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Childcare Costs Help

Get £1,000s in tax credits & tax-free childcare

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Helen S and Wendy

Updated March 2018

Childcare building blocksWhether you've a wee tot or big teen, the costs of childcare can be massive. Yet 100,000s of working parents are missing out on £1,000s of easy help.

This step-by-step guide to boosting your childcare budget includes tax credits, tax-free childcare, free school schemes and more.

Childcare isn't just for kids

Baby care costs The term childcare conjures up an image of a baby in swaddling cloth being doted over by a kindly nanny. And while that is one element, actually it stretches far wider... any childcare you're paying for includes children of school age too.

School age generally means aged 16, but there are slightly different rules for tax credits and the Government's new tax-free childcare scheme.

For tax credits, you're able to claim the tax credits up to the first Saturday following 1 September after your child's 15th birthday (or 16th birthday if they're registered blind or receive disability living allowance). And for tax-free childcare you can claim up to £2,000 per child up to the age of 11 (or 16 for children with disabilities and the sum is up to £4,000).


If you're paying for your tweenie to go to an after school or summer holiday club that can count too.

It must be a registered provider

Whether you're paying with vouchers, tax credits or cash, the key is that the childcare provision is registered and regulated. This includes after school and summer clubs, nurseries, playgroups, nanny, childminder or au pairs.

If you ask, most providers will simply tell you if they're registered but you can find out from your local authority's children's services department or search for your nearest Family Information Service on the Family & Childcare Trust website which should be able to tell you about the provision available in your area.

Step 1. Free childcare for three or four-year-olds

There are free 'early learning' classes (includes time at a school-attached nursery) available for all three or four-year-olds (starting from the term after your child's third birthday).

Currently, in England, for at least 38 weeks a year you're entitled to 15 hours a week (to be spread over at least three days) – it equates to 570 hours per year. You can either use this allowance in school term time, or you can usually use it over the entire year, meaning you'd get around 11 hours free each week. Ask your local nursery...

Families with a low income may also get free classes for two-year-olds.

In practice, the free childcare provision for three and four-year-olds is offered at a range of places including Sure Start children's centres, nurseries, pre-schools and childminders – and covers those run by the state and run privately. So if you're paying for childcare, you can swap it for this free provision.

Free nursery childcare doubled to 30 hours in England in September 2017 but beware...

Parents of children who were three years of age on 31 August 2017 have been able to apply for free nursery entitlement of 30 hours per week since September 2017. Local councils should have their own cut-off points for application on their websites - typically these are 31 December for the spring term, and 31 March for the summer term.

To qualify for the extra 15 hours of free nursery, you must earn a minimum of the equivalent of 16 hours per week at the national living or minimum wage (currently £120/week), and less than £100,000 a year.

This applies to both parents if a couple – so, a couple each earning £99,999 would still get the extended 30-hour allowance. But, if one parent doesn't work, your child would only get 15 free nursery hours.

However, a growing number of nurseries have voiced concern that a lack of Government funding towards the cost of providing the 30 hours' childcare could mean it won't be delivered.

Cheryl Hadland, founder of Tops Day Nurseries with a string of childcare centres in the south, said: "It costs us £5.08 per child per hour to deliver high-quality childcare and education, but the Government will pay private nurseries [in part of the south] only £4.30 to deliver this.

"Along with many other local nurseries, we'll make a loss on any places provided as part of the 30 hours' free childcare policy."

It has led to fears nurseries could close as the gap between what local authorites pay to nurseries and what it costs them to provide the extra hours grows too wide - and makes their business untenable. Alternatively, costs to parents could rise in other ways, eg, higher bills for extras such as lunches and trips that were previously free.

This means what's available to you will likely depend on a large number of factors local to you including: council funding; nursery costs; number of children at the nursery; and how the nursery adapts its own business model.

Please get in touch with your experience if you're struggling to get the extra 15 hours on offer. Contact us at

I don't live in England. What can I get?

