All children under school age are entitled to free nursery places at some point. We explain when your child can expect to get theirs, how many hours they can get, and how you can claim it.
Children need to be at school by the start of the first term after their fifth birthday. Before then, if you want childcare or educational facilities for your child, you might have to pay for at least part of the cost, even when taking related benefits into account.
However, there are some options for free childcare.
Free nursery places for three and four year olds
All three and four year olds are now entitled to 15 hours of free nursery education per week for at least 38 weeks of the year, during term times.
This is typically three hours a day for five days a week – in the morning or afternoon depending on what's on offer. Alternatively, you could get five hours a day, three days a week, and other options might be available to you.
The government wants to make this more flexible. Currently, you have to spread the free hours over at least three days, but this could be reduced to two. Starting from September 2012, you'll be allowed to claim free hours between 7am and 7pm, which is two hours longer than the current rules.
You're entitled to free nursery places for three year-olds from the start of the next term following your child's third birthday. This is usually 1 September, 1 January or 1 April. Some providers only start children every September.
This free childcare ends when your children reach compulsory school age.
Where to get free nursery places
You can get this free care from day nurseries, nursery schools, nursery classes in primary schools, other day care or educational establishments for young children, and in some cases even childminders.
All providers that can offer this free care use the same system of education and are inspected by OFSTED. They can be state or private providers, although private ones might still charge a joining fee that could be around £100.
Providers must be listed in the local authority's directory of providers.
You can ask a nursery directly if you can get the free 15 hours per week through them. Otherwise, you could type 'directory of providers early education' into a search engine, plus the name of your local authority, and you should find your local list of eligible providers.
If that doesn't work, contact your local authority's Family Information Service through the National Association of Family Information Services.
How to get this free childcare
To get the funding for your three year-old's free care, you don't have to do anything.
Once your child is of the right age and attending an approved provider, the provider should apply for the funding from the government and reduce your bill accordingly.
If your child is just attending for 15 hours or less for 38 weeks a year, this means the placement is completely free.
Just because your child is entitled to free care, it doesn't mean you're guaranteed to get a place with your first choice of provider, even though local authorities take your preferences into account when you apply for state places.
It's never too early to ask your preferred provider when you can apply, and you should start researching it more than a year in advance. Don't forget to ask how and when it will inform you if your child is accepted.
You can split the free childcare funding between more than one provider, but then you have to tell each provider what you're doing.
You can move your funding in the middle of a term to a new provider, although any contract you have with a provider still applies.
Free childcare for 'disadvantaged' two year-olds
A small number of local authorities have trialled free childcare for disadvantaged two year-olds, funding the same 15 hours per week for 38 weeks.
More authorities will trial this from September this year, although places are limited, so the most disadvantaged are considered a priority.
The authorities where you could get this are Blackpool, Cornwall, Greenwich, Kent (Ashford), Lancashire (Preston), Lambeth, Newcastle, Northamptonshire (Wellingborough), Peterborough and Rotherham.
According to government announcements, this will be extended to all local authorities from September 2013, when all disadvantaged two year olds will receive support.
Under its current definition of 'disadvantaged', that means 20% of two year-olds. However, the government intends to expand the definition in September 2014, which will increase places to 40% of all two year-olds.
Currently your child is classed as disadvantaged if you're receiving one of the following benefits:
- Income support
- Income-based jobseeker's allowance
- Child tax credit at a rate higher than the family element (perhaps due to getting extra for having a disabled child), which is currently £545 a year
- Extra working tax credit for a disability
- Pension credit
- National asylum seekers' support
Each authority has its own local criteria on top of these financial ones. These might be based on the child's development and learning needs, or tailored depending on social background, size of family, age of parents, whether you're a lone parent or a student, your location within the authority, and more.
Your approved childcare provider can apply for the funding for you.
Young students in England
The Care to Learn scheme will pay for childcare costs and related travel costs of up to £160 per week (or £175 in London) for parents in England who are under 20. For some people, this could cover the entire cost of your nursery place or other childcare.
You can claim Care to Learn funding if you start a training course in a school or college or as a trainee in an organisation providing that it receives public funding for work-based learning.
You'll need to use approved childcare providers and you must be the main carer to be eligible.
To apply in the 2012/2013 year, request a Care to Learn application pack.
Don't forget to claim your benefits too
That's all the free childcare, but don't forget to look to your other childcare-related benefits, which could still cover a large part of your costs. You might be entitled to Working Tax Credit, childcare vouchers, In Work Credit, discretionary learner support, or a combination of those.