New Free Childcare Plan: Understanding the Free Hours and How to Get Them

New Free Childcare

Parents across the nation can anticipate some relief with the government’s new free childcare plan, designed to support hundreds of thousands of working families.

This initiative, especially beneficial for working mothers, is poised to have a substantial impact on both household finances and the wider economy. Making childcare more affordable and accessible addresses one of the predominant expenses for working households and reflects a significant step by the administration.

Navigating the eligibility criteria and understanding how to apply for the free childcare hours will be crucial for parents looking to benefit from either 15 or 30 hours of government-subsidised care.

This article lays out the detailed process, examining current provisions and exploring the ways in which Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s policy aims to reshape the future of childcare.

Eligibility Criteria for Free Childcare Hours

To qualify for the government’s new free childcare hours, parents and guardians must meet specific criteria. Here’s a straightforward rundown of the eligibility requirements:

Work Requirement:

  • Parents must work at least 16 hours a week.
  • The scheme applies if you are employed, self-employed, or a company director.
  • Those on sick leave, annual leave, or parental leave (maternity, paternity, adoption) are also eligible.

Income Threshold:

  • Individual earnings must be below £100,000 per annum.
  • For couples, both must earn under this threshold.
  • Each parent must expect to earn at least the National Minimum Wage or Living Wage for 16 hours a week, on average, over the next 3 months.

Child’s Age and Residency:

  • For 2-year-olds, from April 2024, parents can access 15 hours of free childcare, expanding to 30 hours by September 2025.
  • Children aged three to four are entitled to 30 hours of free childcare.
  • The child must usually live with the applicant and reside in England.

Additional Support for Universal Credit Claimants:

  • Up to 85% of childcare costs can be claimed.
  • Support is upfront to ease into the payment cycle.
  • The maximum support amount will increase by almost 50%.

Immigration Status:

  • Parents must have a National Insurance number and be British or Irish citizens, have settled or pre-settled status, or have permission to access public funds.

For parents of three to four-year-olds, the process is streamlined as there is no need to apply; childcare providers will manage the process. However, parents must apply for a code for children aged two and below and reconfirm their eligibility every three months to maintain the free childcare hours. Applications and reconfirmations can be made through the GOV.UK website or the Childcare Choices website, where full eligibility criteria and details are provided.

Parents who are disabled, carers, or have NRPF (No Recourse to Public Funds) and certain types of visas may still be eligible for free hours. Self-employed parents who don’t have a statutory entitlement to leave or pay but would have if they were employed will also meet the minimum earnings requirement.

It’s important to note that these free hours cannot be claimed in conjunction with other funded childcare hours already being received. However, they can be used simultaneously with Tax-Free Childcare or Universal Credit for childcare. Eligibility for the funded hours starts from the term after the child reaches the qualifying age, ensuring that support is available when most needed.

Applying for Free Childcare Hours

How to Apply for Free Childcare

Applying for the free childcare hours provided by the government is a straightforward process, and here’s how you can do it:

  1. Single Application for 30-Hour Offer and Tax-Free Childcare:
    • Visit the website and fill out a single application form.
    • This application will determine your eligibility for both the 30-hour childcare offer and tax-free childcare.
  2. Receiving and Using Your Eligibility Code:
    • Upon eligibility confirmation, you’ll be given an 11-digit code.
    • Take this code to your chosen early years provider, along with your national insurance number and your child’s birth certificate.
    • Remember to reconfirm your eligibility every three months to ensure the code remains active.
  3. Application Timing and Process for Different Age Groups:
    • For 2-year-old children, applications for 15 hours of free childcare per week open on 1st April 2024, via the Childcare Choices website.
    • For 3 to 4-year-old children, it’s best to apply in line with the child’s birthdate to ensure the code is received in good time.
    • For two-year-olds, apply between mid-January and the end of February to minimise the need for reconfirmation before taking up a place.
  4. Claiming Funded Childcare:
    • Ensure you apply before the deadline on 31st March 2024 to claim your code for funded hours.
    • Applications for the new government-funded childcare offers will open on 2nd January 2024 via Childcare Choices.
  5. Future Developments:
    • Starting from April 2024, eligible working parents of 2-year-olds can apply for funding for 15 hours per week of education and care for 38 weeks of the year.
    • From September 2025, this will expand to 30 hours per week for all eligible working parents.

By following these steps and keeping track of the key dates, parents can navigate the application process for free childcare hours with confidence. Remember, the key to maintaining these benefits is to reconfirm your details every three months to prevent the expiration of your code.

What Does Free Childcare Cover?

The free childcare scheme in England provides a substantial support system for parents, covering various aspects of childcare. Here’s what parents can expect the free childcare to cover:

Hours of Childcare:

  • The scheme offers 30 hours of free childcare per week for 38 weeks of the year, aligning with the standard school term times.
  • Should parents need childcare throughout the year, these hours can be stretched to cover up to 52 weeks, resulting in fewer hours per week, depending on the provider’s policy.

Childcare Providers:

  • Only registered childcare providers are eligible to offer the free hours. These include nurseries, pre-schools, childminders, and some school-based providers like Sure Start Children’s Centres.
  • The government is set to increase the hourly rate paid to these providers to ensure the continued delivery of the 30 hours entitlement.

