THOUSANDS of working parents could still miss out on free childcare starting in April.
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced in March 2023, that eligible families of children as young as nine months will be able to claim up to 30 hours of free childcare a week by September 2025.
The changes will take place in a phased approach starting in April, when most working parents with children aged two years will qualify for 15 hours of free childcare.
It will be extended from September, which will allow anyone aged nine months to be given the same amount of care.
At the end of January, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak guaranteed parents will receive free childcare within weeks despite fears computer systems won’t be ready on time.
But Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said on Sunday, that she could not guarantee the government’s childcare pledge would be met as she is “not in control of all the bits”.
“All you can do is put all the plans in place and then react if you need to.
“I am really confident that all the things that we have done will mean that every parent who wants to have a place is going to have a place.
“But what you are asking me is to personally guarantee something on behalf of tens of thousands of businesses that are working out there to grow the capacity and to make sure that we have got the people in place.”
More than 100,000 parents of two-year-olds in England have already registered for codes to access the new 15 hours per week of Government-funded childcare, but there have been concerns about its rollout due to staffing levels, increased demand and funding uncertainty.
It follows warnings earlier this week that limited capacity within the childcare sector could mean that parents in England will miss out on funded hours at their preferred childcare setting.
On Friday, David Johnston, minister for children, families and wellbeing, said the government could not “compel” nurseries and childminders to offer children “free” hours in April when the first phase of its childcare expansion begins.
But he said the Government is “strongly encouraging” settings to provide the newly funded places as he argued that childcare providers have been given “considerable increases” in funding rates to be able to offer it.
Nurseries, pre-schools and childminders in England are being inundated with calls and emails from families who want to take up funded places.
On Friday, the DfE announced a trial of £1,000 sign-on bonuses for new starters and returners into the early years sector in 20 local authorities as part of efforts to increase capacity in the system.
But parents who want to take up the new funded places on offer this year are facing long waiting lists in some areas of the country as providers are full.
Joeli Brearley, founder of the Pregnant Then Screwed charity, said: “The Government’s stance has always been that every eligible two-year-old will be able to access these new funded hours. It seems that as reality bites, they are now backtracking.”
She added: “Many parents are in limbo waiting to hear if their nursery will offer these new funded hours. Meanwhile, providers are unable to plan effectively. It beggars belief that anyone thought it sensible to set a funding rate deadline the day before the scheme is due to be rolled out.”
“If the Government is serious about building an affordable childcare sector in the UK it needs to be funded properly – as it stands, access to affordable childcare risks becoming a postcode lottery for parents,” Ms Brearley said.
Who is eligible for free childcare?
Free childcare was first introduced in 2010 and has since been extended.
You can currently get help paying for childcare for three and four-year-olds through the scheme in England.
Currently, you can get 15 hours of free childcare per week for 38 weeks of the year (during school term time).
But you have to be getting childcare from an approved provider and the help stops when your child starts in reception at school.
Some parents can get up to 30 hours of free childcare, depending on their circumstances.
Some parents can also get free childcare hours for two-year-olds.
You can get help in this instance if you live in England and are on certain benefits, including:
- Income Support
- income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA)
- income-related Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)
- Universal Credit, and your household income is £15,400 a year or less after tax, not including benefit payments
- the guaranteed element of Pension Credit
- Child Tax Credit, Working Tax Credit (or both), and your household income is £16,190 a year or less before tax
- the Working Tax Credit 4-week run on (the payment you get when you stop qualifying for Working Tax Credit)
Two-year-olds can also get free childcare if they are looked after by a local authority, have an education, health and care (EHC) plan, get disability living allowance or have left care under an adoption order, special guardianship order or a child arrangements order.
From April 2024, most working parents of two-year-olds will be able to access 15 hours of free childcare from April.
This will be extended to working parents of all children older than nine months from September.
And from September 2025, working parents of children under five will be entitled to 30 hours of free childcare per week.
What are the rules for working parents?
You must earn a certain amount each week to be eligible for free childcare.
Working parents earning more than £8,670 but less than £100,000 adjusted net income per year are eligible.
This is equal to at least 16 hours a week on average at the National Minimum Wage or Living Wage.
For couples, the rules apply to both parents, so both must earn at least £8,670, and neither can earn more than £100,000.
More information is available on the exact criteria on the Childcare Choices website, for example, if parents work irregular hours or receive certain benefits.
How to apply for the extra childcare
You apply on the same government website where parents of three- and four-year-olds sign up for their existing 30 hours.
Sign into your account on the Gov.UK website or create a new one.
You’ll need a Government Gateway user ID to log in.
Once your application has been approved, you’ll get a code which you have to give to your provider.
Crucially, you have to reconfirm your eligibility every three months.
The recommended time to register for the new support is between mid-January and the end of February, so parents won’t need to reconfirm eligibility before taking up a place.
You can apply outside of the recommended government times, but you might not get a code in time to get help as early as possible.
It usually takes 20 minutes to apply. You may find out if you’re eligible straight away, but keep in mind it can take up to seven days.