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Many parents say that childcare is too expensive, but there may be
help available to meet the costs. For example there are schemes
offering free childcare placements to many pre-school children.
If you are a working family help may also be available through
the tax credit system or via
Universal Credit. Sometimes it is even possible to get direct payments
to pay for childcare following a social needs assessment.
In England all three and four year olds are
entitled to 15 hours of free early education/childcare for 38 weeks
of the year. Some two year olds are also eligible, for example any
two year old who is in receipt of DLA or who has a statement of
special education need or an Education, Health and Care Plan. A two
year old also qualifies if their parents are in receipt of
certain means tested benefits.
Free childcare hours can be split between more
than one childcare provider. This can include not only nursery
classes and private nurseries but also playgroups and childminders.
However individual childcare providers are not obliged to offer
free places and some have decided not to take part in the
Working families of three and four year olds are entitled to an
extra 15 hours of free childcare. This is on top of the 15 hours of
free early education for all parents of three and four year olds,
and some two year olds.
Will I be entitled to the extra 15 hours?
You will be eligible if:
Where one parent meets the income criteria and the other is
unable to work because they are disabled, have caring
responsibilities or have been assessed as having limited capability
to work, they are assessed as though they are in paid work. This
includes where one partner is eligible for carer's allowance
(including an underlying entitlement) or the carer element of
Where you are in a 'start-up period' (you are newly
self-employed), you do not need to demonstrate that you meet the
income criteria for 12 months.
If one or both parents is a non-EEA national, the parent
applying must have recourse to public funds.
When will I not meet the criteria?
You will not meet the criteria for the additional 15 hours
What happens if I lose eligibility?
You will receive a 'grace period' - this means you will be able
to keep your childcare for a short period.
Once the 'grace period' has lapsed, you should be entitled to the
universal 15-hour entitlement.
How do I apply for free childcare?
gov.uk website allows parents to apply for the government's
childcare offers, as well as providing details of existing
government schemes. You can also find out more from Childcare
In Scotland all three and four year olds are
eligible to 16 hours a week free early education. Some two year
olds are also covered - for example where a parent is in receipt of
certain means tested benefits.
In Wales all children are entitled to a free
part-time pre-school place of at least 10 hours a week, starting
from the school term after their third birthday and lasting for at
least 6 terms.
However, the Welsh government is also in the
process of rolling out 30 hours free childcare for working parents
of three and four year olds. In some parts of Wales you can get 2.5
hours free childcare, five days a week once your child turns two.
Contact your local authority for more details about these
Northern Ireland has a programme of funded pre-school education
aimed at children in the year immediately before they enter primary
one. You can find more information on how to apply from the NI
Challenging childcare decisions
If you've encountered barriers that have prevented you from
accessing free childcare, visit our refused childcare? page.
Childcare costs and Working Tax Credit
If you are a tax credit claimant and you pay for registered
childcare, you can get help with up to 70% of your childcare costs
via Working Tax Credit. For childcare costs to be taken into
account, you must either be:
The maximum amount of childcare that can be taken into account
is £175 per week for one child and £300 per week for two or more
Since 70 per cent of childcare costs can be met, the most that
can actually be paid towards childcare costs is £122.50 a week for
one child and £210 a week for two or more children. These are the
maximum amounts payable and the actual amount you will get depends
on your income and family circumstances.
Childcare costs and Universal Credit
Under the new Universal Credit system that is being
introduced to replace tax credits and other means tested benefits,
you can also get help with any registered childcare costs you pay
for in order to work.
You can get up to 85 per cent of your costs
met. The maximum amount of costs that will be taken into account is
£758.33 a month for one child and £1,300 a month for two or more
However, since only 85 per cent of costs are
met, this means that maximum amounts payable towards childcare are
£646 a month for one child or £1,108 a month for two or more
Childcare costs are included in your Universal
Credit claim so long as you do some paid work - no matter the
number of hours. If you are a couple you must both work or one of
you must work and the other partner must either care for a severely
disabled person or have a limited capability to work due to their
own health problems.
Tax-free childcare scheme
The government has a
new tax-free childcare scheme for working families. The
scheme helps with childcare costs for children aged under 12 (under
17 if a child is disabled). To qualify you must be working and have
earnings of at least £125.28 per week. If you are a couple you must
either both be working and have earnings of this level or one of
you must be have eanings of that level and the other partner be in
receipt of certain disability benefits or carer's benefits such as
Despite its name, this new system has nothing to do with the tax
system. Instead, parents can open an online account, which they
will use to pay for registered or approved childcare. For every £8
you pay into your child's account, the government will add a top up
payment of £2.
Normally the maximum that the government will contribute is
£2,000 per child per year, assuming you contribute £8,000. However,
if a child is disabled, the maximum government contribution
increases to £4,000 per year, assuming the parent contributes
Warning! - If you access tax-free
childcare, you cannot get any tax credits or Universal
Credit. This means all of your tax credits/Universal Credit
stops, not just any payments you get towards childcare. In most
cases you will be better off getting tax credits or Universal
Credit, so make sure you get advice before applying for tax-free
Employer supported childcare
Some employers offer support with childcare costs by either
offering workplace childcare or by offering childcare vouchers so
that an employee can buy registered or approved childcare. This is
often done via a 'salary sacrifice scheme', whereby an employee
agrees to accept lower earnings in return for the assistance with
However new applications for childcare vouchers have now been
scrapped and replaced by Tax Free Childcare. If you are
already using childcare vouchers, you can either continue to use
them, or you can change to Tax Free Childcare. However bear in mind
that if you move onto Tax Free Childcare you will also have to give
up any tax credits or Universal Credit that you
You may also wish to approach your local social services (social
work in Scotland) department to see if they will offer support to
help you juggle work and caring - such as organising alternative
childcare or providing direct payments towards additional childcare
When assessing your needs as a carer, they should consider the
impact that caring has on your ability to continue in employment or
move into work.
Read our information about the
early years and childcare options your child may be entitled