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

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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 – 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.

  • 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

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.

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.

What isn’t covered by the free childcare hours?

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

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.

Are there enough childcare places?

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

To help meet demand, the government is offering a cash incentive of £600 to those who become childminders (or £1,200 for those joining via an agency).

In the Budget, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt said the government would guarantee pay rates to childcare providers for two years, in order to deliver childcare places.

Mr Hunt said the “biggest ever expansion” of childcare would help get an extra 60,000 parents back into the workforce over the next four years.

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 Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

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

What other financial help can parents get for childcare costs?

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.

How expensive is UK childcare?

That’s the equivalent of 44% of average pay for full-time workers.

But costs vary significantly according to where you live.

In inner London, the benefit of higher wages is effectively cancelled by increased nursery fees, which account for more than half of the average full-time wage.

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