Childcare In The UK: What Are My Options And How Can I Claim My Free Hours?

We take a look at the different options for early years childcare in the UK, and how you can claim your free 15 and 30 government-funded hours for children aged 2, 3 and 4.

Woman Carrying Her Baby And Working On A Laptop

What Free Childcare Hours Am I Entitled To As A Parent?

Free Childcare Hours For Children Aged 2

If you have a 2-year-old, you can apply for free childcare hours if you live in England and receive one of the following benefits:

  • Income Support
  • Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA)
  • Income-related Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)
  • Universal Credit, and your household income is £15,400 a year or less after tax, not including benefit payments
  • Tax credits, and your household income is £16,190 a year or less before tax
  • The guaranteed element of Pension Credit
  • The Working Tax Credit 4-week run on (the payment you get when you stop qualifying for Working Tax Credit)

2-year-olds can also get free childcare if they:

  • Are looked after by a local authority
  • Have a statement of special education needs (SEN) or an education, health and care (EHC) plan
  • Receive Disability Living Allowance
  • Have left care under an adoption order, special guardianship order or a child arrangements order

You may have to pay for extra costs like meals, nappies or trips.

How To Check You Are Eligible And Claim Your Hours:

You can check if you are eligible for free childcare hours for 2-year-olds by speaking to your local council.

Free Childcare Hours For Children Aged 3-4

Once your child reaches the age of 3, they will be eligible for free, government-funded childcare hours which will cover or contribute to your childcare fees.

All 3 to 4-year-olds in England are entitled to 570 free hours per year. It’s usually taken as 15 hours a week for 38 weeks of the year, but you can choose to take fewer hours over more weeks.

Some 3 to 4-year-olds are eligible for 30 hours free childcare a week.

The Free Early Education And Childcare:

  • Must be with an approved and registered childcare provider
  • Starts from the term after your child’s 3rd birthday
  • Stops when your child starts in reception class (or reaches compulsory school age, if later)
  • You may have to pay for extra costs like meals, nappies or trips.

How To Check You Are Eligible And Claim Your Hours:

You can check if you are eligible for free childcare hours and apply for a code here, on the Gov.UK website. You will then need to give this code to your childcare provider.

What Types Of Childcare Are Available In The UK?

There are several different types of childcare options available in the UK. There is no one size fits all approach to childcare as every family has different childcare needs depending on their children and situation. Everyone’s childcare solution will look different and potentially change over time.

The main types of childcare available in the UK are as follows:

Childcare In The UK – Nannies

child Sitting On White Chair Near Table

Nannies are qualified childcare professionals who are privately employed by families to look after their children. Nannies usually work out of your home, caring for your child or children. It’s common to join forces with other families to have a nanny share system among 2+ children.

The responsibilities of a nanny vary for each family, but as well as looking after the children they may be involved in preparing and cooking food, domestic work around the house and / or school pick-ups and drop-offs.

The benefit of a nanny is that they tend to be the most flexible arrangement for families, but also the most expensive.

Will Nannies Offer Government-Funded Free Childcare Hours? No, nannies are not able to offer funding, even if they are Ofsted-registered.

Childcare In The UK – Childminders

Three Children Holding Hands Standing On Grass

Childminders are registered, self-employed childcare professionals who care for other people’s children in their own homes, often with mixed ages in a small group.  

The benefit of childminders is that they will take children along on day-to-day activities such as shop trips, or going to the park, playgroups and the local library. It offers your child a familiar home environment.

Childminders are regulated and inspected by Ofsted in England.

Will Childminders Offer Government-Funded Free Childcare Hours? Some childminders are able to offer the free, funded, early education sessions for 2, 3, and 4-years. Check with your childminder.

Childcare In The UK - Day Nurseries

Children At Nursery With Car Toys On The Carpet

Day nurseries are group childcare facilities where babies and children are looked after by a team of staff. Children are usually grouped together by age and attend from the age of around six months through to starting school.

Most day nurseries are privately owned and run, and the benefit of day nurseries are that they operate through the working week from around 8am – 6pm (apart from during national holidays such as Bank Holidays, Easter and Christmas). This is different to pre schools and school nurseries, which follow the school term and holiday schedule.

As a team of staff operate in nurseries, there is no issue if one staff member is off sick - unlike with childminders.

Will Nurseries Offer Government-Funded Free Childcare Hours? Day nurseries will usually offer the free early education places that are available to 2-, 3-, and 4-year-olds. If they are privately run, however, they may not be able to offer the full number of hours and may have conditions attached.

Childcare In The UK – Pre-Schools

Crayons In Yellow Box

Pre-schools provide play and education sessions for children between 2 and 5. Pre-schools tend run term time only, from around 9am to lunchtime or from lunchtime to around 3 or 4pm, depending on the sessions they operate. This might be tricky if you work full time.

Most pre-schools offer morning and afternoon sessions, or a mix of both.

Will Pre-Schools Offer Government-Funded Free Childcare Hours? Yes, most pre schools should offer you the free hours for children.

Childcare In The UK - School Nurseries

Assorted-colour Pencils

Some primary schools in the UK offer a nursery class, usually based on the school campus and using school facilities such as classrooms, dining halls and play areas. They can be a great introduction for your child to the school and the group of children they will meet in Reception, if this is the school they will be attending.

Nursery classes accept children for the academic year before they would start school. Nursery classes operate during school hours, term time only, usually with a session in the morning and then one in the afternoon

Will School Nurseries Offer Government-Funded Free Childcare Hours? Yes, most school nurseries should offer you the free hours for children aged 3-4.

Frequently Asked Questions About Childcare:

How Do I Find Out if I’m Eligible And Claim Free Childcare Hours?

You can check if you are eligible for free childcare hours and apply for a code here, on the Gov.UK website. You will then need to give this code to your childcare provider.

Is Childcare Tax Free?

In terms of tax-free childcare, you can get up to £500 every 3 months (up to £2,000 a year) for each of your children to help with the costs of childcare. This goes up to £1,000 every 3 months if a child is disabled (up to £4,000 a year).

Your employer should be able to help you when it comes to claiming tax-free childcare. Find out more about tax-free childcare here.

How Do I Apply for A Place At My Chosen Childcare Facility?

It depends on the provider, but it’s usual for parents to put their child’s name down on a waiting list for a place. This could be over a year in advance at some popular places, so make sure you get in early.

Does My Child Have To Attend Pre-School Childcare?

No, your child does not have to apply if you don’t want them to.

Once You’re Read Our Post About Childcare In The UK, Read The Following:


The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health professional regarding any medical condition. While every care is taken to ensure the accuracy of the information presented in the blog and to describe best generally accepted current practices we cannot accept any liability for errors or omissions or for any consequences from application of the information given. Information correct at date published.

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Alexandra Phillips

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