30 hours of free childcare – will my child get it and is it REALLY free?

A year on - how's the 30 hours free childcare scheme going? Are you eligible for it? How many hours do you actually get across a year - and are they actually free at all?

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Last September (2017) the Government announced it would be providing eligible working parents in England with 30 hours of free childcare for 3 to 4 year olds.

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Eligibility checker – does your child qualify?

In order to be able to claim 30 hours free childcare you must meet ALL of the following:

  • Your child is either 3 or 4 years old 
  • Both parents must be working – or the sole parent is working in a lone parent family
  • Each parent earns, on average, a weekly minimum equivalent to 16 hours at National Minimum Wage or National Living Wage (see how much this is below)
  • Each parent must have an annual income of less than £100,000
  • You live in England

If you don’t meet all these criteria, the good news is that you’ll still qualify for the 15 hours free childcare that is currently available. 

How’s the scheme going so far?

Before the scheme was even launched, charity the Pre-School Learning Alliance (PSLA) asked 1,000 childcare providers about it and found:

  • 19% weren’t planning to offer the 30 hours scheme
  • 51% weren’t sure they would – to put this in context, 98% currently offer the 15 hour free entitlement
  • 50% weren’t confident that they would have the capacity to meet the demand for 30-hour places.

Just over a year in, it’s fair to say the scheme’s had a fairly rocky start – with the PLSA among others advising that it’s putting a huge financial burden on childcare providers. 

While the Department of Education says the scheme has benefitted  340,000 children with free hours, the PLSA surveyed 8,000 nurseries and childminders between July and August this year and found that:

  • 46% felt the scheme had negatively impacted on their business financially 
  • two thirds said funding for child places did not cover the full hourly costs of delivering places.

Before the scheme even launched, a  large number of providers said they wouldn’t be able to afford to be part of it.

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They claimed that the funding offered by the Government to pay for each child is simply not enough and means they’ll lose money on each place – estimated at 39p per hour per child. 

The National Audit Office warned in March 2017 that local authorities were likely to find it difficult to provide sufficient places. Both the NDNA and PSLA have complained to the Government that the scheme is underfunded. 

Labour’s promise of even more free hours

Despite the issues the scheme’s had, Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn has said if Labour get into power he will extend it even further by giving low income families additional free hours and capping childcare at £4 per hour for higher income families – funded with an extra £4.8 billion.

So how can those nurseries that do offer 30 hour places, afford to do so?

Basically the shortfall is being covered, as was predicted, by charging for extras or putting up the fees for non-free hours. While, under the scheme, providers can’t charge any money for the 30 hours, they CAN charge for other ‘extras’ or ask for contributions.

Indeed, the Department for Education (DfE) now openly states that parents receiving 30 free hours can expect to pay for extras such as meals, nappies and additional activities (such as trips out).

Additional charges

“I’m introducing a charge, which is something that was never there beforehand,” one nursery owner in York told Radio 4’s Today programme. “I’m now going to introduce a funded hours charge, which includes the meals which we’ve been providing, in a lot of cases totally for free.”

Asking for donations

Another York nursery is asking parents to pay £5 per day as a voluntary contribution. 

Higher charges for babies and toddlers

Others may charge more for babies and under 2s, to subsidise the cost of the free childcare for the older children. 

Term-by-term booking

Parents who are getting completely free childcare may find that they can only secure a nursery place on a term-by-term basis, which may mean they have to re-apply each term and may not be guaranteed the same days or place allocation each term.

The alternative: secure a permanent place by booking all year round (and paying for the additional hours outside the 38 weeks). 

So 30 hours free childcare isn’t really free then?

It still offers amazing value to parents who are able to claim it, but many are also being hit with additional charges or urged to contribute donations in order to keep the childcare provider in business.  

Do you get 30 hours every week all year round?

No. The 30 hours is based on a school term-time schedule, rather than a working parent schedule. So, the offer is for 30 hours free per week for 38 weeks per year – not 52 weeks of the year.

It comes to 1,140 free hours across the year – or approximately 22 free hours per week across 52 weeks. 

Can I spread the free hours across 52 weeks?

