Free care for three and four-year-olds
Every child in England who is aged three or four is entitled to 570 hours of free early education or childcare each year.
This can be taken during term time only, which usually equates to 15 hours a week for 38 weeks a year.
From September 2017, the government will provide an additional 15 free hours to eligible working parents of three and four-year-olds.
This entitlement of an additional 15 hours a week of free childcare is conditional on the following factors:
1. Both parents must be working, or the sole parent must be working in a lone-parent family
2. Each parent must earn at least the equivalent of 16 hours a week at the national minimum or living wage
3. Neither parent must be earning more than £100,000 a year. For example, if parent A was earning £120,000 a year and parent B was earning £80,000 in a year, they would not be eligible as parent A is above the threshold.
4. If either parent is on maternity, paternity or adoption leave, or is unable to work because of a disability or caring responsibilities, they may still be eligible
If you believe you meet the criteria above and are eligible for the full 30 hours a week of free childcare, you can apply via the government's Childcare Choices website.
How free childcare for three and four-year-olds works
All children in England aged three or four are entitled to 15 hours free childcare, with some two-year-olds entitled to 15 hours free childcare.
The funding is sent directly to your childcare provider from your local council, so your childminder or nursery will claim the free hours.
In addition to this, you may be able to claim an extra 15 hours of free childcare for children aged three and four, if you meet the eligibility criteria outlined above.
If you'd like to claim 30 hours free childcare, you can apply via the government's Childcare Choices website. If successful, this would take your free childcare total up to 1,140 hours a year, which you can use at participating nurseries, nursery classes, playgroups and pre-schools, Sure Start Children's Centres and with participating childminders.
Free childcare for two-year-olds
For a full breakdown of how to claim free childcare for two-year-olds, read our free guide which is broken down by country.
The government introduced the Tax-Free Childcare scheme on 28 April 2017, which is available to eligible parents of children aged 0 to 11, or 16 if disabled. The scheme was gradually rolled out over 2017.
Parents can now apply for Tax-Free Childcare and the 30 hours offer in one go through the government’s new digital childcare service.
The website also provides links to further information about similar childcare schemes in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Eligible parents can benefit from both Tax-free Childcare and 30 hours of free childcare at the same time, so take a look to see if you meet the criteria for both.
Any parent who has experienced technical difficulties with the application process should contact the HMRC helpline, which will help to resolve any issues.
How do I claim my free hours of childcare?
The funding for the free hours is sent directly to your childcare provider from your local council, so it is the nursery or childminder who will claim on your behalf.
You will likely be asked to sign a form, provided by the nursery or childminder, confirming that this is taking place.
If you are unsure about the process of claiming the 15 free hours at a childcare facility where you’re already registered, you should first speak to your childcare provider to clarify any concerns.
Other queries relating to the free hours allowance are best directed to your local authority.
If you've successfully applied and claimed Tax-Free Childcare or 30 hours free childcare, you will start paying into an online childcare service account and can use this to pay for childcare costs.
When can I claim my free hours?
The point at which you can begin to claim your free hours will depend on your child’s birthday. This is the case whether you are claiming free hours for your two, three or four-year-old.
- If your child was born in January, February or March, then you can claim from the beginning of the term that begins on or after 1 April
- If your child was born from April to August, you will be able to claim from the beginning of the term that begins on or after 1 September
- If your child was born from September to December, you will be able to claim from the beginning of the term that begins on or after 1 January
Can I claim the free hours anywhere?
The free early education and childcare allowance applies to all types of nurseries, playgroups, pre-schools, childminders and Sure Start Children’s Centres, irrespective of whether they’re voluntary, private or independent.
However, the childcare provider must be Ofsted-approved and you should bear in mind that availability of places can be limited.
Your local council will have a directory of childcare providers that participate in the free early education scheme and will be able to answer any area-specific questions you have relating to receiving your 15 free hours.
Will I have to pay top-up fees?
You should not be asked to pay any additional fees (or top-up fees) in order for you to claim your free 15 hours.
However, there may be extra services provided during these hours, such as meals, which you may be asked to pay for.
You should make sure you’re completely clear on what costs, if any, are required in addition to your free hours before you sign a contract and commit your child to a place.
If you have trouble finding a childcare provider that is able to give you the 15 free hours without any additional hours or costs, you should contact your local authority so they can assist you.
If you have any questions or concerns about how you are paying for your childcare, including the free hours, you should try and discuss this with the nursery manager or childminder.
Ask them to explain how your bill is calculated and make a note of the conversation. If you’re still unsure or have further queries, you should contact your local authority for advice.
Are there any restrictions?
There are some limitations on how the 15 hours allowance should be used, and these are set by the government.
They are in place to ensure nurseries have the flexibility to offer the free hours to parents with different requirements and to protect parents from extra costs.
The entitlement scheme specifies that the 15 free hours can be:
- taken between two and five days a week in sessions that are individually no longer than 10 hours and no shorter than 2.5 hours
- used in sessions that do not start before 8am or end after 6pm
- divided between two providers (ie both a nursery and a childminder) if necessary.
Individual childcare providers may differ in how they are able to offer the entitlement to parents.
For example, free hours may only be available during term-time hours or at a certain time of day. Always check with your provider in the first instance.