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Who gets 15 and 30 hours of free childcare and how do I apply?

The deadline is approaching for working parents in England who want to apply for 15 hours of free weekly childcare for their two-year-olds.

The government hopes that extending free childcare to this age group from April 2024 – and to all under-5s in 2025 – will get more parents back to work.

What free childcare can I get?

Extra help with childcare costs in England is being rolled out in stages. Some free hours are already available.

The help you can get depends on the age of your child, and whether you are working, or receiving certain benefits.

Working parents can get:

  • 15 hours free childcare a week for two-year-olds from April 2024
  • 15 hours free childcare for nine month olds from September 2024
  • 30 hours free childcare for three and four-year-olds is already available
  • 30 hours free childcare for all under-5s from September 2025

To qualify for the new hours, the majority of parents must earn more than £8,670, but less than £100,000 per year.

Those on certain benefits can already get:

If you don’t work, you might still be eligible for 30 hours of free childcare if your partner works, or you receive certain benefits.

How do working parents apply for free childcare hours?

Parents should apply before the start of the term when their child will be eligible – ie before April, September or January.

The deadline to get free hours for two-year-olds in the spring term is 31 March.

If you miss it you won’t be able to start using free hours from April.

Applications for parents of nine-month-olds open on 12 May for the September term.

Parents are advised to apply as soon as possible in all instances.

Once approved, you’ll get a code to give to your officially-registered childcare provider.

Free childcare hours are designed to be used over 38 weeks of the year – during school term time.

However, some providers will stretch them over 52 weeks if you use fewer hours per week.

The government website has details of the deadlines to apply for each age group.

What isn’t covered by the free childcare hours?

The government is increasing the hourly rate it pays childcare providers offering free hours.

However, in many cases, this rate does not cover the full cost of the childcare. So, some providers charge for extras like meals, nappies, sun cream or trips.

The Department for Education says all additional costs are voluntary, and parents should be told they can supply their own food and supplies, to make their childcare entirely free.

However, the charity Pregnant Then Screwed says its research found almost a quarter (23%) of parents said they couldn’t afford to access free childcare hours because of to top-up fees.

How expensive is UK childcare?

The average cost of full-time nursery (50 hours a week) for a child under two in Britain will be £15,709 across 2024 according to Coram, up from just under £15,000 in 2023.

Actual costs can vary significantly depending on where you live.

But Coram’s 2024 figure represents about 45% of average pay for a full-time worker in the UK.

Are there enough childcare places?

By the time the expanded scheme is fully rolled-out in September 2025, demand for childcare places is likely to have risen 15%.

That’s equivalent to more than 100,000 additional children requiring full-time care.

But the number of childcare places in England fell slightly in 2023, mainly because of childminders leaving the sector.

According to the children’s charity Coram, the availability of nursery and childminder places has worsened for all ages of pre-school children across England, Scotland and Wales.

It says fewer than a third of councils (29%) have enough spaces for under-twos in 2024, down from 42% in 2023.

The Department for Education doesn’t yet have figures for the numbers who have signed up, but says childcare staffing rose by 4% across 2023 as a whole.

In the 2024 Budget, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt said the government would guarantee payments to childcare providers for two years to help provide stability.

He previously told the BBC he could not give “an absolute guarantee” that all the places needed would all be available in time.

What childcare help is available in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?

Although all three and four-year-olds are entitled to some free childcare across the UK, different schemes operate in ScotlandWales and Northern Ireland.

In each case, care must be delivered by officially-registered providers.

What other financial help can parents get for childcare costs?

Parents may be entitled to other support, including the UK-wide tax-free childcare scheme.

For every £8 you pay into an online childcare account, the government adds £2 (up to £2,000 per child per year, or £4,000 for disabled children).

Parents who qualify for free childcare hours can save in the tax-free scheme as well.

The Care to Learn scheme offers further help to student parents who are under 20 at the start of their course.

The government has a childcare calculator to help compare available schemes.

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