Help with childcare costs

Help with childcare costs

Whether you have a small child or a teen, the costs of childcare can be huge. Yet 100,000s of working parents are missing out on £1,000s of help with these costs. There are a range of schemes that can help, but some let you save more on childcare than others. Here we run you through all your childcare options and where to start.

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You can get financial support for children of ALL AGES – not just young ones

The term 'childcare' may conjure up an image of a young child at nursery. But as many of you will know, the need to pay for childcare doesn't necessarily stop when your children go to school.

The good news is that there are schemes that cover children at different ages, depending on your family’s circumstances:

Paying for an after-school or summer holiday club? That counts too

As long as you get your childcare through an approved, registered provider, you can claim back after-school or school holiday costs in the same way you normally would. This can include different types of childcare – such as childminders, play schemes, nurseries and clubs (including clubs and camps that run over the holidays). 

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

More help during school holidays

School holidays can be hard for working parents – but for some there is additional support available.

If you're on certain benefits, you could qualify for additional childcare help over the school holidays. We cover what's available across the UK in our Free school meals and holiday help guide.

If you don't qualify for benefits, there are still ways to get free or cheap childcare over the holidays. Check out our 11 tricks to get school-aged kids looked after for less. We've also got a list of ideas and offers for ways to keep children entertained.

Finding the right option for you

Depending on your child's age and your personal circumstances, there's a range of schemes designed to help working families with the cost of childcare. But not all are equal – some will help you save more than others.

Below, we run through the various options in the order you should consider them to make sure you're getting the maximum possible help with your childcare costs. Follow these steps to find the right support for your family. 

1. FREE childcare for three or four-year-olds

Before you pay for ANY childcare, check if you can get up to 30 hours FREE each week.

If your child is three or four-years-old, there's free education and childcare available across the UK (starting from the term after your child's third birthday). How it works depends on where in the UK you live – we provide details for each nation below.

How free childcare works in England

Currently, in England, you're entitled to 570 hours of free childcare a year. This is usually taken at up to 15 hours a week for 38 weeks of the year. You can stretch it out longer by using fewer hours a week, but many councils want your child to attend for at least 2.5 hours a week.

You can either use this allowance in school term time, or you can usually use it over the entire year. To get it, simply ask your local nursery or childcare provider if it has space. You must tell it that you want to take advantage of the free 15 hours when you sign up.

Families with a low income, and on certain benefits, may also get free childcare for two-year-olds.

Some parents can get 30 hours free childcare per week

Parents of children between the ages of three and four can get an additional 15 hours of free childcare a week (totalling 30 hours a week or 1,140 a year), if they work and meet certain conditions.

Councils should have their own cut-off points for application on their websites – typically these are 31 December for the spring term, 31 March for the summer term and 31 August for the autumn term.

To qualify for the extra 15 hours of free childcare, you must earn a minimum of the equivalent of 16 hours a week at the national living or minimum wage, and less than £100,000 a year. This applies to both parents in a couple (so each parent must fit the criteria) as well as to single parents.

So, a parent couple each earning £99,999 would still get the extended 30-hour allowance. But, if one parent doesn't work, your child would get just 15 free hours.

To get the the first 15 hours for free, you just contact the provider. However, for the extra 15 hours, you need to apply for the extra hours' free childcare through the Gov.uk website. If you're approved, you'll receive a code to give to your childcare provider. You'll get the extra hours once the next term starts.

  • Free childcare hours in Wales

    Parents of three and four-year-olds across Wales are entitled to up to 30 hours a week of free childcare, across 48 weeks of the year. You can divide the hours up, but at least 10 hours a week needs to be used on early education and 20 hours on general childcare.

    To qualify, you must earn a minimum of the equivalent of 16 hours a week at the national living or minimum wage, and less than £100,000 a year. This applies to both parents in a couple (so each parent must fit the criteria) as well as to single parents.

    Before you apply, check that your chosen childcare provider is registered with the Care Inspectorate Wales.

    To apply, contact your local family information service or see the Welsh Government website for more information. 

  • Free childcare hours in Scotland

    All three and four-year-olds are entitled to 1,140 hours per year. What type of provider is eligible, and when and where you can take your hours, varies by local authority. You can also get help with childcare for your two-year-old if you receive a qualifying benefit.

    To get it, speak to your local authority, or you can contact your childcare provider to see if you can use your free allowance with it. You can also ask another provider if you wish. If you need more help, contact your local authority. You can also use the Scottish Government's Parent Club.

