Starting school in the UK
If a child is starting school in the UK and their parents can’t be with them, it makes sense to have another adult in the frame, someone outside their school who can act as a stand-in parent and become a trusted presence in their lives when they need someone to turn to. The people who take on the job are known as guardians.
While there are usually two fixed points - the airport meet and greet at the start of term and the reverse process when it ends – there’s a mixed bag in between that could include just about anything, and frequently does. Possible add-ons can range from form signing and attending parent teacher meetings to sorting out mobile phone contracts and coordinating dentists’ appointments. Guardians may also need to step in at very short notice in bad times if a child hits a problem and is excluded, suspended, or needs urgent medical treatment.
For many parents, the most important aspect of guardianship is the knowledge that their child has a part-time home from home, there for them at half term and weekends when they can swap timetabled routine for the friendly, welcoming informality of family life. But when you look for a guardian, what exactly are you getting and what assurances do you have that your child will be safe and well cared for?
Search online and you could be forgiven for believing that the appointment of a guardian is a legal requirement, as vital a component in a successful overseas applications process as a passport or visa. Many firms cite assorted laws and acts, the implication being that only one of the top-notch, gold-plated guardians on their books will satisfy the British government’s safeguarding concerns.
‘Following the Children Act (1989), The Care Standards Act 2000 and The National Boarding Standards 2002, boarding schools in England require parents to appoint a guardian who can be available at all times…’ isn’t un-typical. Even the august FT recently got it wrong.
The reality, however, is that unlike legal guardians who take on full responsibility for every aspect of a child’s upbringing, often through the courts, when their parents can’t care for them, education guardians have no formal status.
Aegis (The Association for the Education and Guardianship of International Students), which is the closest the industry comes to a trade body, confirmed that it is not a legal requirement for an international student to have an educational guardian whilst studying in the UK. Their name may sound ultra official but it’s the only thing that is.
Boarding standards, while sharpening up many of the safeguarding requirements, include minimal direct references to guardians unless, that is, ‘external lodgings’ as they’re described, are organised directly by schools. If that’s the case, schools are compelled to visit them, interview all adults on the premises, take up references and ensure that DBS checks have been completed, as well as interviewing pupils at least every term and keeping a written copy of their comments. No wonder schools prefer to outsource so that the contract is between the guardian and the family.
So while failure to appoint an education guardian may tax your relationship with a school and severely impede your chances of being offered a place (it’s often made a condition of acceptance), it isn’t breaking the law and you won’t be in trouble with child protection teams or immigration services.
While one legal firm has produced a report condemning what it describes as incorrect information being circulated by those in the guardianship industry, this aspect of guardianship isn’t much mentioned. Given the ever-rising numbers of overseas pupils, their reticence isn’t hard to understand. Guardianship fees of £1,000 a term aren’t uncommon for basic support that includes round the clock emergency help, at least in term time. Many firms also give families the option of paying more for a premium service marketed variously as gold, platinum and – for the status conscious - VIP and royalty.
Guardianship firms come in every conceivable shape, size and cultural direction. Some specialise in one particular nationality. One website, written almost entirely in Chinese, is garlanded with pictures of top schools and universities, its aspirational messages somewhat less than subliminal. Some companies are cannily expanding into new areas. Additional services include day school packages, where, for a competitive price, children board with a host family in term time.
All guardianship firms should recruit and vet host families, ensuring they lead blameless lives, have squeaky clean records and, importantly, live within easy travelling distance of your child’s school. Unfortunately, membership of Aegis, which runs its own inspections, remains optional. The organisation is campaigning for safeguarding to be tightened and inspections made mandatory, but with only 10 per cent of schools currently working with Aegis members, it still has a lot of convincing to do.
In the meantime, there are other ways of finding a guardian. Schools sometimes recruit – very sensibly – through their own parents. Other families prefer to make their own arrangements, turning to friends or relations as stand-in, and stand-by, mums and dads. When you’re shelling out a small fortune for a child’s school fees, it’s not hard to see the appeal of a slightly less formal, less expensive one-to-one arrangement.
Money isn’t the only reason. The reassurance of knowing that in an emergency their child will be with somebody they have known all their lives can be priceless, though it’s not infallible. Some relations can be too old, sick or far away to be of much practical use. One mother had to step into the breach when her daughter’s best friend was suspended and the 100-mile journey was just too much for her frail guardians.
But what it you don’t happen to have a ready-made guardian? You can start by asking the school. If they are reluctant to recommend specific firms – their reticence can stem from terror of being held accountable if something goes wrong – they may well be prepared to put you in touch with parents who can help.
It’s in their interests, after all. Happy children learn better. For overseas pupils, a compatible guardian who cares about your child’s well-being and happiness almost as much as you do can be an essential part of the educational experience.
What to ask:
- What am I paying for – and what will cost extra?
- How close is the host family to my child’s school and what are the contact arrangements?
- Will my child’s host family have other overseas pupils staying with them?
- What are the house rules (particularly as regards Wifi/alcohol/going out and curfews)?
- What will happen if there is an emergency (particularly relating to finance or health)?
The Good Schools Guide Education Consultants for overseas clients
We offer a range of services to suit all families. Whether you are relocating five children from overseas or whether your first child is as yet unborn we can help and support you in making the right choice for your children’s education.
For clients in a hurry or with more complex needs eg family relocation or several children who need different schools. This service can include research, accompanied school visits – or visits on behalf of clients – all liaison with schools etc. Read more about the Premier Service.
This service is for families either located elsewhere in Britain or overseas who need help specifically in finding schools in a residential area they like in our busy capital city. Good London schools are greatly over-subscribed. Our education consultants know the best schools and the best ways to optimise your child’s chance of a place at one of these. Read more about The London School Service.
An exclusive service for modern international families. The Global Premier provides a complete service for those families in search of top UK boarding education for their children and who need guidance on every aspect of UK education: – how to prepare, assessment, English language advice and support, travel, accommodation, home language advice, accompanying on school visits etc. Read more about the Global Premier Service.