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Free early education and childcare for 3 and 4-year-olds

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All 3 and 4-year-old children are entitled to up to 15 hours a week of free early education and childcare. This adds up to 570 hours per year. This is called the Universal Entitlement.

3 and 4-year-olds whose parents are working may be able to get up to 15 additional hours a week of free early education and childcare. This adds up to 1,140 hours per year. This is called '30 hours' of free early education and childcare (also known as the extended entitlement). If you think you may be eligible to get these additional hours, check your eligibility in good time to make sure you don't miss out (see below for details of how to apply).

There is evidence that if a child attends a high quality early education provider it benefits their:

  • social skills  
  • physical skills
  • thinking skills
  • communication skills

And helps them prepare for school.

When can my child get a free place?

Children can take up a free place after their third birthday as shown by the table below

Child born between

 Can take up a free place from the  
funding period starting 

1 January and 31 March

1 April

1 April and 31 August

1 September

 1 September and 31 December

1 January


For extended entitlement places, parents must also be eligible to receive the additional 15 hours.

Parents must check their eligibility and be provided with an 11 digit eligibility code in the funding period before their child could take up a place. For example, if your child turns three on 2 April, you check your eligbility and get a code on 30 July, your child could start in their place on 1 September.  

Where can my child get a place?

You have a choice as to where your child takes up their free place.

Providers include

  • Primary school nursery classes
  • Day nurseries
  • Preschools
  • Childminders

For more information about providers who offer early education for 3 and 4-year-olds near you:

  • Go to the search box at the top of this website page
  • Type in your postcode and click search
  • Select the results from the Family Services Directory
  • Scroll down and check the box for free early education for 3 and 4-year-olds

You can take-up universal and extended entitlement places with more than one provider, but not at more than two sites in any one day.

What hours and days are available?

Early education sessions can be offered flexibly between 6am and 8pm and can be no longer than 10 hours in one day. Providers are encouraged to offer the free hours flexibly.

Providers must publish the days and times they offer free early education hours. For example, they may be open from 8am to 6pm, but only offer free hours between 9 am and 5pm

You can use your hours all year round and at the weekend if your childcare provider offers this. You can also use more than one provider, although not more than two sites in one day. The places are offered over a minimum of 38 weeks per year.

Some providers offer places over more than 38 weeks, so parents would get fewer hours each week for more weeks of the year. For example, a 15 hour place across 52 weeks of the year is just under 11 hours a week.

You do not have to take up all of your 15 hours (or 30 hours if you are eligible for this). You will need to discuss your needs with the early education provider or providers you choose to see if they can accommodate a different number of hours for you.

Being entitled to a free place doesn't guarantee that you can get a place with a particular provider or a guarantee that you can get any particular pattern of how the hours are offered. If the hours on offer do not suit, you can try another provider.

How do I apply for the Universal Entitlement (the first 15 hours)?

Primary schools 

  • You can apply online for a place in a community school nursery class from 1 September until the closing date. Paper application forms must be used for late applications and are available from the schools themselves.
  • For more information on the application process for community school nursery classes, please visit the Merton School Admissions website page
  • If you wish to apply for a nursery class place at a voluntary aided (church affiliated) primary school or a primary academy (Aragon, Beecholme Primary School, Benedict Primary School, Harris Primary Academy Merton or Stanford Primary School) you must contact the school directly and get their application pack and form.
  • Note: some schools offer both the Universal and Extended Entitlements or work in partnership with a local childcare provider to offer this.

Private, Voluntary or Independent (PVI) Providers

  • PVI providers offer the Universal Entitlement and many offer the Extended Entitlement. 
  • If you want to apply for free hours at an approved (funded) day nursery, preschool, childminder or independent school in Merton, you will need to find out if that provider offers free early education by contacting them directly or searching on the Family Services Directory here.
  • You will then need to apply to them directly.

You do not need a code for the Universal Entitlement but you will need one to claim the Extended Entitlement, if you meet the eligibility criteria. Please see the guidance below to find out how to check your eligibility for the Extended Entitlement.

What are the eligibility criteria for 30 Hours (the extra 15 hours)?

To be eligible for the 30 Hours, your family must meet all the following criteria:

  • your child's age means they are eligible for the first 15 hours (the universal entitlement)
  • both parents are working (or the sole parent is working in a lone parent family)
  • both parents earn or expect to earn a minimum equivalent to 16 hours a week at National Minimum or Living Wage over the coming three months.
  • both parents must not be earning more than £100,000 a year each

This applies whether you are in paid employment, self-employed or on a zero hours contract

The national minimum wage criteria equates to £120 a week (or £6,000 a year) for each parent over 25 years old or £112.80 a week (or £5,800 a year) for each parent between 21 and 24 years old.

