How to get help paying for childcare for parents in England

To get completely free childcare in England you need to make use of the schemes providing between 15 and 30 free hours per week for children between 2 and 4. There are other schemes that will help you pay for childcare with your pre-tax salary, and others which are benefits. Of course you can use grandparents, other family and friends too. We have lots of information on all the schemes that you can use to help pay for childcare below.

What will you learn from this post about childcare in England?

You will learn:

  • Which free childcare schemes are available in England
  • Which ones are you likely to be eligible for
  • The pros and cons of each
  • About other grants and benefits that might help you pay for childcare

At the end of this post I hope you will consider yourself better prepared to access all the childcare necessary for you family.

Why is childcare so expensive? Does it have to be this complicated?

Hopefully you’ve read our overview of free childcare schemes in the UK. You can access this article here. 

Children need constant attention and vigilance. They need a competent adult to watch that the dont hurt themselves, that they have clean clothes, that they eat, drink, pee and poo safely and normally. Someone needs to talk to them, play with them, understand their needs and help them learn. 

If parents can’t do this because they’re out earning money to feed, house and clothe their kids, they need to help. Many don’t have the free and easy access to wonderful grandparents. Childcare providers are registered and background checked, they are generally professionals often with qualifications in their field. Therefore it costs a lot of money. 

However there is help out there for parents. 

After reading this article you will leave with a good understanding of which schemes you can access to gain help affording childcare.


Here is a simple list of free childcare schemes in England

Okay, now you’ve seen how many there are, how much do you think you know about each? How many are you already accessing?

How you access each scheme can differ. 

Some are benefits (eg child benefit and Universal Credit) paid into your bank account. You would then have to pay the childcare provider out of your own account (or even pay them up front and then claim it back). 

Some schemes give you an online account through which you can add money and your account will get ‘topped up’ with the money you’re eligible for (eg Tax Free Childcare). You then pay the provider with this account. 

Some other schemes are claimed directly from the local authority and childcare provider (eg Free 30 hours). 

There are combinations of schemes (eg Tax free childcare and childcare vouchers) that can’t be claimed together, i.e you can only have one and not the other. 

Now we’re going to go on and look at each scheme in detail.

First things first – for your 3-4 year old, you Will get 15 free hours of childcare a week and you MIGHT get 30!

Is there free childcare for 2 year olds too?

This is confusing as there are schemes for 2 year olds and for 3-4 year olds. 

Some families in England qualify for 15 hours of free childcare per week for their 2 year olds, but they need to receive a qualifying benefit (for example Universal Credit or income support).

For these reasons medium to higher earners are unlikely to qualify for this scheme.

Take a look here if you think you might be eligible.

Free childcare for 2 year olds can allow parents to get back to work quicker than before by reducing their childcare costs. It will pay to go back to work if you can rather than providing the childcare yourself. 

Please note if you’re a higher earner and your child is disabled or has special educational needs (SEN) you may still be eligible for these schemes

The basic 15 hours per week for 3-4 year olds

All families in the England with 3 and 4 year old children are entitled to 15 hours of free childcare per week for 38 weeks of the year. 

This 38 weeks of childcare (totalling 570 hours per year) can often be spread over all 52 weeks, though you’d get fewer hours per week. You need to check with your providers about this as some offer spreading of the entitlement and some don’t.

You can use this childcare at a range of places as long as they participate in the scheme: 

  • Childminders
  • Nurseries / Day Care
  • Schools
  • Sure Start Children’s Centres
  • Playgroups
  • After school clubs 

The childcare itself is free but it doesn’t cover costs such as meals/lunches and nappies for your child and trips that the provider may take them on. 

It will begin in the January, April or September (i.e the beginning of the new school term) after your child’s 3rd birthday and last until they begin reception class at school. This applies even if using a non school source eg a childminder. 

Find out more here

For the basic 15 hours per week, the government website asks you to search for your local council and then to contact them. If I do this personally it takes me through to a page on my local council website, which restates what parents are entitled to. It then says I should contact the childcare provider of my choice to discuss it. It provides a phone number and an online childcare directory to help me find a provider. 

TIP → Have your applications for these schemes done and ready to go in the run up to the new term. This way you’ll maximise the free childcare and not have to wait 1-4 months for the next one.

What about the 30 hours?