Childcare is a devolved issue, and so far only the Welsh government – not the Scottish or Northern Ireland governments – has announced plans to change the existing level of free childcare provision. This is what you're entitled to:

  • Scotland. All three and four-year-olds are entitled to 600 hours of free childcare a year. This is slightly higher than the 570 hours currently offered in England.
  • Wales. During termtime, all three and four-year-olds get 10 hours a week of free childcare. However, a pilot is currently running with the aim of seeing if this can be boosted to 30 hours.
  • Northern Ireland. Three and four-year-olds get two and a half hours of free childcare every day during termtime.

Step 2: Grab tax credits

It's a common misconception that tax credits are for the unemployed. Actually, for help with childcare it's the opposite – you have to be in work. The childcare element of working tax credit is designed to help working parents cover some of the cost, so that they still gain by being employed.

The money available can be huge, so it's important to check you're eligible and it's possible 100,000s of families are missing out.

Did you know?
The average childcare tax credit payout is around £60 PER WEEK. That's OVER £3,000 per year!

It's worth knowing it's not officially called the childcare tax credit, its technical name is the childcare element of working tax credit, yet as that's long-winded we've shortened it for the purposes of this guide. Please note it's NOT the same as child tax credit.

Unfortunately the entitlement system and eligibility criteria are ridiculously complex and depend on the number of kids you have, plus the cost of your childcare.

So the question is: Do I qualify?

To stand a chance of qualifying for childcare tax credit you must:

Be a single parent working 16+ hours a week, or
Be in a couple both working 16+ hours a week

If that's you, and your total household income's under £46,000, you should DEFINITELY check your entitlement.

Do note, we're only saying it's worth checking if you qualify, not that you do. Having said that, even some with household income above £46,000 may be eligible for decent payouts, especially if you have more than one child, or a disabled child. Also, if either you or a partner are disabled you both may not need to work 16+ hours a week to qualify.

For a full and detailed guide to tax credits see the Tax Credits guide.

Childcare tax credit Q&A

If you're entitled to tax credits, it's worth understanding your rights before starting. Don't worry, it's not too complex and, while you will have to fill out forms, there's a helpline to assist you.

How do I apply and check my exact eligibility?

How much will I get?

How is the cash paid?

What counts as being a single parent?

What counts as income?

When do I need to apply by?

What do I do if the childcare costs increase or decrease?

I use/pay more for childcare in the holidays, am I still eligible?

What if I lose my job or have my hours cut to under 16?

For a generalised check-up of whether you're getting all the help you're due, read the Benefits Check-Up guide

Step 3: Do you qualify for tax-free childcare?

Child with piggy bank

Tax-free childcare is a Government-backed scheme which helps parents with the cost of childcare. The scheme, which launched in April 2017, gives eligible families an extra 20% towards childcare costs. It's slowly replacing the outgoing Childcare Voucher scheme, which is closing to new entrants later this year (more on this below).

The scheme is designed so that for every 80p you put in, the state will add 20p – so it effectively gives you basic-rate tax back on what you pay, hence the scheme's name.

In total you'll be able to use the scheme to pay for up to £10,000 of childcare per child each year (meaning you'd pay £8,000) – so you could get an extra £2,000 per child (up to £4,000 if your child is disabled) each year. Once your childcare bill exceeds the Government maximum, there's no more financial support for that year. You can still pay for your childcare through the scheme but you won't get a top-up so it might be easier just to pay your child's nursery etc directly.

It's open to all qualifying parents, unlike the outgoing Childcare Voucher scheme, which is only available to parents whose employer offers the scheme. This includes anyone who's self-employed. However, you and your partner will need to be in work to qualify – so if you work and your husband or wife doesn't, you won't be able to take advantage.

The scheme's available to parents of children up to and including the age of 11 (or 16 for children with disabilities). See full info in our Tax-Free Childcare guide.

Tax-free childcare won't win for everyone, and many could be better off sticking with childcare vouchers (if you're already a member, if not see the box below) - or the other way round. It all depends on your personal circumstances. But you have to settle for one as you can't apply for both. See full help in our Childcare Vouchers vs Tax-Free Childcare analysis.