There are exceptions to both parents having to work. Families where one or both parents do not work will not usually be entitled to the additional 15 hours of free childcare. However, they will be eligible where:

  • both parents are employed but one (or both parents) is temporarily away from the workplace on parental, maternity or paternity leave, adoption leave or on statutory sick pay
  • one parent is employed and one parent:
    • has substantial caring responsibilities based on receipt of specific caring benefits, or
    • is disabled or incapacitated based on receipt of specific benefits

If you meet the criteria above, you need to check your eligibility and get an eligibility code to be able to take up the additional free hours.

How do I find out if I am eligible for 30 Hours?

Full details of 30 Hours eligibility criteria are provided on the website. Before you apply, you must check if you meet the eligibility criteria

If you think you meet the criteria, you will need the following to hand when you apply  (for both you and your partner, unless you are a sole parent)

  • your National Insurance number
  • if you are self-employed, your Unique Taxpayer Reference / tax reference (Your UTR is on notices to file a tax return or payment reminders sent to you by HM Revenue and Customs).
  • the date you started, or are due to start work
  • details of any other government support you get

You must apply via the Governments online application system: the Childcare Service

If eligible, once you have applied you will receive confirmation of your eligibility in your Childcare Service Account which will include your child’s unique 11 digit eligibility code.

If you have any difficulties when checking your eligibility, please call the Childcare Service Helpline on 0300 123 4097  

IMPORTANT: You must check if you are eligible and receive your eligibility code in the funding period before your child becomes eligible for a place. You can apply outside the times recommended below, but you might not receive your code in time. 

 Recommended time to apply:

 Have received your eligibility code by: 

 Able to start in a place from:     

15 January to 28 February 

 31 March

1 April

15 June to 31 July

 31 August

1 September

15 October to 30 November

31 December

1 January

You will also need to reconfirm your eligibility every 3 months. If you apply more than 3 months before the new funding period starts, you'll have to reconfirm your eligibility before your child can take up a place.

Please note: Parents of 4-year-olds who are taking up a place in full time reception class cannot also take up the extended entitlement

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How do I claim my child's 30 hours?

Once you have successfully applied, you will receive confirmation of your eligibility to your Childcare Service account including your child's unique 11 digit eligibility code.

You will need to give your code to your chosen provider.

Remember, your provider can only give you funded Extended Entitlement hours in the funding period AFTER you have applied for and received your code. For example, to be eligible to start in a place in the funding period of September to December, your child must have turned three before 31 August and you must have applied for and received your code by 31 August. If you have not applied for and receievd your code by 31 August, your child will not be able to start in a place until January.

If the provider of your Universal Entitlement hours (school nursery class, private nursery, preschool or childminder) offers the Extended Entitlement and has a place, they will arrange the extra free hours for you.

If the provider of your Universal Entitlement hours does not offer the Extended Entitlement, you will need to find a provider who does. For example, if your child is in nursery class, a local childminder or nursery or preschool may offer the Extended Entitlement and be able to collect from/drop off at the provider of their Universal Entitlement hours. You can search for providers on the Family Services Directory

Your chosen provider will complete a Parent Funding Agreement with you to confirm the place.

Your eligibility code must be validated by your chosen provider

The provider will validate the eligibility code at this point so that they can claim the funding to provide your free hours. So that they can do this, you must need to provide them with:

  • A printout or screenshot of your confirmation of eligibility from your Childcare Service account with your 11 digit eligibility code for your child
  • Your national insurance number
  • Proof of your child's date of birth (e.g. birth certificate or passport)

Are there any costs involved?

Early education is funded by the Government and is therefore free to parents.

Parents should expect to pay for additional services over and above the free early education, such as meals and snacks, nappies, sun cream, day trips or activities such as yoga classes.

You will be required to pay for any additional hours over and above the free hours.

You may also be asked for a deposit to secure your place. This should be returned to you within a couple of months of your child taking up their place.  

Can I get help with paying for additional hours I need?

If you need more childcare than the Universal or Extended Entitlement free hours provide, there are ways you may be able to reduce the cost of this. One of the schemes below can be used with your free hours and also to help with the costs of childcare for any other children you may have.

Tax-Free Childcare

For working families, this provides up to £2,000 per child per year and can be used to help pay for care for children aged 0 to 11. If you are eligible for the Extended Entitlement, you will be eligible for Tax-Free childcare

Universal Credit for childcare

This allows some working families to claim back up to 85% of childcare costs for children aged 0 to 15

Tax Credits for childcare

This allows some working families to claim back up to 70% of childcare costs for children aged 0 to 15

For more information, visit the Childcare Choices website

If you get childcare vouchers through a scheme run by your employer, you can use these instead of one of the above schemes to help pay for the additional hours. (Note that voucher schemes were closed to new applicants following the introduction of Tax-Free Childcare).

What happens when my child starts in Reception class at a primary school?

When your child starts in Reception class you will be no longer entitled to free early education hours as your child will be receiving full-time free education at the school.

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