30 hours free childcare UK: When to apply and how to find out if you qualify

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  • In 2017, the government announced plans to double the amount of free childcare that was offered to pre-primary school age children by the end of the year.

    When the pandemic hit, the government then extended the eligibility of 30 hours free childcare for those in the UK to help parents trying to work during the lockdowns, even if the amount of hours they’re working decreases.

    Juggling childcare with earning enough to stay afloat is one of the most challenging parts of parenthood, let alone in unprecedented times. While nurseries are still open, many have increased their fees due to lockdown losses and the alternative, working from home with kids, has been one of the biggest struggles of the last year. We’ve been in some form of lockdown for a long time now and no one is really sure when the restrictions will be lifted, so for all the struggles families are facing at the moment, 30 hours free childcare is likely to be a lifeline.

    This is what you need to know about the scheme in the UK…

    What is the 30 hours free childcare scheme and how does it work?

    The 30 hours free childcare scheme is a government-funded programme to offer working parents and carers, who meet the eligibility requirements, free childcare for up to 30 hours a week. While there might be other expenses incurred such as meals, nappies and any trips, there is no cost of actual childcare for anyone on the scheme.

    Any parent or carer who is suitable for the scheme can apply for 30 hours of free childcare per week for 38 weeks of the year, in place of school term times. Alternatively, free childcare is available for 52 weeks of the year if applicants use fewer than the standard 30 hours per week. Only certain childcare providers will offer this though, so it’s important to check with whoever you choose.

    This is how the scheme works for most of the UK now, as of August 2021 when Scotland changed their scheme to reflect the rest of the country. In Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, parents are offered free childcare for 30 hours a week if they meet the requirements for it, up from the previous 15 hours a week.

    Two three year old, one of the ages eligible for the 30 hours free childcare in the UK

    Credit: Getty

    In the midst of the pandemic and before the January lockdown, as of November 1 working parents on the scheme who also are receiving support through the government’s Job Support Scheme (JSS) and extended Self-Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS) will continue to receive their 30 hours free childcare, the government also confirmed, even if their income falls below the threshold temporarily.

    It’s the second time that the government have done this over the last year, as in May, the government announced that those who were previously eligible for the scheme but whose income had dropped as a result of the pandemic, would still be able to access the free childcare scheme.

    Children and families minister, Vicky Ford confirmed that the government would be increasing this safety net for families as she said, “This has been our constant priority, which is why I am so pleased to see attendance rates rising, as more parents return to work and take up the formal childcare arrangements they used before Covid-19 struck.

    “It’s testament to the hard work of early years professionals that these numbers are returning to what we would have seen before the pandemic.

    “We know challenges remain for many families, which is why we continue to protect parents’ eligibility for our free childcare offers so they retain this vital support.”

    How to apply for the 30 hours free childcare scheme

    Woman and two young children at home

    Credit: Getty

    An online application is all that’s needed to apply for the 30 hours free childcare scheme, where afterwards, you’re given a code to give to the registered childcare provider – whether that’s a nursery or childminder – who will be able to claim the money from the government.

    As part of the application, you can also apply for Tax-Free Childcare and parents and carers will find out if they can receive both at the same time.

    Anyone applying will need to set up a childcare account on the government’s website and input details such as their own (and their partner’s, if they have one) National Insurance number and Unique Taxpayer Reference (UTR), if they’re self-employed. It takes about 20 minutes to apply and the great news is that the applications are almost immediate so while you might have to wait a week, many find out if they’re eligible for the scheme straight away.

    What is the difference between tax free childcare and 30 hours free?

    A three year old boy, one of the ages eligible for 30 hours free childcare in the UK, reading a book with a woman

    Credit: Getty

    Tax free childcare is another part of the scheme, where parents and carers pay for their childcare but receive a discount. This differs from the 30 hours free childcare as it’s a set monetary discount rather than a particular number of childcare hours offered completely for free.

    The discount scheme allows for £500 every three months, adding up to £2,000 per year, for each of the children to help with the costs of childcare. It goes up to £1,000 for every three months if a child is disabled.

    Just the same as 30 hours free childcare, parents and carers can use the discount for childminders, nurseries and nannies, as well as at after school clubs and play schemes when they are open again. The childcare provider must be signed up to the scheme, however, before you can pay them and benefit from Tax-Free Childcare. This is very similar to the 30 hours free scheme, as are the eligibility requirements.

    30 hours free childcare eligibility: How to find out if you qualify

    Nursery school teacher with little girl

    Credit: Getty

    To qualify for the 30 hours free childcare in the UK, you must live in England (or Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland on the separate schemes) and in all cases, the child must be 3 or 4 years old.

    The following eligibility requirements for 30 hours childcare also apply:

    • The childcare must be an approved childcare provider, like a registered nursery or childminder.
    • The child must normally live with the parent or carer claiming the free childcare.
    • The parent or carer must have a National Insurance Number, British or Irish citizenship, settled or pre-settled status, or been living in the UK before 1 January 2021 with the right to reside.
    • They also must have permission to access public funds (a UK residence card will tell you if you cannot do this).
    • A parent or carer can receive 30 hours free childcare if they or their partner is in work, on sick or annual leave, on shared parent, maternity, paternity or adoption leave.
    • If a parent or carer is temporarily working less and either on the furlough scheme from the Job Retention Scheme or claiming a Self Employment Income Support Scheme grant, they can apply.
    • Parents or carers have to earn the National Minimum Wage or Living Wage over three months, for at least 16 hours a week on average. If they have a partner, they’ll also need to earn at least this much too.
    • If they’re not working at the moment, parents and carers can apply if they’re starting or re-starting work within the next 31 days.

    Parents or carers may also still be eligible if their partners are working but they receive an Incapacity Benefit, Severe Disablement Allowance, Carer’s Allowance or contribution-based Employment and Support Allowance.

    The free childcare stops when the child starts in reception class or reaches compulsory school age, if that’s later.

    Anyone living and working in England, who is not eligible for 30 hours free childcare, can still claim 15 hours free childcare as standard. Their child still must be 3 to 4 years old and the care must be with a approved childcare provider.

    Can you get 30 hours free childcare on universal credit?

    Anyone claiming Universal Credit may still be able to get up to 30 hours free childcare if their child is 3 to 4 years old. The same eligibility rules on working, income and right to access public funds still apply, however.

    If someone is not eligible for 30 hours free childcare in the UK but is eligible for universal credit, they can claim back 85% of childcare costs for care that has already been paid for and taken place.

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