Mary Dejevsky: If you're good enough, you are old enough

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The Independent Online

Among the considerations that Republicans hope will convince American voters to choose John McCain next Tuesday is Barack Obama's lack of experience. Like Hillary Clinton in the primaries, they have been asking whether this 47 year old first-term Senator from Ohio can be trusted to keep his nerve and do the right thing in a crisis. And it is true that Mr Obama, though not the youngest to seek presidential office, has little national or even state-level political experience to his name, and almost no senior executive experience at all.

Yet I wonder whether long years of experience are quite as crucial as they are cracked up to be in jobs which require leadership and judgement most of all. Of course, you would not want your surgeon or your flight instructor to lack experience. But a gift for leadership is a bit different from technical excellence.

This struck me when reading a couple of weeks ago about a certain Max Haimendorf, who had been appointed head of one of the new academy schools – at the tender age of 29. Some critics suggested that, with only six weeks' training – under the Government's fast-track scheme for graduates – and only three years' experience of actually teaching in a classroom, Mr Haimendorf might not have been the best choice. How much authority would he be able to exercise in the staffroom? Would he carry enough clout among his pupils? Were there not other candidates, rather better equipped, for such a heavy responsibility?

Well, perhaps there were. But I have a particular reason for thinking that those responsible for appointing Mr Haimendorf were perhaps braver and more forward-looking than school governors and appointments boards often are. My late father became a headmaster in his early thirties, with only a few more years of classroom experience than the new head of London's King Solomon Academy, and no formal teacher training at all. Those were the days when graduates could go direct from university or research into teaching, and that is what he did.

His school – a state grammar – was a brand new one, as, I believe, is Mr Haimendorf's. I remember that he took us to see it before it opened, when the building work was still in progress, and proudly showed us round. It was state of the art for the 1960s. He saw the school as his personal project, and it became a great success.

In a way, I suspect, his relative youth and inexperience worked to his advantage. There were plenty of people to call on for advice. But too much familiarity with established bureaucracies and ways of working, too much experience of failure – either personal or institutional – can cloud the vision and hinder achievement. Half the battle in doing something is surely knowing what to do and believing that it can be done.

The USA has had young, if not quite such inexperienced presidents before: JFK and Bill Clinton, to name but two. And while they had their personal weaknesses, both became highly effective leaders of their country. We will see next week whether American voters are prepared to be as bold again. "This is no time for a novice" was how Gordon Brown began his fightback against the more youthful Conservative leaders at his party conference. But there may be times when a novice, free from institutional thinking, is exactly what an organisation or a country needs.

Is Rotherham a little too advanced? In my day we started off by learning how to poach an egg

Clearing out books and papers recently, I came across a tatty little orange exercise book, with the word "Cookery" written in fountain-pen on the front. After all those hours spent perusing, if, sadly, not emulating, the likes of Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson and Katie Stewart (sorry, I drew the line at the sainted Delia), here were the recipes from the cookery classes that formed part of the pre-national curriculum timetable for 11- and 12-year-olds so many years ago.

As it happened this happy rediscovery came just as Jamie Oliver was embarking on his heroic efforts to inspire the cooking habit in those good ladies of Rotherham. And I was struck by the contrast. We began by preparing poached egg on toast and graduated, via shortbread and rock buns, to Irish stew and a rather un-echt (as I now know) form of risotto that somehow became a family staple.

Jamie's pupils began considerably higher up the recipe chain with meatballs and a rather complicated concoction involving beef, rice and coriander. I wonder how much they will remember.

Meatballs are one of my least favourite things to make. They are so messy and time-consuming that it's just not worth the hassle to make yourself. Give me Irish stew any day. Ten minutes, at most, to cut up the ingredients, two hours in the oven, and it's ready.

Tim Whewell – the other side of the BBC

If Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross represent, to some of us, the lewd and extravagant worst of the BBC, it is worth remembering that there is another side to the organisation – and it too was on display this week, though you might not have known it, given the way that Brand and Co dominated the airwaves.

The BBC reporter Tim Whewell went to Georgia and the breakway region of South Ossetia that was at the centre of the brief and nasty war this summer. He had gone to find out what really happened.

He was the first foreign journalist to enter South Ossetia from Russia; he spoke to Russians, Ossetians and Georgians. He established a timeline that cast doubt on Georgian claims that its troops were only reacting to a Russian invasion of Georgia.

Whewell listened to the bereaved and dispossessed of both sides and showed the damage. And he gave the foreign secretary, David Miliband, one of the toughest interviews he has been subjected to on British television.

His admirably balanced, yet affecting, material provided a two-part report for the World Service, an edition of File on 4 on Radio 4, a long segment for Newsnight and a solid report for the 10 o'clock television news.

That was one foreign trip, one highly professional correspondent, and a camera crew. Now that's what we pay the licence-fee for.

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