  • Free childcare hours in Northern Ireland

    Three and four-year-olds get a funded pre-school education place through the Pre-School Education Programme, available term-time either on a full-time or part-time basis. Full time amounts to 4.5 hours a day (22.5 hrs/wk), and part-time 2.5 hours of free childcare a day (12.5 hrs/wk) for 38 weeks of the year.

    To get it, apply through the Education Authority's website to get an application form. You can apply to any number of providers, but it's best to select more than one, as your chosen provider might not have enough spaces available.

    You have to supply the form and your child’s birth certificate to your first preference childcare provider by the deadline. You can find all application deadlines on the Education Authority’s website.

2. Check if you can get benefits to help with your childcare costs

If you're on a low income and the the free childcare hours scheme either doesn't apply to you (or won't cover your full childcare bill), your next port of call is to check whether you can claim extra support through universal credit (UC). If you're eligible, this will likely cover more of your childcare costs than Tax-Free Childcare (which we cover in step three).

Our general rule is: if your household income is under £40,000 (or possibly even up to £50,000 if you've a larger family), then it's worth checking if you can get universal credit. You can get a quick estimate of what you might qualify for with our 10-minute benefit checker

If you qualify for UC, you'll get what's called the 'child element' on top of your standard allowance. And, if you're in work, you'll also be able to claim back up to 85% of your childcare costs, to a maximum of £646 a month for one child, or £1,108 a month for two or more children.

The only requirement (apart from being in work) is that you get your childcare through an approved, registered provider. If you live with your partner, they'll also have to be in work, or be classed as having a 'limited capability for work' by the DWP (Department for Work & Pensions). 

If you're still claiming tax credits, rather than universal credit, you can get help with up to 70% of your childcare costs (paid directly into your bank or building society account each week or month). You may be better off switching to universal credit, but there's a lot to consider first. Our Switching to Universal Credit guide covers everything you need to know. 

Important: If you claim universal credit or tax credits, you WON'T also be able to use tax-free childcare. Opening a tax-free childcare account will mean you stop getting paid your benefits. 

How to claim back your childcare costs through universal credit

You can claim back your childcare costs through your online universal credit account. You'll need to provide evidence of your costs, such as: a letter from your registered childcare provider, a bank statement proving you've paid your provider, or a cash payment receipt.

You can make a claim up to three months in advance, but you will only get the money after the childcare has been provided, so even if you pay in one upfront sum, you may get the money paid back to you in smaller instalments over a few assessment periods. 

To read more about eligibility and how universal credit works, see our Universal credit guide. 

Scottish resident on low income? You can get extra help

If you’re a Scottish resident on a low income, and look after a child under six, you may also be able apply for the Scottish Child Payment (£20 a week - rising to £25 from November).

  • Who's eligible for the Scottish child payment?

    To qualify, you must be claiming one of the following benefits:

    • Income Support
    • Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance
    • Income-related Employment and Support Allowance
    • Pension Credit
    • Child Tax Credit
    • Working Tax Credit that includes a disability or severe disability element
    • Universal Credit

    If your claim is successful, you'll get the payment every four weeks until your child turns six. By the end of 2022, the Scottish Government hopes to extend the scheme to all eligible children under 16.

    You can apply online using this form. Head to our maternity grants guide for more detailed information on the scheme.

3. Check if you qualify for Tax-Free Childcare

Even if you’re not entitled to benefits, you might still qualify for Tax-Free Childcare instead.

Tax-Free Childcare is a Government-backed scheme which helps working parents with the cost of childcare. The scheme, which launched in 2017, gives eligible families an extra 20% towards their childcare costs.

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

You can use the scheme to pay for up to £10,000 of childcare per child each year – meaning you'd pay up to £8,000 and would get up to an extra £2,000 per child each year. If your child is disabled, you can get up to £4,000 extra a year.

You need to be in work to qualify – this includes those who are self-employed. Tax-Free Childcare is available to both single parents and couples, but if you're in a couple, both you and your partner need to be in work to qualify.

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 can be easier just to pay for your childcare directly once you've hit the limit.

The scheme's available until the 1 September after your child turns 11 (or 16 for children with disabilities). See full info in our Tax-Free Childcare guide. 

Childcare Vouchers

Some parents can also use Childcare Vouchers, which allow you to pay for childcare from your pre-tax salary. The scheme closed for new applicants in October 2018, but if you were signed up before then, are with the same employer, and it still offers them, you can continue to get these. 

What works out best will depend on your personal circumstances. But you have to settle for one as you can't use both at the same time. For full info, see our Childcare Vouchers guide.

In addition to the options outlined above, many people with parental responsibilities are entitled to further help from the Government – see our child benefit guide for more details. 

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