Abolish head girls?! They are great. And I should know, I married one – Aidan Smith
The Nigella rolling-pin being used to smooth out the dough for the pasta – she always makes her own – went flying through the French windows, knocking over the climbing trellis for the wisteria she’d been on the extension roof assembling before breakfast.
The rest of the afternoon’s domestic military operation descended into utter chaos. Towels went unfolded and shirts went unironed. (Who still irons? My beloved). Her editorial for the next edition of the community newsletter went unsent. Call-centre staff at pay-TV giants and assorted utilities didn’t get the dogged phonecalls invariably resulting in them waving a white flag and reducing our bills. Children went uncollected from sleepovers, swimming lessons and football training.
Okay, I jest. Partly, at any rate. But my better half was saddened to learn that the title “head girl” seems to be on the brink of disappearing from our language. She was one once, and the pride still burns bright. I’m sad, too, remembering how she mentioned it on our first date, though being well-bred and polite she at least waited until after I’d run through my own unremarkable scholastic career. I mean, why do you think I married her?
St Paul’s Girls’ School in London is the latest to drop the terminology, claiming it’s “too binary”. In Scotland, head girls and boys are now being called “captains” at schools including Mary Erskine and George Watson’s College in Edinburgh and Annan Academy. But the moves have been criticised for ditching tradition in favour of wokery.
Britain’s boomiest world’s-gone-mad fogorn, Piers Morgan is raging about St Paul’s switching to “head of school” when 99 per cent of the pupils identify as girls. “Girls” isn’t being removed from the name on the gates, he points out. “Woke insanity at its most laughably hypocritical,” goes his tweet.
But calmer voices like those of Amanda Craig, author of the best novel about Brexit Britain, The Lie of the Land, are no less irked, judging by her tweet: “Is St Paul’s Boys’ School doing this to head boys too? Or is it only girls who should be ashamed of being girls?”
Regarding identity politics, you wonder what the lie of the land will be when the revolution is over, and what words will remain which don’t cause offence. Notice how I said “revolution” there and not “tyranny” or “apocalypse”. See, I’m trying to understand.
I am the age I am, though, which brings with it a certain amount of querying. For instance, St Paul’s, before coming to its decision, put staff through a training session called “Beyond the Binary: Understanding How to Be Inclusive for All Gender Identities”.
Guest speaker Emma Cusdin spoke about her own transition from male to female, saying: “Young people are finding amazing ways to self-identify… we stopped counting at 150." Now hang on, isn’t that being prejudicial to the unrecorded 151st gender and the 152nd, to say nothing of the 153rd who’s hopefully having a whale of a time, possibly after identifying as a whale.
Frivolous? Okay, but what about the trans person who’s perfectly happy using the language of trans people and specifically its pronouns, and doesn’t want them to become lost in a strictly non-binary world?
The non-binary pupils at St Paul’s are small in number – just seven out of 778. Among the rest there will be plenty who are proud to be called girls, don’t want to be thought of as anything other than girls, are ready for the educational challenges that come with being girls, are determined to smash through glass ceilings as girls – and achieve like some notable FPs. You can bet their parents will be wanting a return far beyond discussions and votes on “gender neutral” wording for fees of £26,000 a year.
Old girls include Rachel Weisz and Emily Mortimer who were both excelling as “actresses” before that term got outlawed. Then there’s Rosalind Franklin, the brilliant scientist crucial to the understanding of DNA and surely an inspiration to girls everywhere grappling with the Stem subjects, although the molecule’s mysteries are beginning to look easy-peasy next to those of identity politics.
I know I’m way out of my depth here. Crikey, it was that berk Molesworth who got me into private schools – not as in attending one because I didn’t, no way, but through Geoffrey Willans’ books making them seem so strange and sacred and magical and mad.
Who, as the product of a keelie state academy like my own, did not want to be at St Custard’s, in 3B, and with the hero’s diabolical spelling and syntax, teasing Fotherington-Tomas for being “uttery wet and a sissy” and sneering at Grabber, the head boy and winner of “the Mrs Joyful prize for rafia work”?
“So,” I often request of my wife, “tell me when your private, all-girls’ boarding alma mater deep in the heart of the Perthshire countryside was just like that.” It wasn’t, she’ll say, but then proceed to explain how, skipping rafia work, some in her year would assemble rope ladders to be dropped from dorm windows for midnight assignations with boys from the local village.
Her best friends then are still her best friends now. The Four Marys, I call them, after the strip in the Bunty comic – for, sissy that I was, I read that, too, although you couldn’t call me that now – and they all plead their girlish innocence to this day.
“I loved being head girl because I got to be bossy and organised and things got done,” says my wife. Just like now, indeed. “And I hope my school still has them.”
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