Update. The closure of the Childcare Voucher scheme to new entrants has been extended for six months

While you might not have heard of the new Tax-Free Childcare scheme, chances are you've heard of childcare vouchers. This scheme, which has been around for years, is operated through employers and allows you to pay for childcare from your pre-tax salary.

Childcare vouchers can save many parents with kids aged up to 15 (16 if they're disabled) over £1,000 a year on childcare as they allow you to pay for childcare out of your pre-tax and national insurance income. The vouchers can be used to pay for childcare including nurseries, childminders and after-school clubs.

This scheme was scheduled to close to new entrants on 5 April, but this deadline has now been extended for six months, with it expected to close around October. For more on this read our news story. For full info on how the scheme works, see our Childcare Vouchers guide.

Step 4. Free summer holiday activities

Provision of holiday childcare for school-age children is often a real hit to the finances. Parents either need to lose earning power by taking time off work, or pay for professional childcare.

Here's a few ideas to find what's local to you and get you started in finding affordable and entertaining activities for your kids over the holidays:

  • Find your nearest family information service (FIS): Check the Family & Childcare Trust website (use this link for Scotland, Wales & Northern Ireland) for your nearest FIS who'll give you info on what's going on locally.
  • Check what's available out of school hours: Use the Gov.UK site (for England & Wales) to find out contact details for your local council and call to find out if they offer anything (go here for contact details for Scotland & Northern Ireland).
  • Contact schools, community centres & youth groups: Usually over the summer, and sometimes during Easter and Christmas, thousands of schemes across the UK offer a range of activities for children, from sports coaching to dance and music sessions. Get in touch with them to find out what's on offer.
  • Is there a school holiday day camp near you? SuperCamps run school holiday day camps for 4-16 year olds (England only) and have some interesting activities on offer. Or you could try Activate Sport summer camps (also England only). For Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, try Netmums to see what's on near you.

Can I pay for summer care with tax credits or vouchers/tax-free childcare?

Researching the above is a safe and cheap way to resolve holiday childcare needs and if you need to pay for it, then often you'll be able to use the schemes above to help:

Childcare tax credits

You may be able to claim tax credits to help pay for your child's summer activities. If you pay for them to attend, whether it's tennis lessons or camp, if the activity provider is Ofsted-registered, you can claim as you would for an after-school club or childminder.

If you ONLY use childcare during the summer holidays, then you will only be able to claim tax credits for the weeks that you're actually paying for childcare. If you use it throughout the year, but costs go up in summer, then you'll need to estimate the average cost during the year, and then use this with the tax credit helpline when claiming (so spreading the cost).

Childcare vouchers / Tax-free childcare

You can often pay for summer holiday childcare provision with vouchers or tax-free childcare, although it's best to check before booking that the activity you've picked accepts them – again, it'll need to be Ofsted-registered to do so.

More ways to entertain kids:

For more ideas on how to keep your little ones busy, see the following related guides:

Can grandparents benefit from childcare?

What is a state pension?It's estimated grandparents provide 1.7 billion hours of childcare every year for more than 1.5 million grandchildren. However, they can't be paid for it using childcare vouchers, tax-free childcare or childcare tax credits, as they don't provide regulated childcare.

However, there is a way for some grandparents (and others) to gain. If you care for grandchildren aged under 12, this can qualify for class 3 national insurance credits (known as specified adult childcare credits). These count towards your qualifying years for a full state pension.

If you retired before April 2016, you need 30 qualifying working years to get the full state pension. If you're retiring after April 2016, that's raised to 35 years. (Read our State Pensions guide to find out more about qualifying NI years.)

If you're looking after grandchildren, and you need extra qualifying years, it's worth getting recognition for the childcare you provide. But, it's not quite that simple. You need to claim these credits – they won't be automatically added to your NI record.

For grandparents to be eligible for the national insurance credits, working parents need to give up the NI credits they receive when they claim child benefit and transfer them to the grandparent doing the caring – they're transferable credits.

You also need to time your claims. If you cared for a grandchild in the last tax year, you need to apply in the October after the end of the tax year for the credit to be transferred.

You need to fill in the catchily titled form CA9176 and send it off to HMRC. Both you and the parent transferring the credit need to sign the form.

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