What does binary mean? Meaning of gender term as St Paul’s Girls’ School gives head girl role non binary name

The school said the decision was made after discussions with senior students, who felt they were “young women”, but that the change was also in relation to gender identity

One of the UK’s leading schools, Saint Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith, has caused controversy after announcing it would no longer refer to the head pupil as ‘Head Girl’.

The London-based single sex school, which costs parents £26,000 a year to send their daughter to, said the term was ‘too binary’. Some staff felt it contradicts the message of empowering women to be proud of their sexuality and capabilities.

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Non-binary means not identifying as male or female when used as an expression to describe someone's identity (Picture: Shutterstock)Non-binary means not identifying as male or female when used as an expression to describe someone's identity (Picture: Shutterstock)
Non-binary means not identifying as male or female when used as an expression to describe someone's identity (Picture: Shutterstock)

So, what does ‘binary’ mean, and what has the school said about its decision? This is what you need to know.

What does ‘binary’ mean?

In its simplest form, binary means ‘of two classifications’.

In gender terms, this means identifying as one of the two most common genders - male and female.

Saint Paul's girls' school in Hammersmith, London (Picture: Google)Saint Paul's girls' school in Hammersmith, London (Picture: Google)
Saint Paul's girls' school in Hammersmith, London (Picture: Google)

The use of binary when describing gender identity therefore means categorising people into one of these two genders, without taking into account the other genders or non-specific identification which someone may identify with.

What is the meaning of ‘non binary’?

Non-binary refers to not relating to, composed of, or involving just two things.

In terms of gender, this means identifying as something other than male or female, though it can also refer to not identifying as homosexual or heterosexual.

In this case, an individual may choose to identify as another gender or as having no gender at all. Other terms someone may use include pansexual, genderqueer, cisgender or agender. A non-binary person may wish to use the title ‘Mx’ instead of Mr, Ms, Miss or Mrs.

The change in terms used at Saint Paul’s has come about after staff were told there were at least “150” gender identities at a webinar entitled Beyond the Binary: Understanding How to be Inclusive for All Gender Identities.

The Evening Standard reports that around seven of the school’s 778 pupils identify at non-binary.

What has the Head of Saint Paul’s said about the decision?

Sarah Fletcher, the school’s high mistress, said in a statement that the school “would never encourage a student to ‘be’ anything in relation to their identity”.

“We want our students to be happy as themselves,” she said.

“Our focus is on providing a respectful, kind, safe and non-judgemental environment in which our students are free to explore their own identity.

Ms Fletcher added that “young people are talking about gender identity and our role as a school is to equip the staff with an understanding that supports students’ ability to reach to them for support and navigate this safely.”

A spokesperson for the school told the Standard: “It was the suggestion of our senior students that we change the name from ‘Head Girl’ to ‘Head of School’ as more modern, age appropriate and inclusive. In doing so, we are returning to our roots.

“From our very foundation in 1904 and for decades afterwards, the senior student was called ‘Head of the School’, so in making the change, we are confirming, not denying, our ethos and traditions.”

How have staff reacted to the change?

The school has decided to change the term ‘Head Girl’ to ‘Head of the School’, mainly because senior students felt they identified as ‘young women’, not ‘girls’, suggesting it was a decision of identifying older students as having a degree of maturity.

But the school added that the “binary connotations” also played a part in the name change.

A source told the Standard: “Why do the girls have to change their name?

“They should be teaching young women to be proud of their sex, not ashamed of it. It’s very contradictory.

“How can you be a single-sex school that exists to empower girls to do well and at the same time support girls to identify out of being a girl?

“The school is trying to do the right thing but the problem is they are being badly advised. Why would parents want to send their daughters to a school where girls are not happy to be girls?”

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