Does everyone get 15 hours free childcare now the scheme is being expanded? Here's everything you need to know

With various schemes available to help with costs, does everyone now get 15 hours free childcare a week? We explain what you need to know

nursery working sitting on floor engaging children playing with abacus at nursery
(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you are paying for childcare, you'll need to know if everyone qualifies for 15 hours free childcare and whether your circumstances mean you qualify for more assistance.

Whether you put your child in a nursery, or use a childminder average childcare costs can be eye-wateringly expensive and will put a big dent in the family budget. And these rising costs mean the cost to raise a child is getting more expensive, especially when you also factor in the cost of wrap around care when they reach school age. 

According to Coram Family and Childcare, a full time (50 hours a week) nursery place for a child under two will set you back an average of £14,500 a year. Thankfully, there is help with childcare costs available from the government, such as the 15 and 30 hours free childcare schemes. Many families wouldn’t be able to cope financially without this assistance.

Personal finance expert Emma-Lou Montgomery, who is also associate director for personal investing at Fidelity International, said: “Juggling childcare costs with wider cost of living challenges means that being able to access free hours of childcare has never been more important for families. It can make a real difference when balancing work commitments, other care responsibilities, household outgoings and starting to think about being able to put money aside, be that for emergency savings or planning for the future.”

This article talks about the childcare scheme in England. There are different schemes in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Does everyone get 15 hours free childcare a week?  

Yes, but only when children reach a certain age - but the scheme is in the process of being expanded. In England, as of 1 April 2024, all two, three and four-year-olds can get 570 free hours per year. This is usually expressed as 15 hours a week for 38 weeks of the year. Depending on the provider, you can use fewer hours per week to cover more weeks in the year, but you can’t use more than 15 hours each week. This can be a lifeline to parents who are worried about how much nursery will cost. Although the childcare is free, you may have to pay for extras like meals, nappies or trips.

Before the expansion came into effect, it was only in some circumstances that parents of two-year-olds could get 15 free hours per week, such as if you were on a low income, received certain benefits or your child had additional needs.

What is the income threshold for 15 hours free childcare? 

There isn't an income threshold to qualify for 15 hours free childcare. All two, three and four-year-olds can qualify. As of September 2024, the scheme will be expanded again to offer 15 hours free childcare to all working parents with children from nine months old.

Young children playing on a small table at childminder or nursery

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Who gets 15 hours free childcare and who gets 30 hours?  

While the 15 hours free childcare is now available to all two, three and four year olds, some families are currently eligible for 30 hours (1,140 hours per year) of free childcare when their child is three or four-years-old.

To be eligible for 30 hours free childcare in England, you and your partner must earn, on average, the equivalent of 16 hours a week at the national minimum wage. However, you can’t earn more than £100,000 a year.

“If both parents are working, 30 hours may be available depending on what you both earn,” explains money expert Rajan Lakhani. “Meanwhile, all parents in Scotland can access 30 hours of free childcare during term-time, and in Wales, there are a variety of different offerings depending on the local authority, but some parents will be able to access 30 free hours.”

However, following the expansion of the 15 hours free childcare, the 30 hours free childcare scheme will also be opened up to more people and by September 2025, all working parents of children from nine months should benefit from the scheme.

The aim of these changes is to get more parents back to work. At the moment, many parents (mainly women) find the cost of childcare makes going back to work unaffordable.

 How can I apply for 15 hours free childcare? 

The first step is to find a nursery, childminder or other ‘approved provider’ who participates in the scheme and has a space for your child. The provider must be registered with Ofsted and can be a nursery, pre-school, after-school club, playgroup, childminder, school or Sure Start centre.

To take advantage of the 15 hours free childcare expansion for children from nine months old, you can register your interest from 12 May 2024, with the hours coming into effect in September 2024.

The provider will apply for the government subsidised hours on your behalf once you have shown them proof of your child's age, such as their birth certificate.

Make sure you also check how the child benefit shake up announced in the 2024 Spring Budget will affect your family, and how much more you might receive when child benefit goes up in 2024.

Emma Lunn
Personal finance expert

Emma Lunn is a multi-award-winning journalist who specialises in personal finance and consumer issues. With more than 18 years of experience in personal finance, Emma has covered topics including all aspects of energy - from the energy price cap to prepayment meter tricks, as well as mortgages, banking, debt, budgeting, broadband, pensions and investments. Emma’s one of the most prolific freelance personal finance journalists with a back catalogue of work in newspapers such as The Guardian, The Independent, The Daily Telegraph, the Mail on Sunday and the Mirror.

With contributions from