Additional Costs:

  • It’s important for parents to note that while the core hours are covered, additional costs such as meals, nappies, or specific activities may incur extra charges from the provider.

The government’s phased expansion plans for the childcare support are designed to gradually accommodate more families. By September 2025, most working families with children under 5 will be entitled to 30 hours of childcare support weekly. To facilitate this, local authorities and schools will receive additional funding to provide extended ‘wraparound care’ from 8am to 6pm for school-age children by September 2026.

Furthermore, to support the increased demand, from September 2023, staff-to-child ratios will change, allowing one staff member to look after five children, up from the current four. This is complemented by an investment of over £400 million in 2024-25 to deliver a significant uplift to local authority hourly rates, ensuring enough places are available for the expanding programme.

Lastly, new childminders entering the profession after 15th March 2023, or those who have recently completed their registration, will have access to funding. This initiative aims to recruit and retain talented childcare staff by offering increased funding rates across the country and up to £1,200 for new childminders.

Challenges and Concerns

Childcare Free Hours

While the new free childcare plan is a welcome development for many families, several challenges and concerns have arisen that could impact its effectiveness:

Provider Capacity vs. Parental Demand:

  • A survey by the Early Years Alliance indicates that while 89% of eligible families plan to use the expanded offer, 61% are hopeful about getting the hours they need, there’s a significant gap between these expectations and the actual capacity of providers to deliver the required places.
  • Notably, 42% of providers have reported that their settings are already at full capacity with existing waiting lists, highlighting the mismatch between supply and demand.

Provider Funding and Infrastructure:

  • Financial constraints are a key issue, with many providers finding it challenging to offer additional places due to inadequate funding, which affects their ability to expand physical space or hire sufficient staff.
  • Concerns about the sector’s readiness to handle the expansion have been voiced, with insufficient preparation time for providers and the risk of settings closing and educators leaving the sector due to the current crisis.

Access and Quality Concerns:

  • The mixed nature of the childcare market means that access to provision can be difficult, especially for families with atypical work hours, those living in rural areas, or with children who have special educational needs and disabilities.
  • Changes to staff-to-child ratios have sparked worries about the potential decline in care quality, with the sector emphasizing the importance of a highly qualified workforce for delivering quality early education and childcare.

Neil Leitch, CEO of the Early Years Alliance, has urged the government to engage with the sector to ensure the necessary infrastructure is in place. He stresses that without proper planning and support, the ambitious expansion could fall short of its goals. As parents navigate these changes, they should visit for the most current information on additional charges and ensure they are receiving all the financial support to which they are entitled.

Future Developments

Starting in April 2024, the landscape of childcare in England will begin to shift significantly, offering extended support to working parents.

Here’s what the future holds:

For Two-Year-Olds:

  • From April 2024, working parents meeting the eligibility criteria can apply for 15 hours of free childcare support per week.
  • This applies for 38 weeks of the year, coinciding with the school term.

Expansion to Younger Children:

  • A notable change is set for September 2024, when 15 hours of free childcare will be available to all children starting from the age of nine months.
  • This is a significant broadening of the scheme, which traditionally began at age two.

Increase to 30 Hours:

  • By September 2025, the provision doubles for eligible working parents of children under five, with 30 hours of free childcare per week becoming available.
  • Parents can choose to spread these hours over 38 weeks or opt for fewer hours across the full year, up to 52 weeks, depending on individual provider policies.

The government’s strategy is to ensure that the rollout is gradual, allowing childcare providers to scale their services appropriately and meet the increasing demand from families. With the ratio adjustments from September 2023, where one staff member can care for five children, providers are given more flexibility to accommodate these changes.

In addition to the expansion of hours, there’s a financial boost for those on Universal Credit. By Summer 2023, up to 85% of childcare costs can be claimed, with the maximum support amount set to increase substantially. This aims to ease the financial burden on families and ensure that childcare is more accessible.

Lastly, the investment of over £400 million in 2024-25 to uplift local authority hourly rates for childcare, coupled with funding incentives for new and re-registering childminders, underscores the government’s commitment to strengthening the childcare sector. This, along with the expectation that over 2 million parents on Universal Credit could be eligible for significant monthly support, illustrates a future where childcare is not only more accessible but also more supportive of working parents’ needs.


How Free Childcare Works UK

The rollout of the government’s new free childcare plan is a transformative step for working families across England, set to bring significant support and economic relief. Comprehensive in its approach, the policy not only provides immediate financial respite but also lays down a robust framework for the future, expanding access to childcare for children as young as nine months by September 2025. By ensuring that crucial eligibility details and the application process are clearly understood, parents can effectively navigate the system to gain these valuable free hours.

As the landscape of childcare support shifts, it is imperative that families remain informed of developments and changes to maximize the benefits. The journey towards a more accessible and affordable childcare system is ongoing, and staying updated is crucial for taking full advantage of the support available. For more information or to begin the application process for your family, please visit Childcare Choices and explore the government’s plan for more inclusive support in the years to come.