In theory, yes, you may be able to spread the free childcare out over further weeks, but this will mean you’ll get fewer than 30 hours free childcare each week. It will also depend on what your local nursery or childminder is willing to offer. 

Childcare providers who are able to offer 30 hours free childcare

  • Nurseries and nursery classes
  • Playgroups and pre-school
  • Childminders
  • Sure Start Children’s Centres

How do I apply for the 30 hours free childcare?

You apply for the 30-hour scheme on the Gov.UK website. The application process can take up to 20 mins to complete. However it will time out if you don’t do anything for more than 15 mins. So make sure you have the following to hand in advance:

  • your National Insurance number (or, if you’re self-employed, your Unique Taxpayer Reference)
  • the date you started, or are due to start work
  • details of any Government support or benefits you receive

To apply for 30 hours free childcare, you’ll need to…

  • Visit the registration page on Gov.UK website
  • Complete the registration process
  • If you’re eligible, you’ll receive a code 
  • Take your code to your childcare provider or local council (if it’s council-provided childcare), along with your National Insurance number and your child’s date of birth
  • Your childcare provider or council will check the code is authentic and allocate your child a free childcare place, if one is available
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To be eligible, I’ve got to earn the equivalent of 16 hours at National Minimum Wage. How much is that?

It depends on your age. For this scheme, the minimum amount will always reflect the lowest hourly rate that a person of your age can legally be paid. Therefore, currently for a parent aged 21-24, you’d need to earn a weekly average of at least £111.20. For a parent aged 25+, you’d need to earn a weekly average of at least £115.20.

What if one parent in a couple isn’t working?

This is basically a scheme to help working parents, so families where one parent doesn’t work, or both parents don’t work, will usually not be eligible for these additional 15 hours.

However, if one parent isn’t working because they’re an official carer (eg receiving benefits relating to being a carer) or they are receiving disability benefits, and the other parent is working, then the Government has stated it “intends to make provision” to support these families. 

There is also additional entitlement if the parent normally works but is temporarily away from the workplace, for example on statutory sick pay. 

Are lone parents in full time education eligible for the 30 hours of free childcare? 

Parents in full time education could be eligible for 30 hours free childcare. The income criteria are that each parent or the sole parent in a single parent household needs to expect to earn the equivalent to 16 hours a week at National Minimum or Living Wage over the coming 3 months. 

If a parent works on top of their studies and meets the income criteria they could be eligible. However, parents cannot take up the 30 hours in addition to accessing support through a Childcare Grant.

If my child is 4 and has started primary school, can I use some of the 30 hours to cover outside-school childcare?  

No – because the time your child is at school counts as the free childcare hours. Sophie Hood, Media Officer at the Department for Education explains, “Children who are in reception are receiving their entitlement through the school. Therefore, they cannot receive 30 hours on top of the child’s reception place such as a private childcare before or after school.”

If you’re on maternity leave (but usually work 16 hours), will you still qualify for the 30 hours free?

“If you are on maternity leave, you should still be eligible for 30 hours free childcare however, it is for HMRC to determine eligibility,” says the DfE’s Sophie Hood.

What if you are self-employed or on a zero hours contract?

You will be eligible if you (or both of you in a couple) earn at least the equivalent of 16 hours at the National Minimum Wage. 

What if one parent loses their job?

There will be a short “grace period” – although this hasn’t yet been defined – allowing parents to have a chance to find new employment. 

You probably know everything about the current childcare entitlement but just in case…

Currently, 3 and 4-year-old children are eligible for 570 hours of free childcare a year – which is usually broken down to 15 hours each week over 38 weeks of the year . This covers:

  • Nurseries and nursery classes
  • Playgroups and pre-school
  • Childminders
  • Sure Start Children’s Centres

Depending on income levels, some 2-year-olds in England can get free early education and childcare. In order to get claim, you must be getting one of the following:

  • Income Support
  • Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA)
  • Income-related 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 guaranteed element of State Pension Credit
  • The Working Tax Credit 4-week run on (the payment you get when you stop qualifying for Working Tax Credit)
  • Universal Credit

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