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

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 the extended entitlement (also known as 30 hours).

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 place after their third birthday as shown by the table below

Child born between

 Can take up a 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 acommodate 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.

What are the eligibility criteria for the extended entitlement?

To be eligible for the extra 15 hours (the extended entitlement), 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 check my eligibility for the extended entitlement?

You must check your eligibility via the Childcare Service.

You will need the following (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

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

If you have difficulties when checking your eligibility, please call the Childcare Service Helpline on 0300 0123 4097 

You must check if you are eligible and have an eligibility code in the period before your child becomes eligible for a place.

 Have checked and received  
an eligibility code by

 To be able to start in a place from  

31 March

1 April

31 August

1 September

31 December

1 January

If you are found ineligible, you can ask for a mandatory reconsideration. You will find instructions on how to do this in the secure message section of your Childcare Service account. There is also a review and appeals service on the HMRC website. 

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

What do I do with my eligibility code for the extended entitlement?

Once you have applied, you will receive confirmation of your eligibility to your Childcare Service account providing your child with a unique 11 digit number.

Your chosen provider will complete a Parental 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 place. 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.  

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