When a child travels to a foreign country for school it is not practical or possible for their parents to be on hand for emergencies etc from so far away. For this reason, UK boarding schools and the UK government both require parents of international students under the age of 16 to appoint a UK-based guardian. All legal responsibility for a child lies with this guardian while they are in the UK.
Essentially, a guardian will accept legal responsibility for a child, acting in a similar way to a foster parent. They may provide somewhere for the child to stay during school holidays, if the child will not be travelling back to their parents. They also provide a place to stay if the child falls ill, and act as a 24-hour point of contact in case of an emergency. A guardian will also often liaise with the school regarding pastoral matters, staying in regular contact with the parents and attending things like parents’ evenings and sports days on their behalf. They may also manage a child’s financial affairs such as a personal allowance of the payment of additional school expenses. For these reasons, a guardian is normally quite geographically close to the school.
If you think of all the things you would normally do as a parent for your child in school, this is the role of a guardian.
You do not need to have a friend or relative living in the UK to act as guardian in order to send your child to school in the UK. There are many UK-based guardianship companies who are able to help The Association for the Education and Guardianship of International Students (or AEGIS) brings together schools and guardianship organisations. This is a great place to start looking for a guardianship company who may be able to help you.
The two terms are often used interchangeably, but there is a difference.
A host family is a family that will provide a safe place for a child to stay while they are in the UK. This is usually a short term arrangement, for example during an extended educational trip or summer school. A host family is not usually personally matched to the child and is essentially only there to provide a roof over their head.
A guardian family is more carefully matched to the individual child, and this relationship is usually a more long term affair, lasting the entire length of the time the child is in school in the UK - perhaps several years. The child will stay with their guardian family during school holidays, on exeat weekends and during any other time of need throughout the school year. Children will often develop a close bond with their guardian family, whereas with a host family they may stay with them for only a couple of weeks, and never see or speak to them again.