30 hours or 15 hours of free childcare - will my child get it and is it REALLY free?
If your child eligible for the Government's newly extended 30 hours of free childcare scheme? How many hours do you actually get across a year - and how does it work?
The Government has announced that it will gradually be extending the current scheme providing 30 hours of free childcare to eligible working parents of 3 and 4 year olds in England to eligible working parents of 9 month olds to 3 year olds – eventually making the 30 hours available for all children from 9 months until they start school.
The Scottish government has also announced a pilot scheme to provide childcare from 9 months to the end of primary school.
So, can I claim the free hours of childcare for my child now?
Only if your child is 3 or 4 (and not at school) and you meet the eligibility criteria we've listed below.
The 30 hours of childcare for younger children (9 months to 3 years) will be phased in gradually from spring 2024 (see What about the free childcare for 2-year-olds?, below), starting with 15 free hours a week for 2 year olds.
If your child is 2 or will be 2 in April 2024, and so might qualify for the 15 hours free childcare in from April 2024, you can apply now. In fact, parents are encouraged to apply before the end of February 2024, to ensure they receive their eligibility codes in time for the rollout in April.
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Eligibility checker: find out if your child qualifies
As things currently stand (1 September 2024), 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
- You live in England (there are different schemes in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland)
- Your child lives with you
- Both the child's parents are working or you are a working parent in a lone-parent family. You may also be eligible if your partner is working and you are sick leave or shared parental leave or maternity/paternity/adoption leave or you receive certain benefits.
- Each parent earns, on average, a weekly minimum equivalent to 16 hours at National Minimum Wage or National Living Wage
- Each parent has a net annual income of less than £100,000
- The childcare is provided by an approved provider, which can include a registered childminder, nanny, playsheme or nursery
If you don't meet all these criteria, you'll still qualify for 15 hours free childcare: your local council will be able to provide you with further details about that.
- You can check what you could be eligible for in terms of free childcare with the Government's childcare-help checker tool.
What about the free hours of childcare for 2 year olds?
From the spring of 2024, the free childcare scheme is being gradually extended to younger children, starting with 2 year olds:
- From April 2024, eligible working parents of 2-year-old can claim 15 hours of free childcare per week. You can start applying for this from January 2024.
- And, from September 2024, eligible working parents can claim 15 hours of free childcare per week for their children from the age of 9 months until they start school.
- From September 2025, eligible working parents can claim 30 hours of free childcare per week for their children from the age of 9 months until they start school.
It's been stated that equivalent funding will be available in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
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 (during school-term time), not 52 weeks of the year.
It adds up 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 the whole year but this will mean you'll get fewer than 30 hours free childcare each week. It will also depend on what your nursery or childminder is willing to offer.
Which childcare providers are able to offer 30 hours free childcare?
- Registered nurseries and nursery classes
- Registered playgroups/playschemes and pre-schools
- Registered childminders and nannies, including those from a childminder or nanny agency
- Home care workers working for a registered home care agency
So how can nurseries that offer this free 30 hours of childcare afford to do so?
The Government pays an hourly rate to childcare providers but there is often a shortfall between that rate and the rate the provider charges to parents.
This has meant that, in many childcare settings, the shortfall is being covered by charging for extras and/or putting up the fees for non-free hours or for younger babies. That's because, under the scheme, providers can't charge any money for the 30 hours but they can charge for other extras or ask for contributions.
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. "Children who are in Reception are receiving their entitlement through the school," says a Department of Education spokesperson. "Therefore, they cannot receive 30 hours on top of the child's Reception place."
How do I apply for the 30 hours free childcare?
You apply online on the Government's 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
How do I claim the free hours at my nursery?
Once you've applied and registered, you'll receive a code – if you're eligible. Take your code to your childcare provider, along with your National Insurance number and your child’s date of birth
Your childcare provider will check the code and then allocate your child a free childcare place, if one is available.
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Pics: Getty Images
Tara is mum to 1 daughter, Bodhi Rae, and has worked as Content Editor and Social Media Producer at MadeForMums since 2015
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