. They hadn’t received their wages yet again and she’d started to hear very similar stories regarding some of Yolande’s previous business escapades. She also told me she couldn’t be sure that BASS had been sued, or even if they ever owed the money in the first place. It was possible that we’d all been waiting (and working) months for a payment that would never come through.
I stopped working on The Real Story booklet and immediately invoiced Yolande for the work I had done on it to that point. I also emailed her all outstanding invoices as a reminder. When she ignored two more ‘final’ warnings, I booked an appointment with a solicitor and began thirty months of legal wrangling.
I’d read Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy hundreds of times but had never fully appreciated that line about ‘the law’s delay’. It was August 2003 before my petition to wind-up Global Graduates ltd (those last three little letters are so very important) was presented in the Chancery Division of the High Court of Justice. As soon as the notice was given in the London Gazette, a raft of other claimants jumped on the Mess With Miss Beckles bandwagon, including the Inland Revenue, who were owed a great deal more than six grand and would get paid before anyone else, including the petitioning creditor: me.
In the middle of this litigation it was particularly exasperating to hear that the Diversity in Law report that I’d written and still not been paid for had been launched in London by none other than Cherie Blair. Great. Not only was I up against Beckles and her army of lawyers; now she had the Prime Minister’s wife on her side.
The matter dragged on and on like a Bleak House throughline until I finally received payment from Miss Beckles’ solicitors in July 2005; three years after first starting the work she’d hired me to do. Interest and legal fees had taken my claim against Global Graduates up to £7,107. I got about a quarter of my money: £1,871, and Yolande Beckles walked away leaving most of her employees stranded up Shit Creek with no money to buy a paddle.
At about this time I bumped into the TV company acquaintance who’d originally recommended me to Yolande. She was embarrassed about the hassle I was going through and said she’d recently met her on the train, sitting in First Class, saying how disappointed she was with all those people in Birmingham whom she’d thought were trustworthy but were now taking her to court. Again, it was a worrying sign of her tenuous grip on reality and her tendency to cast herself as the victim even when she had so obviously screwed us all.
Another fine mess
All of which made it particularly galling to see her emerge on TV in 2006 preaching to kids and their parents about old-fashioned values of honesty, responsibility and treating others with respect.
BBC journalist and presenter Adrian Goldberg had pursued Yolande through regular stories in the Birmingham Evening Mail, and greeted her TV debut by providing some of her ex-employees, myself included, with the chance to tell the breakfast listeners of Radio WM all about her dodgy business dealings in our city (Yolande declined to take part) .
Astonishingly, Don’t Mess With Miss Beckles was a BBC Birmingham production. I’ve found myself wondering how she felt when she made the trip here to discuss her no doubt sizeable contract, paid for by license payers. Did she give a passing thought to the people she’d hired and never paid? Did she worry about the debt we all got into? Did she feel she’d done anything wrong? My guess is that she took the money and ran, just like she did in 2002.
Hot on the heels of Adrian’s radio show, the London Evening Standard phoned me up and asked for my story. They’d seen the controversy over the series and her ‘dangerous’ methods (according to one educational psychologist), and decided to look into her and found me. They splashed it over their 6 April 2006 front page and revealed the shocking extent of the mess that Miss Beckles was in.
Her various companies owed total debts of £126,794. Three of her companies had been struck off the Company House register and she had 19 outstanding county court judgements. This is a woman for whom litigation is as normal as text messaging.
The BBC responded with: ‘The programme follows Yolande Beckles at work as an educational motivator and her business dealings are not relevant to the main purpose of the series.’
It’s a statement that is astonishing in the way it entirely misses the point. How can a person be an example to school children, how can she motivate them, if she can’t keep her own house in order and has repeatedly used the law to avoid her responsibilities to others? How can she be trusted with children when she let down so many kids in Birmingham with a string of broken promises? How can she teach kids advanced concepts like honesty, integrity and respect for others when she flouts those concepts every working day of her life?
While refusing to take responsibility in public for their catastophic error of judgement, the BBC, behind closed doors, quietly scotched Beckles’ hopes for a second series and dropped it like a hot brick.
Beckles’ response to being ‘outed’ as a serial bankrupt was to pretend that it was all so normal: ‘My company entered into a Company Voluntary Agreement that was approved by its creditors, and I regret losses caused to any individuals or third parties as a result. However, those parties were handled by the relevant professionals in the normal way with their best possible interests at heart in the circumstances.’
The phrase ‘voluntary agreement’ makes it sound like we all met over tea and biscuits and settled our differences and went away happy. It fails to do justice to the stark reality of being presented with a simple choice by the small army of lawyers involved: you either get nothing or you settle for 26p in the pound. After two and a half years, when other creditors had long given up, I settled.
But the impression that Beckles was striving to do right by everyone under difficult circumstances was revealed as a lie by one startling fact that emerged in the Evening Standard’s investigation. In June 2004, Yolande Beckles set up another company called Global Graduates Education Ltd, under her mother’s name.
What this means is that, while I was still pursuing her for the money she owes me, and a year away from getting anything out of her; while her lawyers were forcing us to settle for a pittance by ‘voluntary agreement’ based on her supposed insolvency, she was actually setting up the same company all over again under a slightly different name.
What it means is that she never ‘regretted any losses caused to individuals’. She never had anyone’s ‘best possible interests at heart’, except her own. She never had any intention of doing the honourable thing and paying the money she owed. She never wanted to do anything but fleece us and move on to the next bunch of suckers.
And now, here she is again, making the news for all the wrong reasons, running a new business called Think Global Kids in Hollywood and, according to the Independent on Sunday, being sued by a former landlady and facing a police investigation into allegations of theft. Does no one do background checks any more?
Before I met Yolande Beckles I’d never had cause to consult a solicitor. For most of us in this world litigation is not a money-making opportunity. All I ever wanted to do was write and make a living out of it to keep a roof over my head and live with some kind of debt-free dignity and not have a £7,000 hole in my bank account. It’s not much to ask.
But unfortunately there are people in this world who will rip you off for an honest day’s work and walk away like nothing happened. And the law does nothing to protect you from these people. They can carry on claiming ‘insolvency’, again and again, and keep forming new companies and carry on ripping people off.
They don’t teach you that in school. Maybe they should.
You can follow the adventures of Yolande Beckles at this blog http://beckleswatch.blogspot.com/ where the blogger has posted a jaw-dropping story so far which doesn’t even include all the shit I’ve shovelled here (No, it’s not my blog)
Someone close to her is now challenging the Wikipedia page on her and attempting to get it deleted as ‘biased, unsubstantiated and inappropriate content that appears to have been authored by Miss Beckles’ enemies’. This has been politely rejected, seeing as the claims are well documented in the public domain and far from unsubstantiated (No, I didn’t write the Wiki entry. But if it were written by her enemies it would be a very long page.)