To get completely free childcare in Wales you need to make use of the Flying Start, Foundation Phase Nursery and Childcare Offer schemes. However these schemes are controversial as some run on a postcode lottery basis. 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 accessing free childcare in Wales?

You will learn:

  • Which free childcare schemes are available in Wales
  • 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?

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.

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

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


Here is a simple list of free childcare schemes in Wales

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 Foundation Phase Nursery). 

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.

What is Flying Start?

Do you live in a Flying Start Area? You could qualify for free Childcare for your 2 year old

What is Flying Start?

Flying Start is a government programme intended to provide ‘quality, part time childcare for 2 or 3 year olds’.

As well as this childcare the programme includes an enhanced health visitor service, access to parenting classes and help with your child’s speech and language if they need it. Some areas offer delivery in the Welsh language too.

Of course the parenting classes and health visitor support would kick in earlier than the childcare (2 to 3 years old) and speech and language input.

These additions are intended to support the families that need them the most. 

Flying Start is said to provide quality childcare to eligible children for 2.5 hours a day, Monday-Friday during term time (around 38-42 weeks depending on area). There are also said to be 15 sessions available a year during school holidays. It is usually delivered in a local Flying Start Centre, which should be fairly near your home. 

The Flying Start childcare sessions are also just 2.5 hours a day so unless your childcare provider allows the entitlement to be compressed into fewer full days, this could be quite restrictive if parents are trying to get to work whilst the children are being looked after.

How does my child qualify for flying Start?

Flying Start is controversial due to the eligibility criteria being based on postcode. Many lower income families who would benefit from extra childcare for their 2 or 3 year old may not live in eligible areas.  There will also be many families who are better off but living in the Flying Start postcodes. 

The free childcare element can be taken from the term following your child’s 2nd birthday, until the term in which they have their 3rd birthday.

Do I have to be receive benefits to access Flying Start for my child?

No. The entitlement is solely based on postcode. It is supposed to be regularly reviewed so that the targeted areas remain up to date with where the government think the most in-need children live. There was a lot of talk at one stage about Flying Start Outreach, which aimed to allow some families outside the designated areas to access support but it remains unclear whether this is reaching as many families as it intended.

How do I apply for Flying Start?

This welsh government website will direct you to each local area and you can then search for your postcode and see if you’re eligible. 

Childcare and Funded Early Education for Children aged 3-4

Foundation Phase Nursery + The ‘Childcare Offer for Wales’

Again, it’s a bit of a postcode lottery in Wales!

As with the Flying Start areas, not all free childcare if available across the whole of Wales. 

Similarly to other parts of the UK there is a scheme providing childcare help to parents of 3-4 year olds. 

The Welsh Government intend to provide 30 hours per week of free childcare for working parents of 3-4 year olds for up to 48 weeks of the year.

This is split into:

Foundation Phase Nursery

a minimum of 10 hours in a Foundation Phase Nursery, this is available to all 3-4 year olds across Wales at the moment,

Some Foundation Phase nurseries will offer you more than 10 hours a week and the extra will form part of the additional 20 hours of childcare (eg 15 hours at nursery and 15 hours elsewhere) 


The ‘Childcare Offer for Wales’

Up to 20 hours of additional time in another childcare setting (these additional hours are being brought in area-by-area and are available to families where both parents work) 

This includes 9 weeks of ‘holiday provision’ and is more than that available in the rest of the UK. 

Whether you can gain from the full amount of this is again dependant on where within Wales you live. This is because from 2017 it was rolled out as a pilot and has not yet been brought in across the whole country. They say they intend to do this by September 2020. 

You can apply via your local authority website. 

How to qualify for the full 30 hours

To be eligible for this ‘offer’ (why they call it an ‘offer’ I have no idea)…you need to

  • Have a child between 3 and 4 (the upper age limit of when you can apply for this depends on their date of birth, the current date and the school term start date. If they’re nearly 5 and it’s a while to the new term, you may miss out on this scheme (but will then soon go on to school ).  
  • Both parents must work (or the one single parent) and each must earn at least 16 hours at national minimum or living wage per week. 
  • Self-employed parents or those on zero hours contracts will have to prove their employment status with relevant documents. 
  • Both parents must earn less than £100,000 per year. 
  • Live in a ‘pilot area’. 

As with current similar schemes in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the free childcare doesn’t cover things like food, nappies, transport and trips out/activities. You might be asked to pay towards these things by the provider. 

You can choose which provider looks after your child with this scheme as long as they’re participating and registered. 

You can find more information and apply at your local authority website if you’re in a pilot area. You can look up what’s available in your area here.

TIP → Make Sure you read the website carefully (relating to your specific local authority area). You need to know exactly when your application needs to be in by, to qualify for the upcoming term. You should ring your preferred providers early and ask what they require.

How will this scheme affect my other benefits?

You can use Universal Credit or Tax free Childcare as well as this scheme, but ONLY to cover EXTRA costs of childcare, i.e for another child or additional childcare required for the same child. 

Taking up this scheme will affect your ‘estimated childcare costs’ so could affect/reduce other benefits. This just means you’re not getting twice the help for the same hours of childcare. 

It’s best to work out how much childcare your family needs for each one of your children, write it down, and then work out if the schemes available to you will cover it. Then you will have a better idea of where you stand. Doing this will help you if you need to speak to a benefit advisor on the phone. 

All these schemes form the initial stages of the ‘Foundation Phase’ of early education, provided by the Welsh government. You can read more here. 

What if I’m a parent and not in work?

Families whose parents don’t currently work can find themselves excluded from some of the schemes above, especially if you live outside of a Flying Start area. Of course you’re more likely to be able to provide the childcare yourself but then your kids will have less time meeting other children and benefitting from the ‘early learning’ provided at paid nurseries. 

If you’re not in work then your options for help with childcare costs are:

  • Universal Credit for Childcare (please see section below)
  • Using Child benefit or Surestart grant money towards childcare

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 is said to have 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 (eg £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. We’re writing a post on childcare help for higher earners (coming soon!). 

How to claim the Surestart Grant in Wales

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. 

Childcare help for student parents in Wales

You may be able to claim a Childcare Grant and also Parents’ Learning Allowance. 

If you’re studying and are therefore unable to claim benefits such as Universal Credit or Tax free childcare, then you can claim these monies instead. They are intended to help parents both study and look after their children. 

Childcare Grant

In academic year  2019/20 you could claim up to 85% of your childcare costs. This is capped at a maximum of:

    • £161.50 per week for your first child; and
    • £274.55 per week for two or more children.

Parents’ Learning Allowance

This is a grant of up to £1157 per year, paid to studying parents who have children financially dependant on them. The amount you get depends on how intense your course is (how many hours a week you’re there). 

Both of these payments require quite a few forms to accompany their application, including a few forms from your chosen childcare provider confirming how much your childcare costs are. You can read more and apply via the Student Finance Wales website. 


Maximising the Free Childcare help available in Wales

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

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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