Free childcare (also known as free entitlement) is provided by the Government. It allows some 2 year olds access to free, good quality, flexible early education or childcare.
The activities you do at home enhance your child's all-round development. It is well documented that high quality early education can influence how well a child does at both primary and secondary school. Read more about the benefits of free childcare for you and your child.
Children can use up to 570 hours each year, or a maximum of 15 hours over 38 weeks, from a pre-school, nursery or accredited childminder registered to offer free places, along with some holiday playschemes meeting specific criteria.
To be authorised to offer free childcare, the childcare provider should be rated 'Good' or 'Outstanding' in their most recent Ofsted report.
Most families will be better off claiming free childcare than paying for childcare using Tax Credits. If you are eligible for the childcare element of Working Tax Credit/Universal Credit, check if your claim is affected by contacting Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC).
2 Is my child eligible for free childcare?
Forty per cent of 2 year olds are eligible for free entitlement. To qualify, the child must be of eligible age and the parent(s) in receipt of one or more of the following income-based benefits:
- Income Support
- Guaranteed element of State Pension Credit
- Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance
- Income-related Employment and Support Allowance
- Support under Part 6 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999
- Universal Credit, and your household income is £15,400 a year or less after tax, not including benefit payments
- Child Tax Credit, but you are not also in receipt of Working Tax Credit and your household income is £16,190 a year or less before tax
- Working Tax Credit, but you are not also in receipt of Child Tax Credit and your household income is £16,190 a year or less before tax
- Working Tax Credit 4-week run on (the payment you get when you stop qualifying for Working Tax Credit), and your household income is £16,190 a year or less before tax.
Or the child meets one of the following other criteria:
- They are a Child Looked After (where the County Council acts as the corporate parent).
- They are adopted*.
- They have a Special Guardianship Order*.
- They have a special educational need or a disability (SEND). These children are eligible if the child either:
- receives Disability Living Allowance*
- has a current Education, Health and Care (EHC) Plan*.
- They are a child of Zambrano Carers (person from a non-EEA state whose residence is required in order to enable a child or dependant adult, who is British, to live in the UK)**.
- They are a child of a family with no recourse to public funds with a right to remain in the UK on grounds of private/family life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights**.
- They are a child of a subset of failed asylum seekers (supported under section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 - ‘the 1999 Act’).
*You will need to provide evidence when you apply.
**Their parents or carers (and their partner if they have one) must meet the low level income requirements, for example, a net income threshold of £15,400.
An eligible child born on or between:
- 1 April and 31 August - can apply online for free childcare for 2 year olds from 1 April. If the application is approved, can then access a free place from the beginning of the term starting in September, following their second birthday.
- 1 September and 31 December - can apply online for free childcare for 2 year olds from 1 September. If the application is approved, can then access a free place from the beginning of the term starting in January, following their second birthday.
- 1 January and 31 March - can apply online for free childcare for 2 year olds from 1 January. If the application is approved, can then access a free place from the beginning of the term starting in April, following their second birthday.
Your child can start their free place at any point after their confirmed eligibility start date, which will be detailed in your award letter following your application.
Funding continues until the term after their third birthday, at which point they will become eligible for universal Free childcare for 3 and 4 year olds.
3 How to apply
If you are eligible for free childcare for your 2 year old, complete either the ‘income-based criteria’ or ‘other criteria’ online application form based on how you qualify.Apply online: Income-based criteria (external link) Apply online: Other criteria
You will be asked to confirm:
- your name
- your address
- the name, gender and date of birth of each child
- the relevant eligibility criteria you are applying under and evidence, where requested.
If you are claiming under one of the benefit eligibility criteria, ensure you include your National Insurance Number or National Asylum Seeker's Service Number. Without this your application cannot be processed.
What happens next
We will review your application, checking whether your child is eligible for funding, and send you the outcome. If 2 year old free childcare is awarded, it will not be removed, even if your circumstances change.
If you do not meet the criteria for free childcare we will contact you advising you to check your eligibility and, if applicable, re-apply in the future.
The processing time for your application may be up to 21 working days. If this period has elapsed, or you have lost your letter from us, email firstname.lastname@example.org for help. If you asked us to email your outcome, please check your spam/junk folder before contacting us.
4 How to use and claim free childcare
If you are awarded free childcare, you should do the following:
1. Find out about the types of childcare providers that offer funded places for 2 year olds on Childcare options.
2. Use the Family Information Service's searchable database or contact us for a list of childcare providers who offer free childcare places.
3. Contact a range of childcare providers to see if they have a vacancy for your child. Arrange to visit as many as you wish and choose the one(s) which best meets your and your child's needs. Find additional information about what to consider.
4. Tell your chosen childcare provider(s) that you wish to access free childcare for your child. You will need to give them the unique reference number that is written on your award letter. They need this number so we can arrange for funding to be paid directly to them.
5. You will be asked to complete and sign a ‘parent declaration’ form, including:
- your address
- your child's legal name and date of birth (bring evidence such as a passport or birth certificate)
- how many hours you wish to claim
- your child's pattern of attendance (the days and hours they will be there).
The childcare provider will do the rest. If you need help, contact us.
5 Additional information
As a parent, you know your child best and should discuss your child’s needs with the childcare provider to help you decide how often your child should attend. A regular pattern of attendance is important to ensure your child’s continued development. You should aim to use your chosen childcare provider for as long as possible, avoiding the need to move your child every few months or term.
Providers that are open all year round may offer parents the flexibility to stretch the hours across the whole year, reducing the number of hours available each week, so that you do not exceed the yearly maximum. Note that this may result in slightly less hours per year, for example 11 hours per week for 51 weeks (561 hours per year) instead of 15 hours for 38 weeks (570 hours per year). Check this with your chosen childcare provider.
You can read the terms and conditions that childcare providers must follow in the provider declaration. Ensure you fully understand and agree to any terms and conditions before you accept a place.
Not all childcare providers will be able to deliver your preferred days/hours. However, the flexibility you need may be achieved by using more than one childcare provider, but not on more than two sites in one day. You must let the childcare provider know if you intend to split the funding across more than one childcare provider.
If you are planning to only access your child’s free hours, childcare providers must ensure that no fees or conditions of access are charged, including:
- no registration/administration fees or non-refundable deposits
- no requirement for a child to access additional hours on top of the free hours
- no requirement for the child to access additional weeks on top of the funded weeks.
Your childcare provider should not charge you as the funding is for a free place rather than a subsidy towards your fees. However, they can set their own rates for any additional time or services that you take. They should let you know in advance what you will be expected to pay. You may be able to get extra help with any additional costs of your childcare place.
It is important you fully understand the childcare provider's admissions policy, which services are included, what they may charge for and any dates by which you need to make a claim.
Read our FAQs for more information about using the free hours: