Many families find childcare expensive, so if you’re a nurse, care assistant or support worker struggling to pay childminder or nursery fees, you’re not alone. Thankfully, there are government schemes to help with the cost of childcare, including nursery hours, tax credits and vouchers.
We’ll explore the three types of help you might be entitled to here.
1. Get “Free” government-funded childcare
In the UK, families can access government-funded childcare if their children are between three and four years old. You can start taking advantage of the scheme from the term after your child turns three. Here’s how the programme works in each country.
In England, you can get 570 hours of free childcare per year for three and four-year-old children. Usually, people use 15 childcare hours per week over 38 weeks, but you can use fewer hours spread over more weeks if you want to.
If you’re on a low income or receive benefits like income support or child tax credit, you might also get free childcare for two-year-old children.
Parents who work more than 16 hours per week and earn at least the National Minimum Wage or Living Wage (but less than £100,000 per year) can claim an extra 15 hours of funded childcare per week, for a total of 30 hours (1,140 per year over 38 weeks). Again, you can use fewer hours spread over more weeks if you prefer.
To apply for 15 hours of government-funded childcare per week and find a childcare provider in England, contact your local council. You’ll need a code to receive the extra 15 hours (totalling 30 hours), which you can get at Gov.uk.
In Wales, you get 30 hours (1,140 per year) of childcare per week for three and four-year-olds, split over 48 weeks per year. To qualify, you have to meet the same work and income guidelines as a parent in England – so, 16 hours per week at National Minimum Wage or Living Wage, but less than £100,000 per year.
Free childcare in Scotland is very similar to Wales: you get 30 hours (1,140 per year) of funded childcare per week, split over 48 weeks per year for three and four-year-old children. If you receive qualifying benefits, like income-based jobseeker’s allowance or incapacity support, you can get funded early learning and childcare for your two-year-old.
Get in touch with your local authority or speak to a registered childcare provider to claim your funded childcare hours.
In Northern Ireland
Funded childcare in Northern Ireland is a little bit different. All three and four-year-olds get nursery education via the Pre-School Education Programme during term time (38 weeks per year). Full-time places cover 4.5 hours a day, while part-time places cover 2.5 hours a day.
Visit the Education Authority website to apply for a funded nursery placement for your child.
Costs you still might have to pay
If you work full time, you might still have to pay for extra hours that fall outside the government-funded hours you’re entitled to. You might also need to pay for things like nappies, trips and other extras.
However, there are other types of funding that can help with these costs. We’ll talk about those options next.
2. See if you’re eligible for benefits
If you’re not currently working, working fewer than 16 hours a week at National Minimum Wage or Living Wage, or working longer than the funded childcare hours you’re entitled to, check if you can get Universal Credit (UC).
You might be eligible for UC with a “child element” added to your standard allowance if your household income is under £40,000 (or more, if you’re a large family). If you’re on a visa, you’ll also need to make sure you’re allowed to access public funds.
Working parents can claim up to 85% of the money they spend on childcare back, up to a maximum of:
- £646 a month for one child.
- £1,108 a month for two or more children.
This summer, the cap will rise to £951 for one child and £1,630 for two or more children. Parents will also be paid for childcare costs up front, rather than having to claim them back – and that will make a big difference if you’re on a limited income.
To see if you’re eligible for UC, check out this handy benefits calculator.
3. Sign up for a Tax-Free Childcare account
You can’t use the government’s Tax-Free Childcare scheme if you’re on benefits, but the programme can help you recover childcare costs if you don’t qualify for UC or you’re on a visa with “no recourse to public funds” (NRPF).
In short, Tax-Free Childcare can pay up to 20% of your childcare bill every year. For example, if you work 40 hours per week and pay £3,000 a year for extra childcare hours over your government-funded entitlement, Tax-Free Childcare will pay £600 toward that amount.
Here’s how it works:
- Open a Tax-Free Childcare account online using your Government Gateway ID.
- Make sure your childcare provider has signed up to receive Tax-Free Childcare payments.
- Put 80% of the money you pay for your monthly childcare costs in your Tax-Free Childcare account.
- The government will add the remaining 20%, so you’ll end up with all the money you need to pay for childcare.
- Pay your childcare provider directly from your Tax-Free Childcare account.
There are a few important things to know about Tax-Free Childcare:
- Tax-Free Childcare will pay up to £2,000 per year toward childcare costs, or £500 per quarter.
- If your child is disabled, this limit rises to £4,000 per year.
- Your child must be under 11 years old, or under 16 years old if they’re disabled.
- You (and your partner, if you have one) need to work more than 16 hours a week and make more than the minimum wage, but less than £100,000 per year.
- You have to reconfirm that you’re eligible for Tax-Free Childcare every three months to continue receiving the benefit.
You can apply for Tax-Free Childcare at the government website.
Coming up: funded childcare for children over 9 months
In spring 2023, the government announced plans to extend childcare funding to all children in England aged nine months old or over. They plan to begin offering funded hours in stages:
- April 2024: all two-year-olds will get 15 hours of childcare per week (570 hours per year), spread over 38 weeks per year if their parents meet current work and income guidelines.
- September 2024: all eligible working parents of children aged nine months to three years will get 15 hours of childcare per week (570 hours per year), spread over 38 weeks per year.
- September 2025: all eligible working parents of children aged between nine months and three years old will get 30 hours of childcare per week (1140 hours per year), spread over 38 weeks per year.
Future childcare funding schemes in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland might vary because they’re set up and funded in a different way.
Don’t miss out on help with childcare
There are lots of different childcare funding options out there, some of which vary depending on which part of the UK you live in. Don’t miss out on valuable help: check which schemes you’re entitled to on the Gov.uk website today.
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