If you and your partner both work (or just you if you’re a single parent), and you earn a taxable income less of than £100k each, you’ll be entitled to 30 free hours childcare per week for your 3-4 year old,  instead of 15. 

You/you both need to work and earn at least £125 per week. If one partner doesn’t work you wouldn’t qualify for the 30 hours, and would only get the 15 hours described above. 

You may still qualify for the 30 hours if you don’t work because you’re on parental or adoption leave for another child (makes sense!) or if you’re on sick leave, or if you are disabled and receiving certain benefits. See here for more information. 

The same rules regarding where you can use it (and extra costs eg meals) apply as for the 15 hours (see above). 

Another note, if you’ve recently moved to the UK from outside the European Economic Area you might not qualify for these benefits and it’s best to get some official advice.

You can receive 30 hours free childcare alongside claiming, tax credits, childcare vouchers, Tax-Free Childcare or Universal Credit.

You can apply here. The same application is used for Tax-Free Childcare. This is important to note. The 15 free hours can be accessed by speaking directly to a provider, because everyone is entitled to it. The extra (16th-30th hour) is means assessed and there is an application. 

What else do I need to know about the 30 hours free childcare?

Childcare providers can ask for a deposit to keep your child’s place (which is refunded when the term starts). This amount is very variable depending on the provider and area.

You don’t have to take up all of the childcare time you’re entitled to.

You can split your childcare entitlement between more than one provider (eg a split between a day nursery and a childminder) for added flexibility.

Individual childcare providers don’t have to offer the 30 funded hours childcare. For several years it has been clear that the money the government provides to the early-years childcare sector isn’t enough to cover the pledges made for 15 or 30 free hours a week of childcare. Many childcare providers are forced into making losses if they continue to provide the 30 hours of childcare for each place. If they carry on making losses they’ll risk having to close. In order to stay afloat, they may have to charge extra for non-funded places or non-core hours, offer fewer actual places or charge more for extras like meals or trips. Therefore it’s important to understand that while your family may qualify for 30 hours free childcare over 38 weeks, actually receiving all of it isn’t always straight forward.

Important!! – To keep getting your 30 hours of free childcare you need to sign into your government childcare account every 3 months or more and ensure your details are correct. 

Tax-free childcare – you need to know about this one

In April 2017, the government launched a new scheme called Tax Free Childcare, designed to overhaul the provision of childcare for working families in the UK. As with all these changes there have been winners and losers. 

A one-line description would be that it gives working parents 20% of their childcare costs. For every 80p you pay for childcare, the Tax Free Childcare will give you 20p more (which equals the 20% basic rate of tax, giving the scheme its name).  There’s a limit of £2000 of help, for childcare costs totalling up to £10,000, per child, each year. 

It replaces childcare vouchers, as we explain below and is operated through your personal ‘childcare account’ on the government website

You pay money into this account online and after 1-3 days it will appear as available funds. You can then use it to pay your childcare provider. Any provider accepting this form of payment (virtually all of them) should know how to set this up. 

The government’s extra 20% bonus on your contributions to your childcare account should be added the next working day. 

It is worth noting that others such as grandparents or family friends can contribute to this account for you. 

The government bonus contributions are limited to £500 every 3 months, which works out at £2000 per year. This fact is worth some thought if you’re paying a lot for childcare and planning on using all of the allowance (i.e £8000 of your own money a year per child). It means you need to spread your payments to the childcare account out equally in 3 monthly periods so you don’t miss out on some of the available bonus. 

Important!! – To maintain access to the tax free childcare bonuses you need to sign into your government childcare account – and contribute to it – every 3 months or more and ensure your details are correct. 

What has Tax Free Childcare replaced? Should I keep using childcare vouchers?

Childcare vouchers closed to new applicants in autumn 2018, so going to them is no longer an option. They are still available to those who are still signed up however, for as long as your employer will continue to offer them. 

There is a maximum amount you can sacrifice for vouchers per month and it depends on if you’re a basic, higher or additional rate tax payer.

(if you’re a higher/additional rate tax payer and you joined the scheme before 6th april 2011, you can sacrifice £243 still).

