In a purple battle dress with matching accessories and glinting hair extensions, Yolande Beckles, the self-styled educational motivator, stood in front of a London comprehensive and announced to television viewers that she was going to "kick butt". Several weeks later, it appears that there is now a considerable queue of people wishing to kick Miss Beckles's own mauve behind, but with entirely different motives.
The star of BBC2's Don't Mess With Miss Beckles cruised up to Muswell Hill's Fortismere School in her Mercedes with the intention of getting lazy middle-class pupils to do their homework, which their parents had failed to make them do. An advocate of an hour's reading at night after homework, and no television during the week, she was bound to meet resistance, if not incredulity.
It comes as no surprise that some of the parents from the series have subsequently expressed their horror at her methods. Things deteriorated so badly between Carolyn and her 16-year-old son, Luke, that the exasperated mother ended up by throwing him out of the house. Beckles had failed to challenge Luke's calling his mother a "stubborn bitch" and by the end of term he had only made a "slight improvement".
Carolyn called the Beckles experience "destructive". "The programme was atrocious and a total fix," she said. "When I saw it, everything I had objected to they left in. Yo was terrible and her behaviour was wholly inappropriate." During one argument, Beckles, a warm, affectionate woman, kept her hand on Luke's thigh. He is still living with his uncle.
One mother, Jane, claimed it was the production team, rather than Beckles, who ended up helping Josh, her 15-year-old son, with his homework. "They, not Yolande, helped him study. If his grades did improve slightly that term, it was because of the help behind the camera, rather than in front of it."
Tom, whom Beckles banned from seeing his girlfriend for five days, dropped out on film, backed up by his parents. "I don't want to speak to Yo again. Never. I don't want to have anything to do with her," he said.
There were calls to pull the subsequent episodes in the series, which ends on Tuesday. "The programme was dangerous and Beckles's behaviour completely inappropriate," Mary Jenkin, president of the Association of Educational Psychologists, told one newspaper. "She was treading on dangerous ground. She confused boundary-setting with bullying. She seemed to have little skill for mediation or conciliation, and no understanding of the cultural issues she was trying to control."
But one must, of course, give Beckles her due. The demands of TV for instant solutions meant that she was only given a term to get results. Given the difficulties that some of these children faced at home, it would take more than a highly passionate "motivator" to turn them around with the same astonishing results as a decorating makeover show.
While Beckles's intentions are clearly noble, she has not always been able to articulate her message. At the beginning of the first programme, she gabbled: "Nothing comes easy, yeah? You have to work, if you want things, very, very, very hard. And you know it's not a lottery-ticket life. So you will put in what you receive." She later admitted to having "lost the plot" during filming.
Deeply spiritual and a member of the New Testament Church of God, she is highly critical of Middle England. "For a long time the middle classes have been empowering themselves, not their children, doing their own thing, not being there for their kids," she has said.
But not only do "liberal" parents get her goat, so too do some white teachers. "There is also an issue that needs to be discussed - and I think the Government is trying to tackle that right now - in the way that white teachers are not performing well for our black children."
Her parents, Gloria and Seaford, arrived in Britain from Trinidad in 1960. Born in London two years later, Beckles was raised in the East End. She and her younger siblings, Brian and Hermione, had a strict upbringing. Gloria worked in a shoe shop and Seaford on the railways, and every evening one of them went through the children's homework. Once, when Beckles came second in a race, her father told her that no one remembered the person in second place. Such an attitude failed to have a positive outcome for Brian, who drifted into crime. "It's too late to save Brian," Yolande once admitted.
After leaving school at 18, Beckles worked for Sainsbury's for 15 years and became head of management development. She set herself up as a diversity consultant. Despite no formal teaching qualifications, in 1998 she set up Global Graduates, a motivational programme for children from inner city areas.
The BBC asked Beckles to star in the programme after seeing her being interviewed on GMTV about her work with children. Riete Oord, the series producer, said she had in no way selected her as an expert and neither did she endorse her methods. "She's a character in the documentary, one who comes with skills, but I'm not holding her up as a guru," she said pointedly.
"She's got strong and provocative opinions about education, which makes her controversial and interesting to follow. At the same time, she's passionate about what she does and she's not afraid of voicing her opinions. She genuinely wants to help kids. She can laugh at herself and is relaxed. Sometimes people say her behaviour is inappropriate; that's just her Caribbean background. She likes to hug and kiss people. She sees [that some of her methods don't work] but she won't accept it. She thinks that her method is the right one. Because she's controversial, people react to her in the same manner. Some people absolutely love her and some people hate her."
Separated from the father of her two children, home is a detached property in Chislehurst, Kent. Her children attend private school, there's a nanny and holidays in the Caribbean. Yet Beckles has a string of failed companies and bad debts behind her, totalling more than £125,000. At least 19 county court judgments have been made against her companies in the past four years.
Global Graduates, based in London, collapsed in 2003, leaving wages unpaid. Teacher Jo Allen, from Erdington, who worked for Beckles and claims she is £825 out of pocket, said: "The people on the show are warming to her, but there is another side to her. She has done the dirty on a lot of people and has a bare-faced cheek to go on national television."
Gloria, her mother, is listed as director of Global Graduates Education, set up in June 2004, just after Global Graduates became insolvent. The BBC stated that her business dealings "were not relevant" to the main purpose of the series. "Some of her work has been funded by public money so there is a genuine public interest in seeing how she does it and if her methods work."
Beckles says she is ready for a second series, but the BBC has yet to decide whether to offer her any more behinds to kick.Reuse content