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What are the entitlements for free childcare?

The Government provides financial support with the costs of childcare for three and four-year-olds in England via two entitlements to free childcare:

  • The universal 15 hours entitlement (“15 hours of free childcare”)
  • The extended 30 hours entitlement (“30 hours of free childcare”)

The free hours must be used with an approved childcare provider, which means they must be registered with Ofsted or with a registered childminder agency.

A separate casework page provides information on the entitlement for some two-year-olds.

What is the universal entitlement?

All three- and four-year-olds in England can receive 570 hours of Government funded childcare a year.

The 570 hours are commonly taken as 15 hours a week for 38 weeks of the year and the entitlement is often referred to as “15 hours of free childcare”. The entitlement can also be taken over more than 38 weeks, if the childcare provider agrees (such as 11 hours a week for 52 weeks of the year).

A child becomes eligible for the entitlement at the start of the term after their third birthday up until they start reception class or reach compulsory school age (whichever is later).

The entitlement is universal and applies irrespective of income. It also applies regardless of the immigration status of the child’s parents.

What is the extended entitlement?

Some three and four-year-olds qualify for a further 570 hours of funded childcare on top of the “15 hours of free childcare”. This, together with the universal entitlement, is commonly taken as 30 hours a week for 38 weeks of the year (and is often referred to as “30 hours of free childcare”).

As with the universal entitlement, the additional 570 hours can be stretched over more than 38 weeks (but they cannot be condensed into a period shorter than 38 weeks), subject to agreement with the childcare provider.

Who is eligible for the extended entitlement?

To be eligible for the extended entitlement a person, and their partner if they have one, must be in “qualifying paid work.” A person is considered to be in “qualifying paid work” if they expect to earn the equivalent of at least 16 hours a week at the National Living Wage (for those age 23 and over) or the applicable National Minimum Wage rate (for those aged under 23).

However, if a person, or their partner, has an adjusted net income of over £100,000 they are not eligible for this entitlement.

In some circumstances, a person can be considered to be in “qualifying paid work” even if they do not meet the earnings threshold. This includes:

  • Where one or both parents are in receipt of benefits in connection with sickness or parenting (eg sick or annual leave, or parental, maternity, paternity or adoption leave). Where this only applies to one parent in a couple household, the other parent must meet the earnings criteria.
  • If a person is paid or entitled to specific benefits related to caring, incapacity for work or limited capability for work, and their partner is in “qualifying paid work.”

A person is not treated as being in “qualifying paid work” on the basis that they are in full-time education. See the Library’s casework article for information on childcare support for students.

To be eligible for the extended entitlement, a person, and their partner if they have one, must have a National Insurance number. In addition, the person making the application, but not their partner, must have one (or more) of the following

  • British or Irish citizenship
  • settled or pre-settled status (or awaiting a decision)
  • permission to access public funds

Further information is available on the website of the No Recourse to Public Funds Network at: 3 to 4 year olds (30 hours). As with the universal entitlement, a child becomes eligible for the extended entitlement at the start of the term after their third birthday up until they start reception class or reach compulsory school age (whichever is later).

More detailed information, including on exemptions to the earnings requirement, are provided in statutory guidance published by the Department for Education. The detailed rules are set out in The Childcare (Free of Charge for Working Parents) (England) Regulations 2022.

Can the provider charge any additional fees?

The free entitlements must be delivered completely free of charge and providers are not permitted to charge top-up fees (ie, charge parents for the difference between their normal fee and the funding they receive for the free hours).

Childcare providers can charge for lunch and consumables (such as nappies), but parents should be provided with alternative options if they do not want to pay (such allowing the child to bring in a packed lunch).

Parents may also choose to purchase additional hours on top of the free entitlement hours. Where a parent chooses to do this, they do so at the provider rate, and this is a private matter between the provider and the parent.

Further information is provided in the Department for Education’s statutory guidance for early education and childcare (paragraphs A1.25-A1.33).

Extension of 30 hours entitlement

The Government has announced plans to extend the 30 hours entitlement to children aged nine months up to three years in England.

Eligibility will match the existing entitlement (ie available for working families), and the extension will happen in stages for eligible families:

  • Two-year-olds will be able to access 15 hours a week from April 2024;
  • Children from nine months to two-years-olds will be able to acces 15 hours per week from September 2024;
  • Children aged nine months up to three years will be able to access 30 hours a week from September 2025.

Further reading

Further information on the childcare entitlements, and other sources of support with childcare costs, is available in the following source: