Understanding the rules for childcare entitlement in the UK can be a bit of a minefield, so to make things easier, we’ve put together this Q&A.
Am I entitled to any free childcare?
Yes, all three and four year olds are eligible for 15 hours of free childcare per week. This is available for 38 weeks per year, during term time. In Scotland, it is 16 hours per week.
To access free childcare, you must use an approved childcare provider. These are registered organisations, schools, and childminders, etc., that have been approved and regularly inspected by Ofsted. Your local council will have a list of approved providers in your borough.
Your entitlement to free child care will end once your child is old enough to start reception class at school.
Can I get free childcare for my two year old?
Some two year olds are entitled to 15 hours free child care, but this depends upon their own circumstances or the circumstances of their parents.
A child is eligible if they are looked after by their Local Authority, receive Disability Living Allowance, have a current statement of Special Education Needs (SEN) or if they have an Education, Health and Care Plan.
A child is also entitled if their parent claims one of the following benefits:
- Income Support
- Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA)
- Income-based Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)
- Support through part 6 of the Immigration and Asylum Act
- Child Tax Credit and/or Working Tax Credit and have an annual income under £16,190
- The guarantee element of State Pension Credit
- The Working Tax Credit 4-week run on
- Universal Credit
How do I claim for free childcare?
You don’t need to. All you need to do is find a suitable childcare provider. The childcare provider will then ask you to sign a form confirming that you accept the place and this will be used by them to claim funding directly from the local council.
When can I claim my free childcare hours?
The date from which you are entitled to free childcare depends on your child’s birthday.
- If your child was born in January, February or March, you can claim from the start of the term that begins on or after 1 April.
- If your child was born from April to August, you can from the start of the new term that begins on or after 1 September.
- If your child was born from September to December, you will can claim from the start of the term that begins on or after 1 January.
Will there be additional fees?
Although you are entitled to 15 hours of free childcare, there may be, as with primary schools, other costs involved.
Some providers may require payment for supplying meals (though you can always send a packed lunch) and occasionally you may be asked to contribute towards travel costs if a trip has been organised.
How can I use my 15 hours per week?
You can use your child care on a minimum of two and maximum of five days a week. Sessions have to be 2.5 hours or longer up to a maximum of 10 hours. If required, you can divide your free childcare between two providers.
Do remember that different providers offer different services; childminders, for example, may offer much more flexible hours than schools.
Can I get help if I need to pay for childcare?
Yes, you might be able to take advantage of a childcare voucher scheme to pay for childcare. This can help towards childcare costs for children from birth to 15 years of age. You can use it for childcare throughout the entire year, not just at term time.
You must, however, use it to pay for an Ofsted approved childcare provider.
What are childcare vouchers and how can I get them?
If you are in employment, your employer might offer childcare vouchers as part of a ‘salary sacrifice’ scheme. Taking part enables you to receive up to £55 per week in childcare vouchers from your employer.
Although you have to pay for the vouchers, the payment comes out of your gross salary. This means you make significant savings because tax and national insurance are not deducted from the money used to pay for the vouchers.
A basic rate tax payer, using their full £55 per week voucher allowance, would save £930 per year. If both parents take advantage of the scheme, that’s almost a £2000 per year in childcare savings.
If you wish to apply for childcare vouchers, you would need to do so through your employer.
Can I apply for Child Tax Credit to pay for childcare?
No. Child Tax Credit is one of a range of benefits being phased out by the government and is being replaced by a single scheme called Universal Credit. You can find out more about Universal credit, by clicking here.
Improvements for the future
The government has pledged that, by 2017, all children aged 3 to 4 will be entitled to 30 hour per week free childcare instead of 15 hours. For further details, read this article.