To get Free Childcare in Northern Ireland you need to make use of the relatively limited and quite restrictive scheme called Funded Preschool Education, giving you 12.5 hours a week for your 3-4 year old. 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 Northern Ireland?

You will learn:

  • Which free childcare schemes are available in Northern Ireland
  • 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 schemes in the UK. You can access this article here. 

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

Here is a simple list of free childcare schemes in Northern Ireland

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 12.5 hours funded preschool education). 

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.

Funded Preschool Education Places – rigid and inflexible

Childcare is extremely expensive in Northern Ireland – you need help!

You may have read a lot about the available hours of ‘free childcare’ rolled out in England. You may have read about the similar schemes in Wales and Scotland. 

There hasn’t been quite as much forward progress in Northern Ireland. The much talked about ‘30 free hours’ doesn’t apply in Northern Ireland.

In 2018 a group called Employers for Childcare performed a large survey of childcare costs in Northern Ireland. This survey found that the average cost of one full-time childcare place is £166 per week or £8,632 per year. This is 37% of the average household income. 

This makes childcare the largest monthly bill for over a third of families in Northern Ireland. A third of families are resorting to savings or credit cards to pay for childcare! 

This is not sustainable.

What is available?

12.5 Hours a Week of Free Preschool Education

This scheme aims to provide 12.5 free hours a week of ‘quality preschool education’ for kids between 3-4.

It is available to all 3-4 year olds regardless of where in Northern Ireland they live and how much their parents earn. It may only be taken in 2.5 hour slots across the five days. 

The preschool education is provided in nurseries and primary schools and you can’t use childminders as a source (you can of course use a childminder for additional childcare and use another scheme such as Tax Free Childcare to pay for it). 

It is provided by the Department of Education and they say it shouldn’t be thought of as childcare officially, and should be regarded as Early Years Education.

Unfortunately it is only available during term time and there is no school holiday provision. 

Why the Free Preschool Education in Northern Ireland is restrictive for parents

The 2.5 hour slots mean for most parents it’s very hard to take your kids to preschool and still work a normal day shift. You’d have to have grandparents or other close friends or relatives pick them up every day. 

Plus if you want extra childcare (ie having your kids there for longer so you can work), then you’ll need to pay for it.

When will there be more free childcare in Northern Ireland?

At the time of writing this post (October 2019) there are no plans to expand this scheme in Northern Ireland. Childcare matters are devolved to each UK nation and whilst the Stormont Assembly doesn’t sit, it would require action from the Westminster government to increase the amount of childcare available. With endless Brexit delay, this doesn’t seem like happening. 

When and how to access the Free Preschool Education places in Northern Ireland

Please note that, like many of the other schemes across the UK, there are windows within which you need to apply. You can find out more about where to access the places and the registration periods here. 

Please get on this early, well before your child is 3. You need to know how to apply and when, and do it as soon as you’re able to.

Can higher earners get funded preschool education places for their children in Northern Ireland?

There are no income limits on this scheme so everyone should be able to benefit from it. 

However, many preschools have a waiting list and many prioritise children whose families receive qualifying benefits (as well as criteria like distance from the preschool and whether the family has had older children attend before). You should still be able to get your child a place but be aware of this, you may not get your first choice.

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

I’m struggling to afford childcare. Can I get any personalised help with this in Northern Ireland?

I hope the information in this article can help you access the childcare that your family needs. However it won’t solve the difficult and entrenched problems with childcare provision in Northern Ireland. If you’re struggling and need to talk to someone about how you can maximise your childcare help, have a look at these links. 

Employers for Childcare have a freephone number and will give you advice about your situation and may offer free personalised benefits checks for your family. This could potentially save you a lot of money. 

The government website has a lot of detailed information on specific circumstances that could impact your family. Take a look here.

I have a 2 year old? Can I get free childcare in Northern Ireland?

Unfortunately the funded early education places (the 12.5 hours a week) are not available to 2 year olds in Northern Ireland.

If you have children under 3 years old and need to access childcare, please read on about the other schemes that are available.

Once again, please see the tip highlighted in yellow just above. Even well before your child’s 3rd birthday, you need to know when your application / registration for nursery needs to be done by. Take a look here for this information.

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!). 

The Surestart Maternity Grant is available in Northern Ireland

The Surestart Maternity Grant is available to parents expecting their first baby (or multiple births if you have kids already). If you’re pregnant or have a new baby and you’re already thinking about childcare, then take a look!

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 Northern Ireland. 

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.

If you found this post helpful, please share it with your friends, pin our images to your Pinterest boards, or tweet about it! Thanks! 

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