Free early education entitlement
Free early education extended entitlement for 3 and 4 year olds
At present, every child aged three and four years old is entitled to receive a maximum of 15 hours of free early education per week, until they reach compulsory school age (the term following their fifth birthday).
From September 2017, the government will increase this free entitlement to 30 hours per week for working families subject to qualifying criteria. This will provide an additional 15 hours per week in addition to the universal entitlement of 15 hours per week for all 3 and 4-year-olds.
Each eligible child is entitled to receive up to 30 hours of free early learning per week. The entitlement can be taken over no more than 10 hours per day, between the hours of 6am to 8pm, over no fewer than 38 weeks per year (maximum 1,140 hours per year).
This new scheme is also being referred to as the additional 15 hours or 30 hours free childcare.
Is the extended entitlement available to all 3 and 4-year-olds
No. The extended entitlement is only available to 3 and 4-year-olds whose parents/carers meet specific eligibility criteria.
Who is eligible for the extended entitlement for 3 and 4-year-olds
The extended entitlement is available to working parents of children aged three and four years old (or a sole parent in a lone-parent family).
Each parent must either:
- expect to earn at least £139.52 a week or work more than 16 hours at the National Living Wage (unless you became self-employed less than 12 months ago) or
- expect to earn at least £131.20 a week or work more than 16 hours at the National Minimum Wage (unless you became self-employed less than 12 months ago) or
- expect to earn at least £72.80 a week if you're under 18, £103.20 a week if you're aged 18 to 20 or £66.40 a week, if you're an apprentice (either under 19 or in the first year of your apprenticeship)
Both parents must:
- live in England
- expect to have an income of less than £100,000 a year
- you don't need to actually work 16 hours per week, but your earnings must equal at least 16 hours work at minimum wage/national living wage
- a parent means a person who has parental responsibility for the child, in cases where a parent has remarried or is living with a partner, the step-parent or partner must also meet the earning threshold
- if you and your partner are unemployed, you and your partner must become employed within 14 days of applying
You may still be eligible if:
you're already getting Universal Credit or Tax Credits
and if you or your partner:
- are taking paid time off work, such as maternity leave, paternity leave or sick leave
- are temporarily away from England for a period of up to 6 months (such as if you're in the military on duty)
You can also still apply for the extended entitlement if either you or your partner is employed or self-employed and one of you gets one or more of the following benefits:
- contribution-based Employment and Support Allowance
- Carer's Allowance
- Incapacity Benefit or long-term Incapacity Benefit
- Severe Disablement Allowance
- National Insurance credits because of incapacity or limited capability for work
- you've been assessed as having limited capability for work for Universal Credit purposes
You won't be able to apply for the extended entitlement if either parent has an income of more than £100,000 or
- you're in receipt of a childcare grant
- you're a full-time student/an intern
- either parent is a non-EEA national and subject to immigration control (and has no recourse to public funds)
How do I apply for the extended entitlement?
- you'll need to apply for the entitlement online; you'll also be able to apply for Tax Free Childcare at the same time
- if you're eligible, you'll receive a 30 hours eligibility code which will be your unique 11-digit reference number; this code is important as you'll need it to claim your free childcare
- once you've found a participating provider that you're happy with, they'll check your eligibility code with the local authority to confirm your eligibility
A list of participating providers is available here:
If your preferred provider isn't on this list, contact them to find out if they're offering the entitlement.
If your child is already attending a school reception class, you won't be able to use your code to get free childcare.
If you don’t have access to the internet or you need help completing your online application, contact the HMRC Childcare Service Customer Interaction Centre on 0300 123 4097.
Foster carers may be able to receive 30 hours free childcare for children in their care if all of the following criteria are met:
- accessing the extended hours is consistent with the child’s care plan
- you're a single foster parent and you are in paid work outside of your fostering responsibilities
- if you're a two-foster-parent family, both of you are in paid work outside of your fostering responsibilities; if one partner is not a foster parent they must be in qualifying paid work and earn a minimum of the equivalent of 16 hours at the national minimum/national living wage
For more information on applying for 30 hours free childcare as a foster carer, email email@example.com.
When should I apply for the extended entitlement?
You should apply for your extended entitlement before the start of the term you'd like your child to start. Otherwise, your child will not be able to access their extended entitlement place until the following term.
For example: if you want your child to start at the:
- beginning of September, you must apply for your extended entitlement by 31 August
- beginning of January, you must apply for your extended entitlement by 31 December
- beginning of April, you must apply for your extended entitlement by 31 March
When will my child become eligible for an extended entitlement place?
The table below shows when your child will meet the age range to become eligible:
If your child is born between
They can access a free place from
1 April and 31 August
First September following their third birthday until statutory school age
1 September and 31 December
First January following their third birthday until statutory school age
1 January and 31 March
First April following their third birthday until statutory school age
When can my child access their free place?
You should secure your free place with the provider of your choice before the start of the term you'd like your child to start.
For example: if you want your child to start at the:
- beginning of September - you should secure your free place between April and August
- beginning of January - you should secure your free place between September and December
- beginning of April - you should secure your free place between January and March
You should contact the participating provider of your choice and find out the hours they can offer and when you can access them.
Is there a deadline for accessing my child’s free place?
Yes, you must have secured and started your free place before the termly headcount date. Please ask your childcare provider when these dates are.
Can I lose my eligibility?
Yes, if your circumstances change.
Every three months, you'll need to reconfirm with HMRC that you're still eligible for the Extended Entitlement. During this time, your child will be able to keep their free place. The HMRC will also remind you to reconfirm that you're still eligible 4 weeks before the deadline.
If you don't reconfirm your eligibility, your childcare provider and local authority will be told that you no longer meet the requirements for a free childcare place.
If you become ineligible you may still be able to access your free childcare place for a short period, known as a 'Grace Period'. You can check what your grace period arrangements are with your childcare provider.
If you're no longer eligible for the extended entitlement, you can still access the universal 15-hour free entitlement for 3 and 4-year-olds. However, you may not be able to access this at the same provider so you'll need to speak with them about availability.
Who pays for the extended entitlement?
Participating providers claim the cost of the entitlement directly from Southwark Council. Parents/carers won't need to cover any costs.
Will parents be charged for the extended entitlement?
Providers cannot charge parents for any part of the 30-hour free entitlement, but they may charge you a refundable deposit to secure your childcare place.
If you use your provider for more than 30 hours per week, you'll be responsible for paying for the additional hours. You'll also need to check with your provider if they charge for any additional extras, such as snacks, meals or outings etc.
Can I use more than one early education provider?
It's possible to split your place between two providers as long as the total number of free hours doesn't exceed the entitlement. However, this option is only available if the provider is able to accommodate you in this way. You'll also need to inform both providers of where you've taken up a split place.
I live in Southwark, can my child go to a provider in another borough?
Yes, if you live in Southwark but want your child to go to a setting in another borough, your chosen provider will be responsible for claiming the cost of your free place from their own local authority. You should speak with the childcare provider of your choice to check if they're offering the free entitlement.
Page last updated: 19 December 2023