  • Basic rate tax payer: £243/month
  • Higher Rate Tax Payer: £124/month
  • Additional Rate Tax Payer: £110/month

A childcare voucher example would be as follows:

  • Your Gross Pay: £2000
  • Your net pay after tax/NI: £1571
  • Salary Sacrifice for Childcare Vouchers: £243
  • Your new net pay: £1406
  • Your net pay plus your childcare vouchers = £1649
  • Saving by using Childcare Vouchers: £78

Which is best (between Tax free childcare and childcare vouchers) is a simple question with a complicated answer. Hopefully these infographics will help you! Please pin them to your Pinterest if they do!

Universal Credit for Childcare

 – Complicated and problematic

Universal credit is an almost infamous benefit that is being brought in by the government. It is designed to replace several benefits, paying one amount rather than several smaller sums. 

It has been beset with problems since the outset and has received dreadful press. The botched introduction of this scheme has caused financial to harm to thousands of people. 

For a scheme that is designed to ‘simplify’ the benefit system, Universal credit is a complete joke. It is the most complicated subject I have researched since I began creating 

Anyway, here goes.

Universal credit for childcare is available to families across the whole UK (including Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales), helping to pay for childcare for kids up to age 17. It will pay up to 85% of childcare costs up to a cap.

You can check if you’re eligible here.

It is actually really difficult to find an earnings figure above which you won’t be entitled to UC. Everyone is entitled to a standard amount but your entitlement goes down by around 63p for every £1 you earn. So someone on a higher income of £50k would be entitled to zero. 

I did a universal credit calculation in the official calculator. The ‘standard allowance’ was £498.89 per month (for a couple with a child but no income), the ‘child element’ for 1 child was an additional 277.08 per month.

Then there is another part called the ‘childcare element’. This is said to help you with up to 85% of your childcare costs (to a limit of £646.35 for one child or £1108.04 for two or more children). This would be instead of claiming Tax Free Childcare. You have to pay the childcare provider directly and keep the receipts to claim the money back afterwards. This can be difficult for families who don’t have money available up front and live month to month. 

You can’t claim Tax free Childcare or tax credits at the same time as universal credit. 

The help you get from Universal Credit also only applies to two children, there is essentially a ‘two child limit’. This is not helpful for bigger families. There are some exceptions to this rule. 

If you do qualify, you also don’t get as much of this benefit if you have more than £6000 in savings. What a fabulous incentive for good financial sense this is. I hope you can tell what I think of the department of work and pensions! 

Universal Credit is a huge and complex topic. I found this website excellent at explaining things.

What about grants and benefits to pay for childcare?

Child Benefit

This is one of the benefits that is not being superseded by universal credit. 

Child benefit is available to parents of all children up to age 16 (and up to 20 if the child is in full time education or training). It is intended to help parents with the costs of raising children. This includes childcare. 

There is no limit to the number of children for which you can claim child benefit. If you’re a couple, only one of you can claim for a particular child. 

The claim for your first child is worth £20.70 per week and for each subsequent child the claim is worth £13.70 per week. It is usually paid every 4 weeks. 

Child Benefit will cease when your child gets too old, leaves full time education or begins a paid job or apprenticeship (over 24 hours a week). 

There is a catch for higher earners, with incomes more than £50k. If you earn between £50-60k you’ll be hit with the ‘High income child benefit charge’ which will take a percentage of your child benefit money back through income tax. The closer to £60k you earn the more will be taken back, and if you earn more than £60k you’ll lose all of the child benefit money.

It is still worth claiming child benefit in these circumstances though as you’ll accumulate national insurance credits that go towards your state pension. See our post on childcare help for higher earners (coming soon!) for more information.

Surestart Maternity Grant

The Surestart Maternity Grant is available to parents expecting their first baby (or multiple births if you have kids already).

To qualify though you need to be receiving certain benefits (eg Universal Credit). 

It’s worth £500! What you spend it on is up to you. If you can why not put some of it away to be an emergency childcare fund in case of nursery or childminder disasters!

Find out more here. 


Maximising the free childcare available to your family

I hope all the information above has given you an idea of the schemes that can help parents pay for their childcare in England. 

Of course free childcare schemes are only one part of the overall childcare plan. You need emergency childcare. You might be lucky enough to have friends or family do regular childcare for you. Do you have to provide childcare in return for anyone else? What about commuting and travel to all these places. What about your job? Can you afford to go part time? So many questions! We address these and more in our other childcare posts.

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