Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt is set to significantly expand the state’s free childcare hours offering in his Spring Budget today (15 March).
The government is reported by the Guardian to be preparing to extend state support to parents of one- and two-year-olds as part of a bid to bolster the UK workforce. It may also serve to help parents navigate the cost of living crisis.
It comes after new research released last Thursday (9 March) found parents in England have significantly less access to government-funded childcare thanthey did a year ago. The findings of the report by charity Coram Family and Childcare, which was based on surveys of local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales run between last November and February 2023, also found the average price of part-time childcare for kids aged under two had risen despite the cost of living crisis.
The charity warned high costs are “freezing parents out of work” while the lack of availability was “leaving disadvantaged children at risk of missing out”. It urged the government to announce greater investment in childcare in its upcoming Spring Budget - something which now appears likely to happen.
Separate research by the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), which polled 477 English nurseries in January and February, found 98.4% of them were finding their funding rates are failing to cover their operational costs. A further 83% of the early years education establishments were expecting to make a loss or only break even.
Meanwhile, Labour has claimed that the system of free hours of childcare is now costing parents more than before the policy was implemented by the coalition government in 2010, and then expanded by the Conservatives in 2015. For its part, the government says the number of childcare places has remained “broadly stable since 2015”, adding that it has spent more than £20 billion since 2017 on supporting families with the cost of childcare.
It comes after data released in September 2022 showed thousands of early years childcare providers closed in England last year. Parents across the country have also been forced out of work to look after their children, with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) - a major trade body representing 190,000 British businesses - saying childcare improvements are vital to reducing labour shortages.
But what government support are parents with young children currently entitled to - and how does this support vary across the UK?
What UK government childcare support is available?
The government offers several childcare schemes to families in a bid to allow them to get into work and manage other child-related costs.
Its headline policy is free hours of childcare. All families who receive some form of benefits in England and who have two-year-old children are entitled 15 hours of free childcare per week for 38 weeks per year. Eligible benefits include Universal Credit or Jobseeker’s allowance (a full list can be found on the government website).
All families in England who have three- or four-year-old kids can get free childcare or early education for 15 hours a week over 38 weeks of the year. If these families are classed by the government as ‘working’, they can access 30 hours of free childcare over the same period - so long as they earn a minimum of £152 per week but no more than £100,000 a year.
The Treasury is reportedly considering expanding the central government free childcare offering to families with children aged between nine-months and three-years-old. It could amount to 30-hours per week for working parents.
But with early years provision reportedly increasingly difficult to come by, whether or not you can access the free hours already available to you depends on your postcode. To find out what’s available in your area, visit the government’s search portal on its website.
UK-wide schemes offered by the government include tax-free childcare for ‘working’ families (same criteria as above) who have kids aged under-11 (or under-16 if they are disabled) and aren’t receiving tax credits, Universal Credit or childcare vouchers. The government will also top up every £8 you pay towards childcare with an extra £2.
Tax credits on up to 70% of childcare costs for kids up to the age of 16 (17 if they are disabled) are available for ‘working’ families. Universal Credit for childcare is also available across the UK, and allows you to claim back up to 85% of your childcare costs for children under the age of 17 - although you cannot be claiming other forms of childcare support.
The government also points parents towards its various cost of living payment schemes, which are set to pay out soon. While these are not childcare specific, they may help you to keep up with the soaring costs of food, fuel and energy.
What government childcare support is there in Scotland and Wales?
Parents in Scotland and Wales have access to similar schemes to those on offer in England. North of the border, you can claim free childcare from your local authority.
Some children aged two are eligible (for example, if you claim benefits, like income support). But, depending on what services your council runs, you can access up to 30 hours of free childcare or early years learning for three- and four-year-olds. The other forms of childcare support on offer match those offered in England.
Meanwhile, in Wales, you can access exactly the same benefits. The nation also runs a ’Flying Start’ programme that helps families with kids aged under four-years-old in disadvantaged areas.